Traditionally the Christmas season begins on 8 December in Ireland and lasts until 6 January. Christmas is a wonderful time to be in Ireland.
In Ireland there is still a deeper sense of the meaning of the season here. As you walk through the streets of cities like Cork you may hear choirs large and small singing on the sidewalks, street musicians with flutes, harps, violins or guitars playing the strains of familiar carols or favourite Christmas recordings wafting from the shops.While few private homes decorate outside beyond the festive wreath on the door, the towns, cities and shops go all out. The Christmas season doesn't really get into full swing in Ireland until December when streets are lined with lit decorations and live Christmas trees are often mounted like flag staffs from building fronts. Larger department stores and shops fill their windows with animated scenes and figures.
Gifts for friends and from family members to each other pile up under the Christmas tree in the days before Christmas and as everywhere a lot of squeezing, shaking and guessing goes on, but in the back of everyone's mind is what Santa will bring on Christmas morning. And there is no peeking or opening any gifts until
Santa Claus is a very popular fellow in Ireland too. He and his helpers can be found arriving at many malls and department stores by helicopter or fire engine to take Christmas wish lists or for the very lucky children a trip to visit his workshop in Lapland (the North Pole) can be arranged!
In Ireland Santa works a little differently than in the states. Instead of leaving everything under the tree he leaves each child's gifts in their room, often in a pillow case at the end of the bed, though sometimes a large gift may be left unwrapped under the tree. Christmas stockings are a tradition with some families and are hung Christmas Eve for Santa to fill. He arrives quite late as Midnight Mass on Christmas eve is still a strong tradition for many families and the chimney is his main entrance into most homes.
As with holiday traditions everywhere, food plays a big part of celebration in Ireland and, just like else where, there is some variation from family to family. A fairly traditional menu for Christmas dinner includes either a Goose or Turkey with stuffing (usually a sage and onion type), ham, roasted and boiled potatoes (Irish meals often include potatoes prepared several ways), brussel sprouts, carrots, califlower, parsnips and any other family favourites, followed by Christmas cake or a Christmas pudding. A favourite treat throughout the Christmas season are small mincemeat pies (in the states because of the size they would probably be called tarts). Candy canes are not very popular in Ireland nor wide spread but tons of chocolates is a must for Christmas.
Ireland, like most countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own. Many of these customs have their root in the time when the Gaelic culture and religion of the country were being supressed and it is perhaps because of that they have survived into modern times.
TheTwelve Days of Christmas
This old and beloved carol is Ireland's very own. During the centuries when it was a crime to be Catholic and to practice one's faith, in public or private, in Ireland and England "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written as a "catechism song" to help young Catholics learn the beliefs of their faith. It was a memory aid when being caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hung.
The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.
The Candle in the Window
- A Partridge in a pear tree - Jesus Christ, the son of God.
- Two turtle doves - The Old and New Testaments
- Three french hens - Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
- Four calling birds - The four Gospels and/or the four Evangelists.
- Five golden rings - The first five books of the Old Testament (The Pentateuch).
- Six geese a-laying - Six days of creation.
- Seven swans a swimming - The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Sacraments.
- Eight maids a-milking - The eight Beatitudes.
- Nine ladies dancing - The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (sometimes also listed as the nine classifications of angels).
- Ten lords a-leaping - The Ten Commandments.
- Eleven pipers pipering - The eleven faithful apostles.
- Twelve drummers drumming - The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.
The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas eve is still practised today. It has a number of purposes but primarily it was an symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they travelled looking for shelter. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as, during Penal Times this was not allowed. A further element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name 'Mary'.
The Laden Table
After evening meal on Christmas eve the kitchen table was again set and on it were placed a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could avail of the welcome.
The placing of a ring of Holly on doors originated in Ireland as Holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and which gave the poor ample means with which to decorate their dwellings. All decorations are traditionally taken down on Little Christmas (January 6th.) and it is considered to be bad luck to take them down beforehand.