The celebration of Christmas in Ireland is a remarkable occasion. Not only is it the commemoration of the birth of the baby Jesus and, in fact, the beginning of the Catholic Church as we know it today, but for the Irish it is also a homecoming, a reunion of friends and family that is looked forward to with special anticipation throughout the year.
All Irish men and women treasure their memories of Christmases when they were young, and wherever they are around the globe, they transport themselves home either physically or spiritually for the twelve days of Christmas.
The Irish typically hold a deep reverence for their friends, their family, and their country. Nowhere is this more in evidence than during the Christmas holidays.
It has been said that Ireland is a nation of wanderers. Returning young Irish gain much credibility for having lived in Australia, Canada, or Boston, San Francisco, or New York. Everyone, it seems, must travel. Perhaps it’s because the country is a small island. But whatever it is, most Irish want to be home for Christmas. The Irish living in Britain or Europe take advantage of the short distance to try to come home. And the Aer Lingus flights from Boston, New York, and Chicago to Ireland are always full before Christmas.
Ireland’s Consul General in Boston, Michael Lonergan, puts it this way: “Christmas is a very special time of year in Ireland, in particular as a time for families being reunited with loved ones living abroad. I recall traveling home from previous postings at Christmas and seeing the many joyous meetings between family members at the airport arrival gates. Even for those who can’t get back for Christmas, it is a time of increased contact with family and friends, of exchanges of letters, cards, and parcels, and now through Skype and e-mail, news and photographs.
“The candles which still light in windows in Ireland on Christmas Eve also act as a reminder of our extended family abroad, the Irish diaspora throughout the world, and particularly here in the United States.”
Ireland with all its troubled history, and invasion after invasion, remains a unique Catholic country. Though the church has lost some credibility recently, especially with young people, Catholic churches throughout the country will be filled on Christmas day. The traditions surrounding Christmas in Irish life are profoundly influenced by Catholic theology.
The candles Michael Lonergan talked about were originally placed in the window as a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph after their rejection by the innkeepers of Bethlehem. A home without a candle is seen to support the innkeepers. Some say the candles should be red, some say they should be white, but whatever the color, you will find them in the windows of most Irish homes. Today the candles welcome home family and friends and visitors alike.
Actually the preparation for Christmas begins many months before with the making of Christmas cakes to be eaten on Christmas Day. Michael Binchy, a native of Charlville just south of Mallow in North Cork, and now the owner of Owenoak Travel in Connecticut, remembers his mother making the cakes, wrapping them tightly in cheese cloth and storing them in a cool place. Michael’s home had no candles, he says, because his father was deathly afraid of fires.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are family celebrations for the Irish. Gifts are exchanged, meals are shared (Christmas Day dinner features turkey and plum pudding. Years ago it was a goose dinner but the turkey has taken over), and most everyone goes to Mass together. All the pubs in Ireland are closed on Christmas. The only other time that happens is on Good Friday, another manifestation of Catholic Ireland.
Joe Creedon, owner of a small hotel in Inchigeelagh, West Cork, closes it for Christmas and invites his 35-member family to share dinner in his home after Mass. He claims that some family members will go for a swim in the River Lee, which runs through the small town, to work off the effect of the big meal. That would be a very cold swim.
Though originating in Germany in the 1500s the Christmas tree tradition is very strong in Ireland. The star on top of the tree, of course, signifies the star over Bethlehem followed by the three wise men announcing the birth of the Savior. Most every home, Catholic and Protestant, displays an ornamented tree. It takes between 8 and 10 years to grow a good tree, and because of its favorable climate, Ireland produces and cuts an estimated 800,000 trees each year. They are mostly grown in Wexford, Carlow, and Wicklow and sell on the island for $35 to $80 each. Ireland exports about 40 percent of the trees it grows to France and Britain.
The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, is almost as important as Christmas Day. It, too, is a legal holiday, a day when the pubs reopen and the celebration continues, with great gusto. In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is referred to as “La Fheile Stiofan” – The Day of the Wren. Even today, in parts of rural Ireland, children and young adults dressed in costume sing and dance their way to neighborhood homes demanding contributions to charity. The origin of the tradition is unclear. The Wren is accused of all manner of evil from cooperating with the British to siding with the Vikings. And “The Wren Boys” caused havoc whenever it suited them. These traditions have been dying out and barely exist in 21st-century Ireland.
In England, Dec. 26 is called Boxing Day, in recognition of the boxes given by the wealthy to their servants. The boxes would contain extra food, a few pennies, and perhaps old clothes for their poor families. Ireland would hardly celebrate such pretention; the Irish holiday is far more democratic and patriotic.
When the pubs open, they become St. Stephen’s Day meeting places for friends and families, and especially for the returning Irish, home for the holidays. Even during the worst of times (like these past three years), joyous parties go on night after night during the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Lasting from Christmas Eve to the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, the “Twelve Days” are commemorated in the famous song that many claim is a secret Catholic song dating from the days when Catholicism was illegal.
Here’s hoping that as many Irish as possible make it home for Christmas.