All too often today in Ireland the complaint about Christmas is that there is too much pressure – to spend, to drink too much, to eat too much, to ‘be merry’ when inwardly you are suffering from loss, to outdo one’s relatives/neighbours/friends in extravagance and originality. Indeed one of the maddest phenomena in Ireland is the stampede to the grocery stores in the days leading up to (and including!) Christmas Eve. A visitor from Mars (or anywhere else for that matter) would be forced to concluded that all the shops were closing – FOREVER! Much of this is a relatively new phenomenon in modern Ireland. And the real point of Christmas so often gets lost in the bustle that leads up to it. The truth is that we’ve bought into the whole Anglo-American version of the commercial Christmas, with a few twists of our own.
What are the traditions of Christmas in Ireland? The original traditions are very few and rather simple. But we’ve added some new ones!
The first ‘tradition’ is fairly new, It’s the Christmas Eve panic. Panic shopping for ‘essentials’ that you already have or really don’t need! This is coupled with the last minute shoppers – they felt there was enough time to go shopping for gifts especially that they forgot the sheer scale of the endeavour in the first place! There are people who swear that it isn’t Christmas unless they’ve had their adrenalin rush of panic or last minute shopping on Christmas Eve. I am reliably assured this is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. It’s very much an Anglo-American-Irish er, ‘tradition.’
For a second tradition I select charity. This is BIG in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Honestly you can hardly move on the Main Street in Midleton without having to pay tolls to the collectors every hundred yards – on both sides of the street! Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Charity collections at Christmas are serious matters for the fundraisers. Cork City has an important and wonderful collection for Advent call the ‘SHARE Collection,’ SHARE is a body set up by secondary school children in Cork in 1970 to help elderly people with their basic needs. They have funded the repair of houses, the provision of foodstuffs, meals and, for many people this is most important, the youngsters provide company through regular visits to simply sit and chat, run errands, even cook meals for the senior citizens of Cork. The presence of the yellow-jacketed fundraisers on Patrick’s Street is a fixture of Christmas in Cork.
The third one on my list is rather new. This is the welcome at the airports for returning emigrants. I have no idea how much money Aer Lingus (our national airline) makes at Christmas, but their business at this time of the year must be the envy of other airlines around the world. The news broadcasts usually cover the scenes at the airports as emigrants are greeted by family and friends. It seems to be compulsory to hold up homemade ‘Welcome Home’ banners and for everyone to wear a red Santa hat. The scenes are both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but sometimes the broadcasts get a little too maudlin. I suspect that only the Chinese have a similar movement of population for their New Year. ‘Coming Home for Christmas’ is the theme song of this ‘tradition.’ Although this tradition is rather new, it is linked to the long-standing idea that Christmas is a time for family gatherings. It may be the only time of the year in which the whole family gathers together to have a meal and catch up on the ‘sca!’ ‘Sca’ is not ‘scat’ or scandal, it’s derived from the irish word ‘sceal’ or ‘story’….hence the immortal phrase ‘what’s the story, Rory?’ Tell us what you’ve been up to and leave NOTHING out, especially the embarrassing bits! (‘Rory’ does not mean Mr McIlroy, it just rhymes with ‘story.’)
Fourth, the lunch or supper on Christmas Eve and dinner on Christmas Day. Traditionally in our house it was a fish day. Fish in Ireland was seen as something of a penance mainly because we really didn’t know how to cook it properly, and this in a country surrounded by rich fishing grounds! By long standing tradition fish was eaten on Fridays (it certainly was in our house). This was a hangover from the medieval Church law that ruled out consuming meat on Fridays in honour of the crucifixion. Later, Wednesday became a ‘fish day’ too….and don’t even mention Lent and Advent! (Curiously, Queen Elizabeth I legislated for the retention of Wednesday and Friday as ‘fish days’ despite the Reformation – remember, she really wanted to restore her daddy’s liturgy – polyphony, smells, bells, vestments….the whole works. Now you know why the Puritans fled to New England during the reign of her successor! The Established Church was a bit too fishy for their tastes.) So the fourth tradition of Christmas in Ireland is fish for a light dinner or lunch on Christmas Eve – except today it is no longer a penance and we (usually) have learned how to cook it properly. Add to this the tradition of having spiced beef on Christmas day. Once widespread, this custom is now generally confined to the area around Cork, although other areas are reviving it as an alternative to turkey. Beef was an expensive dish into the late nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. So it was only eaten by many families on special occasions, such as Christmas. Despite my Cork heritage, I’ve never had it for Christmas dinner.
The fifth tradition among Irish Catholics is confession – the churches were busy with people slipping in to confess their sins (or repeat them ad nauseam as if they’re not certain that God REALLY forgives!). You have to remember that until recently Christmas was a distinctly RELIGIOUS occasion in Ireland. And despite the claim of one bishop recently that shopping has become the new religion in Ireland, people will go to Mass/Church even if only to meet old friends and neighbours afterwards. Furthermore, on Christmas morning after Mass it was the custom to visit the graves of loved ones and place a wreath or flowers there. This is still a very widespread custom, especially in parishes where the cemetery is next to the church. There is nothing morbid about this custom, it’s our way of including the whole family, living and dead in the festivities. We Irish can be a bit more forthright about this than some cultures that shy away from any mention of death at Christmastide.
Carols are the sixth tradition. Yes, I know, EVERYBODY sings carols. But in Ireland Catholics limit themselves to a very narrow selection of carols from the vast number available. Better to be a member of the Church of Iireland – the congregations use hymnbooks with lots of carols, and EVERYBODY sings! We actually have our own carols here in Ireland. One of the finest of all carols (and not just because it is Irish) is the Enniscorthy Carol, usually called the Wexford Carol. This starts with the words ‘Good people all this Christmas time….’ Check out Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir from the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin singing it on Youtube (see below) – exquisite! And, still in County Wexford, the fishing village of Kilmore Quay has a fine collection of thatched houses and a special tradition of unique local carols going back at least to the seventeenth century. The local custom is that a six man schola sings the carols through the twelve liturgical days of Christmas. The carols were effectively preserved for three or more centuries by a single family who make up the schola. These are local fishermen, not professional choristers. There is a different carol for each day, usually sung during Mass in the local church. A few years ago Tom Jones (yes, THE Tom Jones!) joined a group of other musicians to record these carols for popular publication by Heresy Records. It is thought that the distinguished Irish Franciscan friar Luke Wadding OFM composed or redacted the lyrics in the seventeenth century. You know, I am convinced that we Irish really don’t realize how wonderful our native carols are. We should make it compulsory to sing at least one of the Wexford carols in every carol service or concert – perhaps people would get to know them better.
Feeling stressed out at Christmas? Just listen to this and you’ll be put right again. Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir singing the Enniscorthy Carol: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Em3xPQvC8PI
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is the seventh tradition. Now I know this is universal but there is an Irish twist. Usually packed, this can sometimes provide unexpected entertainment if a member of the congregation has come straight from the pub and starts singing aloud at the wrong moment. I’m not necessarily talking about singing hymns or carols either! Or maybe he (it’s usually ‘he’) likes/dislikes a point the priest has made in his sermon and broadcasts his opinion to the whole congregation. Excruciating embarrassment ensues for his nearest and dearest, or for those seated next to him. It certainly isn’t pleasant for any children allowed to stay up after bedtime in order to attend Midnight Mass. This is one reason why so many parishes brought forward ‘Midnight Mass’ forward to about 9.00 pm – the pubs don’t close on Christmas Eve until 11.30 pm. The drunks would still be ‘filling up’ whilst the congregation could celebrate Mass without interruption or embarrassment.
The eighth tradition which is distinctly Irish, is the candle in the window – just the one, mind! Nowadays some people have EVERY window in the house lit. But the whole point of the candle in the window is not to show off, but to offer an invitation to the Holy Family (the Christ Child, Mary, and Joseph, presumably the donkey would be along too!). It was an act of charity, since the idea was to invite the Christ Child to lay his head in a warm bed rather than a cold manger. Some claim that the tradition was intended to light the way to Bethlehem for the Holy Family, but I suspect this is a misunderstanding. But why only one candle? Well, candles were once quite expensive. Most people got by with home made rush lights or tapers. Rush lights were strands of rush dipped in tallow (pig fat) in imitation of a beeswax candle. They smoked terrifically, and someone had to constantly tend them so that the flame did not get extinguished by the melting fat. Tapers were a wick dipped in animal fat. Smokey and requiring constant care, they melted fairly quickly. Candles proper, of wax or paraffin, were shop bought and were more expensive. Thus only ONE candle was lit to guide the Holy Family into a warm house. There are people alive today who recall Christmas Eve before rural electrification in the late 1940s. The most delightful thing was standing on a nearby hill and watching as, one by one, the neighbours lit their candles. When President Mary Robinson lit a candle in the window of her official residence Arus an Uachtarain, she gave the most distinctive Irish Christmas tradition a new secular twist, since her candle represented a welcome home to all the Irish emigrants (and their descendants) around the world.
