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An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at an Irish Christmas, Part II. (Click here for Part I.)

The Christmas Day Swim. On Christmas morning, a bit of madness sweeps the land. At the Forty Foot Rock south of Dublin, hundreds of people jump into the Irish Sea dressed only in their bathing suits. The same thing happens all across Ireland. With air temperatures in the thirties or forties (Fahrenheit) and water temps in the fifties, it makes for a cold dip. And that flash of red you saw racing for the water? It was a swimmer wearing a full Santa suit. Many take the polar dip for charity. Others just for the sense of accomplishment.


 The Winter Warmer. Here’s how to enjoy it best: Start with a brisk walk, breathing deeply of the cold, Irish winter. Then take whiskey, lemon, cloves, and wee bit of brown sugar. Mix well and heat. This hot “whiskey punch” will warm your insides and put a smile on your face.

Spiced Beef. Once used to preserve meat, this dish livens up Christmas dinner tables all across Ireland, especially in Cork. One recipe calls for beef cooked with brown sugar, molasses, mace, cloves, bay leaves, garlic, allspice, peppercorns, salt, and of course, a bottle of Guinness. Other items on the Christmas feast menu might include roasted goose, potatoes, cranberry sauce, sausages, fruit cakes, and plum pudding. Now I’m hungry.

Awful Christmas Sweaters. After that bracing dip in the Irish sea you might be a bit chilly. Well, if you received one particular traditional gift—a hideous sweater—you can warm up. The more ridiculous, the better.

James Joyce’s “The Dead”. Instead of the annual U.S. fascination with Dickens’s “The Christmas Carol”, a few denizens of Dublin join together for a reading of “The Dead”, a short story from Joyce’s Dubliners collection.

St. Stephen’s Day Horse Races. Every December 26, south Dublin hosts horse races at Leopardstown. For 20,000 Dubliners, going off to the races after Christmas has become an annual tradition. But perhaps they’re just looking for a respite from relatives?

The Wrenboy and Strawboy Procession. Another, rather odd tradition also occurs in Ireland on St. Stephen’s day. Before recent times, on December 26 wrenboys would hunt and capture a wren then tie it to a pole—sometimes alive, sometimes dead. The boys would parade the wren ’round the town, singing a certain song, of which there are many variations, and asking for donations. (“A penny or tuppence would do it no harm” goes one verse, pleading for a live bird affixed to the pole.) The money collected would host a dance sometime in January. A sword-bearing, caped Wren Captain led the wrenboy procession, some of whom were musicians. Others wore costumes of straw, and these were called strawboys. With identities hidden by costumes, wild revelry and tricks played on friends sometimes followed. The origins of this affair seem to have been lost in time, with some claiming Celtic mythology, and others attributing it to a Christian influence.

That’s our list. We skipped caroling, biscuit tins, and listening to “The Fairytale of New York”. Before we close, I leave you with this Irish Christmas blessing:

“The light of the Christmas star to you,
The warmth of home and hearth to you,
The cheer and good will of friends to you,
The hope of a childlike heart to you,
The joy of a thousand angels to you,
The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.”

Nollaig Shona Duit and Happy Christmas!

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

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An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part I

An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Christmas traditions in Ireland today. What is an Irish Christmas like?

How do you wish someone Merry Christmas in Irish? Nollaig Shona Duit. And that’s a Happy, not a Merry, Christmas!

It wasn’t until St. Patrick brought Christianity to the island in A.D. 432 that the Irish Celts abandoned their pagan ways and even learned about the birth of Christ. Today, Christmas is a big holiday in Ireland, with many interesting and fun traditions, some old, some new. In no particular order, here are a few:

Christmas Whitewashing.

For thousands of years, a December Celtic farm tradition held that families would clean and whitewash every building on their farms. After the coming of Christ, it became a symbol of purifying them for the coming of the Savior.

Holly and Ivy.

Traditionally, families would trek into the country to cut some of the plentiful holly and ivy to decorate mantelpieces, make into wreaths, or fashion into sprigs to grace doorways. Want a harbinger of good luck for the next year? Find a holly bush festooned with berries. Because of its  thorns, holly hunters wear heavy coats to keep from being pricked. Mistletoe is rarely seen, perhaps because in ancient times it was a symbol of paganism.

Yet, traditions do change. One commentator suggests that because of National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation”, many Irish now put up Christmas trees with outside lights and decorations. They go up on December 8, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

“Little Christmas”

Little Christmas comes on January 6 and is also called “Women’s Christmas”. It’s women’s day off. The women who’ve done all the cooking and preparing for the holiday now go out, meet, and have fun while the men stay home, do the housework, and take down the decorations. But don’t remove your decorations before January 6. It’s bad luck.

The Christmas Candle.

Putting a candle in the window is a symbol of hospitality. It says that, unlike the Bethlehem inn that turned away Mary and Joseph, your household would welcome the Holy Family.

A Snack For Santa.

In the U.S., we often put out Christmas cookies and a glass of milk for old St. Nick. Not in Ireland. There it’s a bottle of Guinness and a mince pie. Or, if you prefer, a shot of whiskey and a tin of biscuits.

The Midnight Mass.

Whether Protestant or Catholic, the midnight Christmas Eve service brings out folks who haven’t set foot inside a church since Easter. Churches are packed as people dress up, sing Christmas carols, and listen to live music. Sometimes, the service is candle-lit. It brings everyone back to what the season is really about—the coming of Christ to earth.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

In the U.S., black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the day when some people mob the stores to begin their Christmas shopping. In Ireland, it’s December 8, when schools are closed for this Catholic holiday.

Christmas Presents.

In Ireland, children wake up on Christmas morning to find Santa has left presents at the foot of their beds, often in a sack. One or two gifts might be under the tree, but they’re unwrapped.

On Christmas day, we’ll conclude our look at an Irish Christmas with Part II.

(Parts of this post first appeared as an article by this author in “Celtic Canada” magazine’s winter issue.)

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.