The official start of the Christmas season in Ireland is December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Traditionally it was a holiday in Ireland and the day that people would pour into the cities and larger towns to do their Christmas shopping (sort of like Ireland's version of Black Friday). The Christmas season ends on Epiphany, January 6th known as Little Christmas or Women's Christmas, Nollaig na mBan [pronounced Null-ig na mon]. On that day, the men take over all of the chores, such as cooking, cleaning and child care, so the women can rest (I'll buy into that!). It is also the day (the twelfth night) that the decorations are taken down.
There are lots of Christmas traditions in Ireland that have been passed down to the diaspora. It's interesting for me to look back and see the things that I just took for granted that have their roots in Ireland. In my family, for example, the Thanksgiving menu and the Christmas menu were identical...turkey for both. My husband's family also had the same menu and I just assumed that everyone had turkey for Christmas (this year, however, I'm planning on roast beef).
We also placed candles in the window at Christmas time and where did that come from? The custom of placing a candle in the window, on Christmas Eve, was a symbol of welcome to all strangers. It symbolized the plight of Mary and Joseph as they searched for a safe place to stay in Bethlehem and that the owner of the home would welcome them. In some cases food was also left out and the door was left unlocked. If there was a child named Mary in the house (and what Irish family doesn't have a Mary) she would be the one to light the candle.
The Irish Bread recipe that was passed down to me from my mother-in-law, came from her mother-in-law born in County Down. It should not be confused with Irish Soda Bread...this recipe is more of a cake, make with sweet milk (instead of buttermilk) and baking powder (rather than baking soda). It was more of the special occasion version and likely the one put out at Christmas. The recipe called for flour, measured in cups (as in tea cups), fists full of raisins, teaspoons of baking powder (using the tea spoon) and cook until done in a cast iron skillet. When my mother-in-law was making it, I would visit and as she added each ingredient I would stop her to measure it so I had the recipe. The recipe is below in case you want to compare it to your family's version. Typically I've make about 50 small loaves at Christmas time to give to friends and family and those attending our holiday party (but not this year).
Music has always been important to me and I sang in church choirs from elementary school. All of my children sang as well, and Christmas Eve was always busy as the girls would sing with the adults in the early services at 5:00 and 8:00 and my husband would take them home as I stayed to sing the midnight service (while he got the girls to bed and began putting together the toys). Some of the carols sung each year also had their roots in Ireland. The Wexford Carol is said to have originated in Enniscorthy and dates back to the 12th century. One of my favorites, One in Royal David's City, was from a poem by Cecil Frances (Humphreys) Alexander, born in Dublin in 1818. Her husband, was a Church of Ireland clergyman, later Bishop of Derry and then Archbishop of Armagh. A window in St. Columb's Cathedral in Derry, is dedicated to her memory. It is the processional hymn for the service of Lessons and Carols which is broadcast by the BBC each year from King's College on Christmas Eve.
Another familiar carol written by an Irishman is While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. The author, Nahum Tate, wrote it in 1692. He went on to become the poet laureate of England.
Probably one of the most controversial Christmas songs (as to whether it is Irish, English or French) is The 12 Days of Christmas. The legend says it was written during a time when it was illegal to be Catholic as a way to teach catechism to children and that all of the gifts mentioned are codes for Christian beliefs: (There are multiple versions. This one comes from https://www.homeschool-your-boys.com/christmas-ireland/ )
A partridge in a pear tree – Jesus Christ
Two turtle doves – The Old and New Testaments
Three french hens – Faith, Hope and Charity
Four calling birds – The four Gospels and/or four Evangelists
Five golden rings – The first five books of the Old Testament
Six geese a-laying – Six days of creation
Seven swans a swimming – The seven Sacraments of the Holy Spirit
Eight maids a milking – The eight Beatitudes
Nine ladies dancing – The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
Ten lords a leaping – The Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers piping – The eleven apostles
Twelve drummers drumming – The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
One site you should definitely be using (not just for Christmas) is the Dúchas website. Here you will find the Irish Folklore Collection, a series of essays that have been transcribed about many aspects of life in Ireland. Some of the material comes from the School collection where, in the 1930s children were asked to interview their oldest family members about their memories of times past. Here's a link to their downloadable eBook on Christmas.
As I read through multiple websites on Irish Christmas Traditions (there are some links below) there were some traditions that have not passed down (at least in my family).
Taking an icy plunge into the cold waters surrounding Ireland on Christmas morning, does not sound like fun. Here in Florida, the water temperature might be down to the high 60's and that's too cold for me. This is frequently done for charity, but no polar bear plunge for me!
We also don't have a tradition of celebrating St. Stephen's Day (Republic) or Boxing Day (Northern Ireland) on December 26th. It's is usually a day to just relax and spend some time with the family. Our family usually congregates in Connecticut for Christmas, but this year that's not going to happen. This will be the first Christmas that we won't be together and I'm sad about it, but hopeful staying put this year will keep everyone safe and perhaps we'll celebrate Christmas in July (hoping that we'll all be vaccinated by that time).
So Happy Christmas to you, Nollaig Shona Duit [Null-ig hu na dit)
Happy Hunting and Stay Safe!
Dodsey's Irish Bread
1 cup raisins
4 Tbs butter, melted
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup caraway seeds
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
Heat oven to 375°. Pour boiling water over raisins in a sieve to plump. Melt butter and cool.
Sift flour, baking powder and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Stir in caraway seeds. Stir in melted butter and eggs; add milk and mix until thoroughly blended. Stir in raisins.
Grease and flour (or use flour cooking spray) cast iron skillet (9" for one large or 6" for three small). Pour in batter and bake about 45 minutes for one large bread (a little less if using smaller pans). Cake tester should come out clean. Remove from pans immediately and let cool on wire rack.
Serve with lots of butter (preferably Kerrygold)
Note: Use Measure for Measure (King Arthur) gluten free flour for gluten free version.