Irish Christmas Traditions by Pat Liddy
It’s seldom Dublin lives up to the seasonal Christmas card image of snowy weather. In fact, in the last 60 years it only snowed around 10 times when the white stuff lay on the ground on December 25. Having said that, the atmosphere in both the city centre and in the suburbs is decidedly Christmassy with the public display of Christmas trees, festive shop windows, lights and decorations. As a visitor to Ireland during the festive season be warned and prepared of one thing though: the country is virtually closed on Christmas Day, probably the most-closed country in the world on that day!
The weeks leading up to Christmas can be delightful but also chaotic as everyone prepares for December 25. Carol singers at various vantage points will brave inclement weather for their selected charities. Meanwhile pantomimes play in theatres and concerts featuring seasonal music – including the annual performances of Handel’s Messiah – take place in cathedrals, churches and concert halls. Retail outlets may offer the occasional mulled wine; pubs and restaurants will provide a cheerful welcome from the winter darkness; and companies will hold parties as their staff prepare for a holiday which for many will last until the New Year. Most importantly families will gather for joyful reunions, welcoming home the relatives who live and work in, literally, every corner of the globe.
This might be a good opportunity to look back to pre-Christian times which suggest that the Irish may have been partly responsible for the whole idea of Christmas 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 oldest pyramids of Egypt – was where the ancients gathered (and modern folk still do) on December 21 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 with the event triggering week-long celebrations.
The Celts in Ireland continued such mid-winter traditions for millennia but elsewhere such festivals were snuffed out in Roman-conquered territories. The Romans themselves had the feast of Brumalia, or the ‘unconquered sun’, also around December 25. 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. Also at that time charities spent endless hours collecting and delivering gifts to the thousands of impoverished families living in Dublin’s 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.
Customs of times past included Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 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. One unusual tradition in Dublin for the morning of December 25 is the charitable swim at the Forty Foot in Sandycove when hundreds of hardy souls take the plunge into the sea regardless of the weather.
While the Irish didn’t exactly invent Christmas, we have certainly made it our own. There could also be 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! 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 a number of crusading knights and brought to be reburied in Bari, Italy. Two Irish knights then took some of his relics (a few bones perhaps) to Jerpoint Park, near Jerpoint Abbey in Co Kilkenny. You can still see the ancient gravestone there.
Check with local tourist offices for other Christmas events.