Christmas in Dublin by Pat Liddy
It’s seldom Dublin quite lives up to the seasonal Christmas card image of cold, crispy weather with snow gently falling to create a comforting silence as people rush between warmly-lit shops, quaff a quick pint in a snug pub or sit at cosy fires with family members. In fact, in the last 60 years it only snowed around 10 times when the white carpet lay on the ground on the 25th December. Having said that, the atmosphere in both city centres, suburbs and countryside is decidedly Christmassy aided by the public display of Christmas trees, street illuminations, festive shop windows, cribs, lights and decorations. As a visitor to Ireland during the festive season be warned and prepared of one thing: the country is virtually closed on Christmas Day, probably the most-closed country in the world on that day while extended families gather for joyful reunions, welcoming home the relatives who live and work in every corner of the globe.
The weeks leading up to Christmas can be delightful but can also be frenetic and pressurised as everyone prepares for the Big Day. Carol singers at various vantage points will brave any inclement weather for their selected charities and traditional concerts featuring seasonal music or the annual performances of Handel’s oratorio Messiah will be heard in cathedrals, churches and concert halls. A candlelit offering in a cathedral is much sought after. Festival-inspired retail outlets may offer the occasional mulled wine, pubs and restaurants will provide a cheerful welcome from the cold winter darkness and companies will hold parties as their staff prepare for a holiday which for many will last until the New Year.
Now celebrated all over the world in one form or the other, Christmas, like Halloween, has some of its roots in the old Celtic culture, a culture which lasted in Ireland far longer than almost anywhere else in Europe. The shortest day of the year, 21st December, and the following few days have been recognised as a festive period for over 5,000 years in this land. The ancient Irish celebrated mid-winter, a time when the harvest was gathered and everyone could look forward to the growing season coming again. The great monument of Newgrange in County Meath is over 500 years older than the earliest pyramid of Egypt. It was here that the people then (and even now) gathered at the winter solstice to observe the annual event when a shaft of sunlight filled the burial chamber of the great structure for a brief couple of minutes. This was due to its unique alignment with the sun. The Romans themselves had the feast of Brumalia or Saturnalia, also around the third week of December. Vikings revelled in their festival of Yule (meaning ‘wheel’ or the turn of the season). Determined to stamp out these pagan rites, the early Christian church instituted the feast of Christ’s birth to replace them even though Jesus was likely born, by all expert reckonings, in mid to late summer.
Once Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century the new faith quickly supplanted the old beliefs but maybe not entirely! Then the coming of the so-called heathen Vikings added an additional and complicating layer of mid-winter celebrations. The arrival to Ireland in the 12th century of the all-conquering Normans and then the English introduced the first of the Christmas traditions that we would recognise today. Public performances of nativity-based plays and pageants were held in Dublin’s College Green. Modern pantomime, today a popular feature of Christmas, is a direct descendant of these semi religious but sometimes bawdy pageants.
Based on Ireland’s Roman-Catholic heritage, the crib (recreation of the nativity stable complete with the infant Jesus, Mary & Joseph, animals, shepherds and the Three Wise Men) was once more popular than the Christmas tree but since the 1960s the noblis fir or the Norway spruce, bedecked with twinkling lights, have become common place in private homes and public places. However there is still a ‘live’ crib, complete with living animals (stabled at night-time), outside the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House on Dublin’s Kildare Street. Surviving from Victorian times and even earlier, carol singing for charity is alive and well and will be encountered throughout the pre-Christmas period at busy street corners. Many homes light a candle at a window following the tradition of offering a welcome to the family of Jesus or to weary travellers in general. Christmas markets will be set up in Waterford, Cork, Galway and Belfast but not in Dublin this year although there will be a family-friendly Après Village on Thursdays to Sundays during December at and around the CHQ building in Docklands.
The hectic focus of the festive season can easily hide the misery of many for whom this time of the year can bring additional strain. Much extra effort is made to draw attention to the plight of poorer people and the homeless and others who have encountered misfortune which positively brings out a more humane side to the glitter and commercialisation of Christmas.
There may or may not be the soft blanket of snow for this 25th December (which may look nice but brings its own inconveniences) but we can hope and wish that the Spirit of Christmas will reside in the hearts of all who will share the experience together on the Island of Ireland in 2017.