Twelve Christmas traditions in Ireland.

Christmas bauble

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!

Shopping fast

Can’t stop, must shop! A frantic way to spend Christmas Eve.

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.’

Share collectors

Bishops Buckley and Colton join the SHARE collectors in Cork. Charity fundraising is VERY big in Ireland at Christmas.

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.

Adi Roche and Chernobyl Children

Adi Roche greeting some of the Chernobyl Children who will spend Christmas in Ireland. Roche’s charity has brought thousands of children to Ireland from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to give them respite and healthcare in a different environment. They may not be Irish emigrants, but some of them have been to Ireland so often that they see the place a second home. (Published in the Evening Echo, 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.’)

Spiced Beef

Spiced Beef is traditional fare on Christmas Day in Ireland, but it has lost out to the turkey. It’s still popular with families in Cork, and there are attempts to revive its popularity.

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.

Harry Clarke Nativity

Harry Clarke stained glass window of the Nativity in Castletownbere, West Cork.

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.

Wexford carols

The Wexford Carols are probably the remnant of an older carol singing tradition in Ireland – fortunately they have been recorded and are gaining a wider recognition as a uniquely Irish contribution to the Christmas carol repertoire.

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:

Ballintotis Church

I once attended Christmas Day Mass in St Colman’s Church in Ballintotis (Midleton parish). It was remarkably short – the sermon was ‘Happy Christmas, and be sure to make it a happy one for somebody!’ Sums it up really.

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.


Uniquely Irish and  lovely, simple tradition, and no need to go overboard with it.

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.

Christmas day swim

Brave or brazen? Well, it’s fun in a good cause.

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.


On Christmas Day? Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.

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?’

Wren Boys

Once a frightening tradition, the Wren Boys now perform for charity on St Stephen’s Day.

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!).

Christmas market Cork

The Glow Christmas Market in Cork – a new ‘tradition’. We borrowed this from the Germans…just like our Christmas trees!

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!

The Anglo-Irish ‘Treaty’ of 1921 and Pearl Harbor 1941, two anniversaries this weekend.

Monday, 8th December, is the anniversary of Fr Theobald Mathew’s death in Queenstown in 1856.  There are two other anniversaries to recall this weekend, one Irish and the other American.

Irish Treaty Delegates 1921

Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921. From left to right seated in front: Arthur Griffith, Edmund Duggan, Michael Collins, Robert Barton. From left to right standing at the back: Erskine Childers, George Gavin Duffy, John Chartres.

A little before 2.20 am in the early hours of December 6th 1921 articles of a treaty of peace were signed by a British delegation and an Irish delegation.  Arthur Griffith, one of the Irish delegates later put out a note to announce the signing of the treaty and to express the hope that the treaty marked the end of centuries of conflict between the two nations.  Before leaving the conference room in London, Michael Collins remarked that he believed that he had signed his death warrant, as indeed proved to be the case when this extraordinary man was shot in 1922.  But the treaty set in train events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, a dominion of the British Empire, in 1922.  Sadly, the new state was crippled from birth by die hard republicans who rejected the treaty and sparked off a civil war.  The constitution of the new Irish Free State came into effect on December 6th 1922.

signature on Anglo-Irish treaty 1921

Signatures on the Irish copy of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6th December 1921. The treaty was ratified by Dail Eireann in January, splitting the nationalist side and leading to civil war from July 1922. Two of the signatories were dead before 1922 ended – Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.  Delegation secretary Erskine Childers was executed after a court martial in November 1922.  He opposed the Treaty and sided with the republicans during the Civil War. 

Shortly after dawn, exactly twenty years and a day later, on December 7th 1941, the Japanese navy attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor and damaged several airfields in Oahu.  At a US Senate hearing in the spring of 1940, Rear-Admiral Joseph K Taussig declared that war with Japan was inevitable and the US urgently needed to reinforce its Pacific Fleet and its forces in the Philippines.  This statement was contrary to official administration and US naval policy and it earned the Admiral a severe reprimand from a furious President Roosevelt (who effectively blocked any further prospect promotion for Taussig).  Taussig was forced to retire from the US Navy in September 1941.

