IRISH CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS & CUSTOMS
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
‘Coming on to dawn, I woke with the feeling that something dreadful had happened. The whole house was quiet, and the little bedroom that looked out on the foot and a half of back yard was pitch-dark. It was only when I glanced at the window that I saw how all the silver had drained out of the sky. I jumped out of bed to feel my stocking, well knowing that the worst had happened. Santa had come while I was asleep, and gone away with an entirely false impression of me, because all he had left me was some sort of book, folded up, a pen and pencil, and a tuppenny bag of sweets. Not even Snakes-and-Ladders!’
Figure 1: Patrick's Street, Cork, 1960s.
Christmas in Cork 2019 bears little resemblance to the Christmas memories of previous decades. Many traditions, stories and customs are slowly being erased from memory. This blog invites you to contribute and add to the festive tales below.
My most vivid memory of Christmas (besides the excitement of the imminent arrival of Santa Claus), is on Christmas Eve with my Grandmother undertaking the decapitation of the turkey, followed by the removal of the innards to make delicious gravy and finally with a pliers taking the last remaining splinters of feathers from its skin. As the turkey was so large and fridges then a lot smaller than the American fridges of today, the turkey was put on the fireplace (no fire was lit until Christmas morning) in the good room.
Figure 2: English Market, Cork, one stop shop for Christmas.
Memories from the ICA
‘On the night before Christmas Eve, it was hard to sleep and morning came so fast. There was so much to do. Mammy was up with the crows building up the fire, we were never so willing to bring in the turf. The pot for the goose was scrubbed, and scrubbed to perfection until you could run a white cloth around it and take it away spotless. The big plate was taken down from the dresser, all the china gleaming in the firelight. The knives had been sharpened by the Traveller man who came to our village during the summer. The tablecloth for the parlour was starched and immaculate white.
That night in the pitch dark we all went as a family down the road with all the other dark figures – the small ones holding hands, some carrying tilly lamps or bicycle lamps – to welcome the baby Jesus. Coming home in the moonlight with the trees still like a painting, not a sound except our boot son the frosty laneway. That is something I will never forget. The lamp was lit in the parlour, and the one fore of the year set for the morning. We indulged ourselves in the Christmas soup we had made from the goose or turkey giblets, and treacle cake.’
‘I grew up on a farm and have fond memories of Christmas preparations. My mother used to hang the Christmas puddings, wrapped in muslin cloths, from the ceiling in the kitchen from the time they were made until Christmas Day. But I always knew Christmas was approaching when the poultry was being prepared for the post! Each year my mother sent a turkey to my uncle in London and a chicken to a cousin in Liverpool. The poultry were killed and plucked but not drawn (cleaned out), and then wrapped up with head and feet intact. This task took up the entire kitchen table and both my parents’ wrapping skills.
First the bird was wrapped in greaseproof paper, then several pages of the Wicklow People, then strong brown paper (probably saved over the year from meat purchases), and finally robust string. Plastic bags and Sellotape simply weren’t available. The two parcels were then taken into town to the post office.
In the mid-1950s the cousin from Liverpool wrote thanking my parents for the chicken. She stated that she noticed chickens had become more plentiful to buy in her locality, and although they certainly shouldn’t taste anything like the Irish chicken, she felt it wasn’t necessary for any more chickens to be posted to her.
The turkey was still dispatched to London until, in one New Year’s letter, my uncle wrote to say that the turkey had arrived safely but had gone off slightly! This was probably a combination of a mild December and the introduction of heating in the sorting office. All was not lost, however, and they had managed to salvage enough of the bird which, having been roasted extra well, provided a hearty dinner without any ill effects.
Needless to say, this all happened long before refrigeration, EU regulations and best before dates.’
Figure 3: Turkey's on display, 1950s.
THE OBSERVATIONS OF VISITORS TO IRELAND
In 1826, English topographer and novelist, James Norris Brewer, published his book, The Beauties of Ireland, where in Co. Longford, he observed, ‘at the jocund season of Christmas, the grown people, after feasting on their best fare, amuse themselves by dancing, blindman's buff, questions and commands, and the relating or hearing of legendary tales. We are sorry to conclude our notice of the modes used in celebrating particular seasons, with observing, that the day dedicated to St. Stephen is passed in the savage sport of bull-baiting.’
Mr. and Mrs. Hall visited Ireland on numerous occasions between 1825 and the 1840s, and one of their observations was that in Kerry the school teacher was paid by the state, and not as once was the tradition, by 'sods of turf, a kish of praties, a dozen of eggs, or at Christmas and Easter a roll of fresh butter.'
In Cork, the Hall's wrote about hunting the wren. For several weeks before Christmas, the village boys went in search of the the wren, and when one was discovered, the boys would chase it, 'until they have killed, the little bird. In the hunt the utmost excitement prevails; shouting, screeching, and rushing ; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark; and, not unfrequently, they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge, is the wren pursued until bagged, with as much pride and pleasure as the cock of the woods by the more ambitious sportsman. The stranger is utterly at a loss to conceive the cause of this hubbub, or the motive for so much energy in pursuit of such small game.'
"On the anniversary of St. Stephen (the 26th of December) the enigma is explained. Attached to a huge holly-bush, elevated on a pole, the bodies of several little wrens are borne about. This bush is an object of admiration in proportion to the number of dependent birds, and is carried through the streets in procession, by a troop of boys, among whom may be usually found children of a larger growth, shouting and roaring as they proceed along ... singing the wren boys song.'
The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's day was cot in the furze;
Although he is little, his family's grate-
Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy-sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy.
And if you dhraw it ov the best,
I hope in heaven yer sowl will rest:
But if you dhraw it ov the small,
It won't agree wid de wran boys at all.
Figure 4: Hunting the Wren.
There are many tales of how the Robin got its red breast, one is that when Jesus was crowned with thorns a robin came and tried to take them from his head and some blood was transferred to the Robin’s breast and since that day it is red in colour.
Folklore says that the donkey has a cross on its back as a reward for bringing Joseph and Mary to Nazareth. An alternative story is when Jesus was born in the stable at Bethlehem he only had hay in a manger to sleep on. There was a cow and a donkey in the stable. The donkey ate some of the hay whilst the cow refused to eat it. Instead the cow kept Jesus warm with her breath. Ever since that night the donkey has to do all the hard work while the cow leads a charmed life.