Do you and your family practice a more traditional or a more modern form an Irish Christmas?
1: Christmas Cakes and Puddings
Then: People complain that Christmas starts too early these days. Halloween is barely over and the shops have their decorations up. But in actual fact, Irish Mammys would have had the Christmas Cakes and Puddings, a rich fruit and nut combination laced with whiskey well made by October at the latest, in order for them to have time enough to mature properly before the big day.
Now: We are more likely to buy smaller (perhaps even gluten-free versions) from artisan food shops, bakeries and farmers' markets.
2. The 8th December
Then: The feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day was traditionally the day families came 'up from the country' to do their Christmas shopping in one of the larger towns like Dublin, Cork, or Galway.
Now: Apart from the facility to shop online 24/7 it is pretty much open season in many of the large shopping centers, like Dundrum and the Kildare Village Outlet from November.
However, there is still something magical about strolling down Henry Street or Grafton St in Dublin, Shop Street in Galway or Patrick Street in Cork at Christmas time.
3. Visit to Santa
Most likely you would have composed your list and letter to Santa before this but this was the day you showed your face and were on your best behavior.
Then: We always went to see Santa in Switzers (now Brown Thomas’) on Grafton St who cleverly had a sack of blue presents for boys and pink for the girls. Switzers had the best Christmas windows and we would have spent hours (if we were let) with our noses pressed up against them, I am happy to say that Brown Thomas has continued that tradition and all of their windows nationwide are a sight to behold at Christmas.
Now: We have ‘Santa Experiences’ at Bunratty, Belvedere House, Glendeer Pet Farm, Ailwee Caves that are booked up months in advance.
4. The Christmas tree
Then: Normally didn’t go up till almost Christmas and it would have been ordinary spruce, from the Dublin mountains, no fancy imported breeds back in County Clare, where I now live, a holly bush was the handier and preferred tree of choice. My Aunts in Whitehall only ever had a small artificial Christmas tree which we thought was very exotic altogether, though undoubtedly a fire hazard, it is a wonder it didn’t go up in smoke as the lights were connected to the light socket in the ceiling.
Now: had a wide variety of imported (non-shed trees) as well as any amount of pseudo cyber trees like the one in O’Connell St which has been ditched this year in favor of a REAL tree.
5. Candle in the window
Then: This was lit on Christmas eve to signal to Mary & Joseph that they were welcome at our house. as well as any stranger in need of warmth and sustenance.
Now: We have a permanent candle in the window of Aras an Uachtarain thanks to President Mary Robinson who famously re-adopted this custom during her term of office, to remember all of the emigrants that had left Ireland and let them know the candle in the window would always be lighting to remember them show them their way home.
6. Midnight Mass
Then: We did not go as children because we were tucked up in bed in case Santa caught us out, but the adults did often after a good night in the pub and then there would be more merriment and sampling of the ham, mince pies and whiskey no doubt.
Now: Midnight Mass is as early as 7pm to facilitate families with young children (and no doubt curb the pub exodus) and a lot of older people especially watch it on television.
7. Christmas dinner
Then: Christmas dinner was very much a family affair and woe betide you if you did not make it home for dinner on Christmas Day, which was served about lunchtime and consisted of roast turkey, stuffing ham, grave, and vegetables namely the dreaded Brussel sprouts that were only ever available at Christmas back in days (no loss many would still say). Christmas pudding or trifle, a layer of spongy jelly with custard and cream, and a generous sprinkling of 100’s and 1000’s was served for dessert. After which there would not be a peep out of anybody for the afternoon, while Chitty Bang Bang or the Sound of Music droned away to itself on the television.
Now: While stereo-typically it is still a family affair, many extended families have opened their doors and arms to embrace new traditions and cultural differences. Gone are the days of gnawing at a huge turkey carcass for a week. Many buy oven-ready or go out to eat in style on the day.
8. The Panto
Then: The pantomime in the Gaiety or Olympia Theatre was the next big outing for us on St Stephens Day (boxing day) or sometime after. Our Aunts very kindly took us each year and we loved sitting in the grand circle and roaring ‘behind you’ at Maureen Potter et al. Afterwards, we always visited the Moving Crib on Parnell Square, which is still there 50 odd years later.
Now: Kids are more likely to go to Funderland in the RDS or Ice-skating, while the adults go horse-racing or do something charitable like a 25 km run or fun swim (sometimes both) or head off up the mountains for a hike.
9. New Year's Eve
Then: was never a big deal in Ireland, it used to be the night of the 'dress dance' with plenty of Ri Ra and Ruaille Buaille (good fun) but mostly people watched Gaybo on the RTE (Irish television) which kicked off 50 years ago this year from Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.
Now: This year's New Year’s Eve in Dublin is set to be huge with fireworks and a free open-air concert to signal the start of The Gathering in 2013. While down the country we are more likely to be at home or at impromptu parties in our neighbors' houses, due to the price of drink out and (quite rightly) very strict drink-driving laws.
10. 6th January
Then: The feast of the Epiphany, was the day when Christmas officially ended and the decorations were taken down and put away for yet another year. In the West of Ireland, it was called Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan (women’s Christmas) where the men got to do all the work and prepare a meal for the ladies of the house.
Now: In the West at least, the sisterhood has embraced this old tradition, wholeheartedly, over the last few years with many specially organized (ladies only) events.
*Originally published in December 2020. Updated in December 2022.