One of the consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor was that Ensign Joseph K Taussig Jr, the admiral’s son, was severely wounded (losing a leg) aboard the USS Nevada.  Admiral Taussig was eventually called back to active service at the Pentagon in 1943.  Readers will recall from a previous post, that Admiral Taussig had served in Queenstown during the First World War.

See previous post: The Queenstown Patrol – the US Navy in Cork Harbour in World War I.

This date that has lived in infamy (to paraphrase FDR) has been depicted in film several times.  Might I suggest that the film Tora Tora Tora be the one you might choose to view this weekend for historical accuracy?

Pearl-Harbor attack

The US Pacific Fleet suffered horrific damage and loss of life as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. Fortunately, the aircraft carriers were at sea on exercise, so they escaped any damage.  Ensign Joseph K Taussig Jr was severely injured aboard the USS Nevada.


Fr. Theobald Mathew’s extraordinary temperance movement

The Irish and drink seem to be a combination that go together like gin and tonic or, more wholesome, mom and apple-pie.   In fact our reputation for drinking is somewhat misleading (or probably just jealousy!). This year the Wall Street Journal published a list of the top ten alcohol consuming countries on a per capita basis.  And the bad news – the Irish don’t qualify!  Yup, the most alcoholic country in western Europe is…..tiny Andorra!  It comes in at number 7, downing just 13.5 litres of alcohol per capita per annum! And almost no binge drinking! Topping the list of the mostly eastern and central European countries is…..Belarus at 17.5 litres per capita per annum!  Over a quarter of the people there binge-drink and some 34.7% of deaths are related to alcohol.  By the way, even Poland doesn’t make the top ten – at least we Irish have something else in common with the Poles.

WJS survey:

Mind you CBS News puts Ireland at number 15 out of 27 countries for drunkeness:

CBS survey:

You’ll notice that the listings are different – although the same countries appear in both.  That’s the trouble with surveys – you can get different results from different, but similar, surveys.  Hence the old saw: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics! 

Way back in the nineteenth century there was a highly successful and dramatic attempt to wean the Irish off drink. Fr Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin friar whose statue still marks the entrance to St Patrick’s Street in Cork, ran an astonishing campaign that attracted the attention amazed Americans and Europeans.  Mathew started his campaign in Cork in 1838, and at its height in 1844 some three million people had ‘taken the pledge’ to foreswear alcohol – half the adult population of Ireland at the time!  Fr Mathew must have been truly charismatic – like his contemporary Daniel O’Connell. The Irish temperance campaign actually bankrupted some brewers and probably some distillers – or at least weakened them, so that when the potato famine struck from 1845, several brewers and distillers went under. Fr Mathew died on 8th December 1856 in Queenstown (now Cobh) in East Cork.

Fr Mathew statue

An old photograph of JH Foley’s fine statue of Fr Theobald Mathew, the ‘Apostle of Temperance,’ on St Patrick’s Stteet in Cork. Some years ago there was an attempt to move the statue to facilitate the refurbishment of the street, but a popular outcry forced the city council to back down and the Catalan architect, Beth Gali, had to redesign the refurbishment around the statue. The muck on the street surface was perfectly normal in all towns and cities until the advent of the motor car. The sculptor JH Foley also created the statue of Daniel O’Connell that stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and the figure of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) on the Albert Memorial in London.

Sadly, the advent of the potato famine in 1845 led to the collapse of Fr Mathew’s temperance movement – saving lives afflicted by starvation and its related diseases was much more importance.  No doubt the men (and they were all men) working in Murphy’s distillery in Midleton and in Bennett’s maltings in Ballinacurra were glad – they, at least, had jobs that gave them an income to purchase food.  Bizarrely, it could be suggested, with reason, that the alcoholic drinks industry saved many lives during the Irish famine!

the ultimate failure of his temperance movement due to circumstances beyond his control cannot take from Theobald Mathew’s achievement – anybody who could persuade over three million Irish people to give up alcohol, even if only for a while, deserves to be called ‘great’.

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was founded in 1898 by Fr James Cullen SJ as a new movement to encourage Irish Catholics to reject alcohol.  Even now one can find people in Ireland who ‘took the pledge’ as and youngsters – and never broke it!   When I was confirmed by Dr John Ahern, Bishop of Cloyne, we were asked to pledge not to drink alcohol until we were at least eighteen years of age.  Clearly the spirit of the great Fr Theobald Mathew lives on in some places.