Christmas can be a circus. It’s okay to admit it. With hordes of overly aggressive bargain hunters trying to pull those discounted must-haves right out of your hands, big box retail shopping just isn’t what it used to be.
Every year its been getting weirder too, between women wielding electro-shock Tasers or overweight men dropping football tackles on grandmothers. All of this aggro in pursuit of idiotic things like TVs and cotton towels really makes no sense.
Why bother braving the brawls? The most effective way to get anything done these days seems to be online, so we’ve decided to help you spread some real seasonal cheer with gifts we think you’ll enjoy giving and we’re certain your loved ones will enjoy receiving.
Let’s start off with that famous Christmas faux-pas, the holiday sweater (or as we say back home, the Christmas jumper). There’s nothing wrong with buying someone a bright seasonal knit to brighten up winter gatherings, if you don’t expect them to be grateful for your gesture.
If you like Irish cable knits (and who doesn’t?) you might like to know there are modern alternatives to all those baggy boxy ill-fitting woolen mill jumpers that, since the 1970s, have been making even the skinniest people you know look like they’ve been eating nothing but Irish breakfasts year round.
You really can have both quality and design these days, if you just look a little bit harder. In the last decade there’s been an international revival of interest in Irish heritage brands from New York to Tokyo, which has seen Donegal tweed, superior Aran knits and traditional herringbone fabrics appear in the high end department here stores over the last decade.
The brand that for us signifies the best of both quality and style in Irish knitting to us is Inis Meain. Based on the famous island of the same name and inspired by its centuries old tradition of knitting, the company is headed by the charismatic and visionary businessman Tarlach de Blacam, who has already amassed a devoted international following.
For men, the Inis Meain zip front cardigan is one of those never-take-it-off buys that actually will make someone’s Christmas. For women, their figure hugging Raglan Donegal sweater will instantly banish every memory of shamrock festooned St. Patrick’s Day lumpen weaves you once thought were the true face of Irish style.
Both of these products (and more of their highly desirable hats, gloves and scarves) can be found on Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s website or via the Irish manufacturer at inismeain.ie. (If you have sticker shock about their pricing just hang on till January when prices halve).
If you’re interested in authentic Donegal heritage tweed the most eye-catching company in Ireland at the moment is the newly resurgent Molloy and Sons. A family business for over six generations, it’s attaining international attention for its remarkably beautiful designs.
Donegal tweed reflects the tones and flashes of color in the local heather, bracken, and wildflowers of the wild county itself, making it arguably the most beautiful tweed produced in Europe. So people don’t admire Molly and Sons, they revere it.
It can be a bit like wearing the county on your jacket. There’s a pride to complete the beauty. Visit the website to make a purchase or learn more about this remarkable company at molloyandsons.com.
American designers, keen to follow the trends, have gotten on the Irish heritage bandwagon in recent years. Bonobos, the men’s designer, is currently offering two Donegal flecked lambswool hats that make affordable and genuinely eye-catching stocking stuffers ($55 but now with a markdown between 30 and 60 percent). Bonobos is also offering the Milford suit and the Mulroy blazer, both also on sale in time to make your Christmas list. Visit www.bono bos.com.
Until the 1990s Ireland really didn’t make enough of its world class cooking and baking skills. But ask any emigrant from Boston to the Bronx and they will tell you, the bread’s not the same here at all, at all. To get an authentic taste of Ireland you’ll need to turn to inspired and passionate Irish cooking advocates like Darina and Rachel Allen.
30 Years at Ballymaloe: A Celebration of the World-Renowned Cookery School (Kyle Books, $48.29) is the only Irish cooking guide (with over 100 new recipes) that you’ll ever need. Don’t be intimated by her expertise, these are Irish staples and you can cook them. And if you do you’ll instantly turn your New York apartment into an Irish cottage, and you’ll have fun doing it.
Rachel Allen is already one of the world’s most successful cookbook writers, with over a million books sold. She’s become rightly famous for crafting delicious and easy to follow recipes, and her beautifully illustrated new book, Rachel’s Irish Family Food (Collins, $29.99) is a manifesto of the best of Irish cooking. It will make your Christmas.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a good book, and for our money two of the best to have come to market this year are Colum McCann’s epic and utterly heartfelt novel Trans-Atlantic and Kevin Maher’s coming of age in 1980s Dublin adventure The Fields.
Both are Dublin writers, but their subject matter and their social milieus are poles apart. McCann’s book is the work of daylight visionary who races toward the connections that his tribe have overlooked and Maher’s dark vision of Ireland is also informed by exile, also voluntary, but blighted in ways that life the lid on the tumultuous decade he is writing about.
It’s my job to notice things about the Irish and one of the most recurring patterns I see is their horror of self-promotion. They can make outstanding music, art, fashion, food or poetry but they’d almost die before they’d ask you to consider it.
Like so many things in the Irish tale, it’s clearly a colonial consequence. The spud that rises gets the spade, presumably. So allow me to recommend two new historical books that take a look at our troubled past and offer perspectives that may help us someday get beyond it.
Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers (Bloomsbury $39.95) by Christine Kinealy is a peerless study of the impact of the Great Hunger, when Ireland lost approximately 25 percent of its population to starvation or emigration over just five years.
Far more polemical is The Famine Plot (Palgrave, $28) by Tim Pat Coogan which asks how, in a nation brimming with crops and surrounded on all sides by teeming seas, could the Irish people have starved in their millions in the middle of the 19th century? We may never come to agreement, but it would do us all some good to understand how its legacy plays out for the Irish no matter where they live now.
Finally, for a little Christmas blessing, we recommend a traditional Irish St. Brigid’s cross. The custom was to place these over over hearths and thresholds, where they’d bestow a blessing on all below.
Some say they long predate Christianity in Ireland and are in fact pre-Christian sun wheels, but either way they’ll connect you with home in a way that is hard to describe in just words. Pick one up here and be sure it’s a gift that any Irish person will treasure. Visit biddymurphy.com.
Why all Irish men’s beards are red