Christmas to our ancestors in the type of rural Irish cottage discussed in this blog was much more subdued than it is today. It revolved around the Catholic Mass and respite from work but still was a festive, special occasion.
In the weeks coming up to Christmas there was a great spring-clean of the house and all the farm buildings, involving cleaning and whitewashing, inside and out. Christmas cards and parcels from relatives abroad would arrive, containing necessities or fancies from the USA, Britain or more far-flung places. Then, days before the ‘getting of the Christmas’ occurred , which involved the family going out to shop and rural families would make the trip to local shops in towns and villages. The shopkeeper gave an annual gift of a package containing a small token of appreciation for loyal customers only, known as the Christmas box. This might be tobacco, a cake or a small bottle of spirits, and was always appreciated. The custom of the ‘Christmas box’ continues in Ireland to this day. The traditional Christmas shopping list included Christmas cake. Whiskey, port or sherry was purchased. The Irish enjoyed some alcohol during these celebratory occasions, but rarely to the excess that the stereotype portrays. Drinking was confined to the pub and taking alcohol at home was for when a party occurred.
The house would be decorated with holly and a small tree, usually the top part of an evergreen or a branch potted up for the occasion. The important display was the Christmas candle, a white or red thick candle that was lit over the Christmas period and lasted as long. According to tradition, another smaller candle was placed in a window on Christmas Eve night to welcome the ‘Holy Family’ Mary and Joseph seeking shelter on Christmas Eve. It is also said the tradition came from Penal times as it indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass. Other candles would be placed in hollowed-out turnips and decorated with holly. In most homes in Ireland the traditional crib was also a feature, this was a set of plaster coloured statues of characters from the Nativity. The statue of the baby Jesus was never placed in the manger until Christmas day. On Christmas Eve, a time of Catholic fasting, fish was eaten (traditionally hake was popular) and Midnight Mass attended at the local church. In the local church, the crib would be a much bigger affair and would be a festive attraction for the congregation. Christmas Time From the early twentieth century Santa Claus - known in Ireland as Santy or Santa - became a visitor who filled children’s stockings with wooden toys, ribbons and exotic fruits such as oranges. On Christmas Day goose was usually pot-roasted on the open fire. From the twentieth century Stanley ranges and ovens took this job over. In Cork, Dublin and other parts of Ireland Spiced beef was also eaten. This was often accompanied by ham. Plum pudding and rich fruitcake was part of the day’s treats. Those Catholics who did not attend Midnight mass the night before would attend Christmas morning mass. The day after Christmas, known as St Stephen’s Day in Ireland, was when the ‘Wren Boys’, a group wearing disguises, would visit houses in the local area. One of the group would carry a dead wren, others a lump of coal, and they would collect money and drinks in exchange for music and song. The twelfth day after Christmas, 6th January, traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany in other parts of Europe, was Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas). This was the day when roles were reversed: men did the women’s work in the house while women gathered together socially.
Marion McGarry Follow me on Twitter: @marion_mcgarry Instagram: drmarionmcgarry