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An Irish Christmas - Then and Now
by Bridget Haggerty
If it snowed on Christmas Eve, Irish children were told that geese were being plucked in heaven. A new moon was a lucky omen. And cold, frosty weather was welcome, because this meant a mild spring and an absence of illness. On the other hand, mild weather on Christmas Eve was cause for concern because, according to the old Irish proverb, "A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard."
Regardless of the weather on the day before or on the day itself, the weeks preceding Christmas were spent in great preparation.
In the old days, the menfolk would be responsible for cleaning everything outside of the house and the women everything else inside of it. All of the structures would receive a fresh coat of whitewash, and linens, furniture, pots and pans would be washed, scoured, scrubbed or polished until they were spotless. It was up to the children to scout the countryside for appropriate decorations to be cut and brought home on Christmas Eve. Holly was especially prized because of its bright red berries and so were long tendrils of ivy and boughs of laurel which could be made into garlands. Mistletoe was rare in Ireland, but a child lucky enough to live near Limerick or in South Co. Wicklow, might have been able to add this ancient symbol of good fortune and fertility to the gathering of the greens.
Long ago, and also in the house in which I was raised, 'bringing home the Christmas' was a day filled with excitement. In times past, several members of a family would go to the nearest town for the Margadh Mor or Christmas Market. People from the country brought butter, eggs, poultry, vegetables and other farm produce to sell, and from the money they made, they purchased special, once-a-year items such as candy and toys for the children, new clothing, and ingredients for the Christmas dinner. In addition to selling their wares, this was also the day they brought gifts to relatives and friends who lived in the town. These were reciprocated in kind with gifts of 'town goods' and children lucky enough to accompany their parents were rewarded with coins slipped into their hands or pockets. The shopkeepers were also filled with generosity; they gave 'Christmas boxes' to their customers, each gift proportionate to the business they'd received that year. And in the pubs, all was merry and bright. Since then, many of the old customs have faded into antiquity, but I do remember my brothers and I eagerly waiting for dad on the day he was to bring home the Christmas.
Sure enough, and even though, as mum said, "he'd had a few on him," he arrived just before our bedtime. Even our mother had a look of eager anticipation on her face as he opened the big sack. There was always a large slab of bacon - that was to go with the goose for Christmas dinner ; there were Kit Kat bars for us to eat immediately; a big turnip he'd carve out later for the Christ candle; sprigs of holly, a bunch of mistletoe, and, best of all, a box of Christmas crackers; these weren't edibles - they were bright foil-wrapped slender cylinders which we pulled during our Christmas dinner. There'd be this loud pop and inside would be a toy and a paper hat.
Oh, what a luxury! We didn't always have crackers*, but when we did, it was a great sign of good times. And every year, no matter what, there was always something wrapped up for our mother. As much as we begged and badgered, she'd always smile and say, "I think I'll save this one for later on." Dad would get this silly look on his face and it was just like the kissy-face part at the Saturday morning picture show.
Nowadays, especially in cities like Dublin, Christmas has become almost as commercial and glittery as just about anywhere else. But in the past, it was beautifully simple. The greenery was placed on the mantle, the holly was positioned above the holy pictures and children were put to "work" making chains out of brightly colored paper; these were strung across the ceiling. Not until relatively recently did Irish families put up a Christmas tree; even at that, the ones I remember were no more than two or three feet tall and the only decorations were foil- wrapped chocolate ornaments, paper chains, and something we used to call "lametta" which was similar to American icicles. The tree was always placed in the middle of the sideboard, and, unless Father Christmas left something really big, the gifts were placed on either side. As I recall, we didn't have a manger scene at home, but we did look forward to visiting the big one at our church on Christmas morning. It was always put up on Christmas Eve, but the only things in it were the animals and a crib or creche filled with straw. Magically, on Christmas Day, the baby Jesus was in His crib, Mary and Joseph were on either side of Him, and shepherds with their sheep looked on in adoration.
