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.
During Advent, the Christmas preparations included a great spring-clean of the house and 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 big day, the ‘getting of the Christmas’ occurred, which involved the family going out to shop. Rural families made 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, and expected, by the customer. The custom of the ‘Christmas box’ continues in some form in Ireland to this day. The traditional Christmas shopping list included Christmas cake, whiskey and port or sherry. 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.
Above: Jack B Yeats' Christmas card for the Cuala Press shows a bird bringing a Christmas card over the sea from snow capped cottages to emigrants abroad
Houses were decorated with holly and a small tree, usually the top part of an evergreen or a branch potted up for the occasion. Children made paper chains. 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’ of 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.
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.
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 people attended Midnight Mass to save church attendance the next day. In the local church, the crib would be a much bigger affair and would be a festive attraction for the congregation.
In the nineteenth century, most foods on the Christmas table of the rural smallholder was raised or grown by the family and cooked over an open turf fire. On Christmas Eve, a time of Catholic fasting, fish was eaten (traditionally hake was popular). On Christmas Day, pot roasted goose was the choice for dinner (turkey is a more recent addition to Irish tables popularised during the early twentieth century). 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.
The fowl was accompanied by a bread or potato stuffing made with butter and onions and flavoured with seasonal herbs such as sage, parsley or thyme. This would be accompanied by sliced boiled ham. Spiced beef, an Irish speciality, was part of the main Christmas meal in some parts of the country. Meats were accompanied by potatoes and winter vegetables such as cabbage and turnip. A large Christmas cake made using spices and dried fruit soaked in alcohol was considered a huge treat.
Here is a link to great recipe by Darina Allen for traditional roast goose with potato stuffing:
Above: Painting of Irish cottages in snow and moonlight by Dublin artist Ciaran Clear (1920-00).
St Stephen’s Day
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.
I would like to thank all my readers for your continued support during 2017. It was a momentous first year for the blog which won Bronze at the Irish Blog Awards (arts and culture category). I published my book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (Orpen Press), which is being well received. May I take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy Christmas / Nollaig Shona Daoibh and the very best for 2018.
The book is available in all good bookshops or direct from the publisher here: