Christmas Traditions in Dublin by Pat Liddy
Leading up to Christmas, Dublin literally bristles with seasonal street lighting. Large Christmas trees stand at prominent intersections and shop windows are gaily decorated with traditional themes. Adding further spectacle and atmosphere to the streets, carol singers brave any inclement weather for their selected charities. Festival markets (the largest one is in Docklands) offer mulled wine and craft goods, pubs and restaurants provide a cheerful welcome from the winter cold and companies hold parties as their staff prepare for a holiday which for many will last until the New Year. Families gather for joyful reunions.
This might be a good time to look at the past and to even go back to a pre-Christian epoch which might suggest that the Irish may even have been partly responsible for the whole idea in the first place! At least 5,000 years ago, the ancient peoples of Ireland celebrated mid-winter, a time when the harvest was gathered and one could look forward to the growing season again. The great monument of Newgrange in County Meath, 600 years older than the pyramids of Egypt, was the famous site where the ancients gathered (and modern folk still do) on the 21 December to observe (if Fortune provided a cloudless sky!) a shaft of sunlight filling the burial chamber. This was thanks to its calculated alignment with the sun. This event triggered a week-long orgy of celebrations. The Celts in Ireland continued such mid-winter traditions for millennia but elsewhere festivals such as these were snuffed out in Roman-conquered territories. The Romans themselves had the feast of Brumalia, or the ‘unconquered sun’, also around the 25 December. Vikings had their feast of Yule (meaning ‘wheel’ or the turn of the season). By the 5th century, the Christian church was determined to stamp out these pagan rites and so instituted the feast of Christ’s birth to replace them, even though Jesus was likely born in late September or October.
Christmas in my childhood was a special time in the otherwise harsh economic legacy left after the Second World War. Britain was still in the grip of rationing and I can remember what was called the annual Great Turkey Airlift when many tens of thousands of the birds were dispatched to emigrant relatives in the U.K. At that time, charities spent endless hours collecting and delivering gifts to the thousands of impoverished families living in Dickensian tenements. While those terrible living conditions are long gone, there are still people in distress from financial difficulties, homelessness, loneliness or bereavement who need and thankfully usually receive special help and support at this time of the year.
Up to 60 years ago very few people in Ireland had a Christmas tree in their house but rather a crib showing the nativity scene and a candle burning in the window, symbolising that you welcomed the Christ-child or indeed any weary traveller into your home. Incidentally, Dublin boasts the world’s oldest hand-made candle factory; that of John G Rathborne, founded in 1488. The Christmas tree was first introduced into England in the 1840s by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and no household or prominent public place today would be without one. The idea of the crib has not entirely died out and one famous example, complete with live animals (they are stabled at night-time), stands every December in aid of charity in front of the Lord Mayor’s house on Dawson Street.
When we look back we think of snowy Christmases but in actual fact it rarely snows in Dublin in December so don’t expect a romantic white holiday season but it could happen! There were times in history when the River Liffey froze over but today’s ice-skaters gather at purpose-built ice-rinks like the one at the RDS in Ballsbridge. Popular since medieval times and still a must for families is to take in a Christmas panto (pantomime), held in theatres and parish halls. Attending one of the several performances of George Frederic Handel’s Oratorio Messiah, first premiered in Dublin in 1742, is a firm Christmas favourite for thousands as are the many carol concerts in cathedrals, churches and concert halls in the lead up to the Big Day.
Customs of times past included Midnight Mass which is still celebrated but is now usually around 9.00pm. Christmas Day, in an increasingly secular society, is still thought of in a special way from a traditional religious point of view or as a day for visiting family graves. But, even more so, it is the most important day in the year for families to get together and the city virtually closes down, including the airport and all public transport, so don’t be caught out! One unusual tradition in Dublin for the morning of Christmas Day is the charitable swim at the Forty Foot in Sandycove near Dun Laoghaire outside Dublin when hundreds of hardy souls take the plunge regardless of the weather.
Well maybe the Irish didn’t exactly invent Christmas after all but we have certainly made it our own. But there could be just a grain of truth in an old legend that the saint associated with Christmas and the very spirit of Santa Claus, St Nicholas of Myra, is buried in Ireland! Don’t scoff at the idea (at least not out loud). Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) was buried there in the 3rd century. His remains, in the face of the advancing Muslim army, were lifted by two crusading knights and brought to be reburied near Jerpoint Abbey in Co Kilkenny. Of course this story flies in the face of a more accepted account that his relics were brought by other knights to Italy. But we in Ireland never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Happy Christmas!