Since early Christian times, the Irish have had a special devotion to Iosagán, the child Jesus, and his birthday is celebrated with greater energy than his resurrection at Easter!
Every town and village will have a manger in its public square, and on Christmas Eve, in one of Ireland's nicest traditions, candles are placed in windows to help Our Lady make her journey to Bethlehem.
The candles are also beacons for the thousands of emigrants who return home, only at this time of year. For Christmas is a time of homecoming in Ireland; in the days running up to Dec. 25, the ferry ports and airports are crowded with families anxiously awaiting their sons' and daughters' return.
At Christmas, you meet all the people you haven't seen since this time last year. As old friends bump into one another once again, the air is filled with spontaneous, only-at-Christmas, cheer. The Irish are lavish in wishing one another a Nollaig Shona (Happy Christmas)—and it doesn't matter who you are.
Returning emigrants aren't the only ones who visit Ireland at Christmastime. Tourists find the country attractive because of its mild winter, thanks to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
The Irish also take their enjoyment seriously; most of the country's businesses close for a week or more. As a result, the whole country seems to be having happy holidays! For the elderly in rural areas, Christmas is a time when empty houses are filled with the voices and laughter of the young.
Christmas preparations start long before Advent. Christmas cakes and puddings are made in November, allowing them time to mature. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom, brasses gleam, and everything shines. Then the decorations are put up, holly and ivy included. In some houses every door and entrance is crowned with a holly sprig. By 5:30 p.m. darkness falls and the candles in the window are lit. In some areas every window on a street will bear a flame. Midnight Mass will be packed, the numbers swelled by the returning emigrants and also because Christmas Mass is the one Mass no Irish Catholic will miss. The liturgy will be especially well done—the choir singing Irish-language carols praising Iosagáin and his arrival one Oiche Ciuin (Silent Night) long ago.
After Midnight Mass friends will gather in one another's houses for a slice of cake and “a drop of the cratur” or a hot whiskey, to keep the cold away.
Christmas morning begins with squeals of delight as children's presents are opened—the adults usually open their presents later in the day.
Before the Christmas meal, most families will take a walk in the countryside to get some air and work up an appetite for the feast ahead. More hardy souls will brave the cold and take a swim in the sea or a nearby lake. Although snow is rare at this time of year, this writer can report from experience that the water is shockingly cold! The favorite place for Christmas swims in Dublin is at the Forty Foot, a location celebrated at the start of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Christmas Day dinner lasts for at least two hours. It begins with slices of smoked salmon served with lemon on pieces of homemade brown bread. This is followed by homemade soup and then the main course. Traditionally, the main feature of a Christmas dinner was a goose. A children's nursery rhyme proclaims: “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man's hat. If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do. If you haven't got a ha'penny, God bless you.”
Today, however, roast turkey is more typically eaten and this will be accompanied by the best of Irish ham, baked in a delicious honey glaze. These will be served with roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, and maybe another two vegetables. For dessert, there will be Christmas pudding, a heavy fruit pudding that requires several hours of boiling. Ideally, the pudding should have been prepared months beforehand and, for luck, everyone in the house should have a turn stirring it as it was being made. Most households will serve a second dessert, usually a traditional sherry trifle loaded with alcohol that afterward puts usually abstemious grandparents into a deep sleep before the fire.
After the meal, adults exchange their gifts, and though they take coffee afterward, it's quite common for them to fall asleep contentedly before the fire because of the amount they have just eaten. On Christmas day itself, everyone stays with his or her family. For visitors, the next after, St. Stephen's Day, is more enjoyable, for that is when everyone comes out to play. Many will head to a nearby horse race meeting—and there will be plenty of priests among the bettors. Others will join the Wren Boys for one of Ireland's oldest Christmas traditions.
The Wren Boys travel from house to house and pub to pub bringing music and merriment wherever they go. In olden times a wren was killed as part of the festivities, but this is rarely done today—the bird is now a protected species.
Why the wren was killed, is not exactly clear. Some folklorists say it predates Christianity, when Ireland's smallest bird was associated with wood spirits or the very spark of life itself. Others say it was done because tradition says the wren is a treacherous bird. Though it is Ireland's national bird, the wren has a reputation for deceit.
It is also known as the “king of the birds.” Long ago, according to a tale, all the birds of Ireland met and decided that their king would be the one who could fly the highest. The eagle soared above the crowd and seemed to have won, but a wren was hidden beneath its wings and at the crucial moment it sprung out and declared itself the winner of the crown.
Another story tells that the robin won its red breast when it was stained while removing thorns from the crown placed on Christ when he was crucified. But when the wren was asked for help, he refused Our Lord.
There is yet a third tale of the wren's deceit: When Irish rebels led by Sarsfield in the 17th century were preparing to attack an English camp, the English soldiers were awaken by a wren pecking on a drum and as a result the Irishmen were massacred.
Whatever the truth about the wren, it provides a good excuse for a bit of craic (local talk) with Wren Boys dressed like characters in a pantomime, acting out skits and playing fine dance music. Dublin's biggest Wren Boy meeting is in Ringsend, but the biggest Wren Boy celebration of all takes place in Dingle, County Kerry, the most westerly town in Ireland.
Incidentally, Dec. 26 is known in Ireland only as St. Stephen's Day. If you use the English term “Boxing Day,” you will be rebuked for forgetting your heritage. Festivities and parties continue throughout the rest of the week. If you're in an Irish pub after Christmas you will probably get invited to two or more in one night. New Year's Eve is celebrated as in most other countries, though some Irish people are antipathetic to the celebrations, saying they are a Scottish tradition.
The Christmas season ends Jan. 6, the Epiphany, known in Ireland as either “Little Christmas” or “Women's Christmas.” In less politically correct times long ago, women were expected to do all the household work, including cooking, throughout the year. Their only break was on this day. On Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas) a housewife could take it easy, relax, and not do a hand's turn. The tradition is continued in some parts of Ireland where Mother's Day is celebrated Jan. 6.
Little Christmas is also important in that all the Christmas decorations must be taken down before sunset on this day—forgetting to do so will bring bad luck.
But on this day, and throughout Christmas, there is one Irish language toast you will nearly always hear—Go mbeidh muid beo ar an am seo arÌs- That we may be living when this day comes again [next year].
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.