Although not unique to Ireland, the tenth ‘tradition’ is also rather new but increasingly popular. So much so that the Irish Water Safety Board issued a health warning to prospective participants. It is, of course, the Christmas morning swim! This takes place in the open sea – not in an indoor heated swimming pool, which would completely miss the point. If you live in the middle of the country, a trip to a local lake or river might suffice, but this is really a coastal tradition. The Irish catch is that the participants usually do it for charity – notice how this theme keeps cropping up! I really don’t know how many Christmas Morning Swims are taking place in the beaches and coves of East Cork, but there seem to be quite a few. The essential requirements are a bathing costume and an ability to swim a few strokes (that’s all you need do). Zany costumes are strictly optional. It’s a heck of a way to wake up on Christmas morning, especially if the night before had been somewhat indulgent! Oh, and the health warning from the Irish Water Safety Board – beware of hypothermia! They suggested wearing a wetsuit. Very sensible, in my opinion. In Dublin, some people are so sensible that they prefer to stay warm by running the Goal Mile. This is a run, not a race – think vigorous morning jog – around an athletic track to raise funds for the third world charity Goal.
The eleventh tradition will probably surprise you. No pubs. Yes, that’s right, the pubs are shut by law on two days of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The law does not say ‘no alcohol’, it says you may not drink alcohol in a pub. And the pubs may not open on those days. There are rare exceptions. In 2010 the publicans of Limerick won an argument in the local district court to be permitted to open on Good Friday for a major European Cup Rugby match. By all accounts they did a roaring trade! But that was a unique exception. This does not mean that every pub actually obeys the law – for years it was rumoured that on one of the Aran Islands the pub served alcohol on Christmas Day, because there wasn’t a single Garda (a policeman) on the island to enforce the law. Their excuse? The pub wasn’t really open and the place was full of family friends around for a drink. And everybody kept quiet about the festivities. Now you know why patrons ‘filled up’ at the pub on Christmas Eve before staggering in to Midnight Mass. Closing the pubs on Good Friday is, perhaps, still understandable, but why close the pubs on Christmas Day? Simple, to allow the staff to celebrate Christmas at home with their families. There IS a point to the immortal barman’s query ‘Have you no homes to go to?’
The final tradition (well it had to be twelve!) is one that happens on the day after Christmas Day. Many people use the English term Boxing Day for the 26th December. In Ireland it is popularly called St Stephen’s Day, being the feast of the first Christian martyr. And no, we didn’t get the idea from the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – it’s a genuine feast of the church going back well over a millennium. The custom in Ireland was for the Wren Boys to call around on this day. These were local youths in disguise, accompanied by a musician. They wore costumes made of straw and carried a bush with a dead wren tied to it. This recalled the tradition that Stephen was betrayed by a wren and so the wren was killed to avenge the saint’s death. It’s possible that the custom had a pre-Christian origin. The reason the ‘wren boys’ wore disguise is that they expected a warm welcome in every house and if they felt the welcome wasn’t good enough (not enough drink or food) they would upset the house by overturning furniture, letting animals out of their byre/stable and opening the gates of the farm. People were often quite perturbed if they heard that the ‘wren boys’ were approaching. I suspect the whole business may be linked to the idea of the Lord of Misrule – a medieval Christmastide custom of appointing a ‘lord’ of the household to the person who drew the longest straw. This person organized the revels and nobody was permitted to disobey his instructions, not even the real master of the house. Some cathedral choirs appointed a ‘boy bishop’ as their Lord of Misrule. The ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia had similar customs. The Wren Boy tradition almost died out in Ireland because it got out of hand. Except in the extreme south west (West Cork and Kerry), but it is now being revised in parts of Dublin and elsewhere. The good news is that the ‘wren’ used today is a fake bird, or maybe even a toy, and the ‘Boys’ (grown men, mostly) usually perform a song or dance and collect money for charity (there’s that theme again!).
Like everybody else, we have a the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and the presents and Santa (or Santy, as he is often called here in Ireland – it’s a diminutive). But the list I’ve given above is my twelve traditions of the Irish Christmas. It’s good to see new ‘customs being added to the list. And they say tradition is dead? Not in Ireland, at Christmas!
A Happy Christmas to you and your nearest and dearest!