As with most Irish families, my parents made every effort to have a plentiful supply of fuel for the holiday season. During the 1950s in London, we had coal fires, but in Ireland they burned peat, and in the old days, they'd have a special log for the fire called a bloc na Nollag or Christmas log. It was also customary to provide for poorer neighbors and villagers would pool their resources to make sure everyone had enough food and a warm fire. One tradition that was widespread years ago was the mutton raffle; enough people would contribute to cover the cost of a sheep and then, for several evenings, they would play cards until, by process of elimination, a winner was declared. Generally, the winner would share the prize with family, friends, neighbors and the poor. "Calling the Waites" was also a well-known custom and took place two weeks before Christmas. Musicians would serenade the inhabitants of a town several hours before day-break, calling out, in intervals, the time of the morning and whether the weather was cold, wet, frosty or clear. A similar practice was that of young men and boys going to the tops of small hills, blowing salutes to the season and answering each other from hill to hill. On the morning of Christmas Day, they'd awaken the people with loud salutes and then would often accompany villagers on their way to early Mass, still blowing cheerfully but also helping the elderly and small children over any rough spots in the road.
Back then, the Christmas season in Ireland was filled with mirth, merriment and good will toward men. Much has changed over the years. But, while new customs are replacing the old, (as in eating turkey for dinner and watching Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory on the telly afterwards), an Irish Christmas is still very similar to the old days, with most families staying at home to enjoy the festivities. Since we didn't have television until I was almost a teenager, I well remember my mother tuning in Radio Eireann so we could listen to Irish music and my dad contentedly sipping a Guinness, his feet tapping in time to a jig or reel. I also recall that for tea, mum served Christmas cake - and that reminded me of the following song which I recently found again on one of my Irish forums. In my mind I can still hear my dad singing it or...is that just wishful thinking on my part? In any event, here are the lyrics:
MISS FOGARTY'S CHRISTMAS CAKE
As I sat in my window last evening,
The letterman brought it to me
A little gilt-edged invitation sayin'
"Gilhooley come over to tea"
I knew that the Fogarties sent it.
So I went just for old friendships sake.
The first think they gave me to tackle
Was a slice of Miss Fogarty's cake.
cho: There were plums and prunes and cherries,
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too
There was nutmeg, cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Such that work up a fine stomach ache
That could kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty's Christmas cake.
Miss Mulligan wanted to try it,
But really it wasn't no use
For we worked in it over an hour
And we couldn't get none of it loose
Till Murphy came in with a hatchet
And Kelly came in with a saw
That cake was enough be the powers above
For to paralyze any man's jaws
Miss Fogarty proud as a peacock,
Kept smiling and blinking away
Till she flipped over Flanagans brogans
And she spilt the homebrew in her tay
Aye Gilhooley she says you're not eatin,
Try a little bit more for me sake
And no Miss Fogarty says I,
For I've had quite enough of your cake.
Maloney was took with the colic,
O'Donald's a pain in his head
Mc'Naughton lay down on the sofa,
And he swore that he wished he was dead
Miss Bailey went into hysterics
And there she did wriggle and shake
And everyone swore they were poisoned
Just from eating Miss Fogarty's cake!
Note: For an authentic Christmas cake recipe that we're assured will not do any damage to the digestion, we invite you to visit the Irish Kitchen and check out another great recipe from the O'Doud files: Homeland Irish Christmas Cake
Resources: The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher; song lyrics found for us by Suzy Q on Virtual Ireland (they are everywhere now).
Image: Irish Father Christmas from All Posters and Prints
For more of our Holiday Stories click on the following links.
Time at this Point in the Year
An Advent Memory
Yes, Kelsey and Maddie, there is a Santa Claus
Waiting for St. Nicholas
Christmas - Preparing the Puddings
Christmas - Food for the Feast
An Irish Christmas - Then & Now
An Irish Christmas - The Day Before
Memories of Christmas Eve Past
An Irish Christmas - Ding Dong Merrily On High
Seasons Greetings in Irish
St. Stephen's Day to New Year's Eve
New Year's Day to Epiphany
Many Years Ago by John B. Keane
Rowing to Christmas Mass
Burying the Baby Jesus
White Washed Walls
An East Cork Christmas
Mon, Dec 15, 2014
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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