For the day that’s in it

Seeing as how it’s Christmas Eve and I just yelled to my husband we have no candles lighting in the front window, it reminded me that maybe people would like to hear some of the traditions prevalent in Ireland around this time. Now some of these, like the aforementioned candles, are old traditions, but others are fairly new. See if you can figure out which 🙂

As I said, lighting the Christmas candle is a big deal. Where we live, the window sills are wide enough and there’s no curtains, so we put indoor lanterns in the window at the front. We also have a battery operated candelabra as well. In my parents house, it’s the battery operated only because it’s a bedroom at the front of the house, but there was always a Christmas candle lit and put on the mantlepiece as well. Now the tradition holds that the light in the window is to show the holy family there’s a place to lay their heads, but in other times, the candles in the window could serve as a guide for those out late, or even not so late, or even show those without a roof that there might be a roof for them here at least. In modern times, we don’t really expect to see a stranger coming to door on Christmas Eve, but this night of all nights, you’d be hard pushed to turn someone away. Just in case like.

I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say it’s a more modern tradition to have the car washed for Christmas. Now, there’s a part of me thinking this is to show off to the neighbours at Mass, but there’s queues at car washes all over the country on Christmas Eve in normal times, to make sure the car is looking it’s best as well as the house.

A tradition I miss now that I don’t bother cooking a ham, is the cut of ham in the hand after Midnight Mass at 9pm. Traditional Christmas dinner in Ireland, since I was a child anyway, is turkey and ham, but the ham would be boiling away on Christmas Eve, taking a good few hours to get properly done, before getting rubbed with honey, or sugar, or cloves or some other nice things and chucked in the oven to finish off. Now the smell of the ham would be driving you crazy and it tastes oh so good coming out of the oven. Added to the fact that by the time Midnight Mass at 9pm is over, you’re generally starving, a cut of ham in the hand is welcome indeed. I have very fond memories of standing around the kitchen table, with Dad cutting off hunks of ham, trying to remember to leave enough for tomorrow’s dinner (to be clear, we always had enough, almost like it was planned that way!) and feeding us hand to hand, family member to family member. I don’t do the ham or indeed the turkey any more since it’s just the two of us in the house and there’s a limit to how much meat one can get through, but every Christmas Eve, I can smell the ghosts of hams past.

Speaking of which, Midnight Mass in Ireland happens at 9pm. Honestly, there’s very, very few actual Midnight Masses said for the public across the country. It’s almost like the whole country decided that the Midnight Mass was nicer than the Vigil Mass (for those who aren’t aware, the readings are a bit different, seeing as how we have to wait til after midnight, technically, to welcome the Christ Child to earth again) but midnight was far to late to be staying up, or worse, keeping the kids up, on Christmas Eve. Equally, with the pubs closing shortly before midnight (usually, this year is different), services could be disturbed by those who had partaken of the Christmas cheer… So, if someone in Ireland says “Midnight Mass” for Christmas, you can be 99% certain, they’re talking about a 9pm mass.

Now Christmas Eve is a grand auld time for people to congregate in the pub and catch up with friends and neighbours they haven’t seen in a while. You’ll also see an inrush to all airports and ports of emigrants coming home for the holidays. (again, this year is different!) so the news reports from Dublin airport on Christmas Eve are another tradition. I was part of that crowd for over a decade and even if I was flying in late Christmas Eve night and flying out again early Stephen’s Day, you better believe I was coming home for the Day. When I was younger though, it was Stephen’s night was the big night out. You’d just spent a good 24 hrs in the company of your family, it was time to escape to your friends. So, while Christmas Eve was a casual laid back affair, Stephen’s night was time to get the glad rags out!

For Christmas Eve as well, many people, people now, not just the children, get new jammies. Fierce important part of the festivities to be waking up on Christmas morning in brand new jammies, all crisp and fresh. Usually good warm comfy ones as well – it’s bloody cauld out there in December (those who regularly measure snow in feet or metres may laugh at this point!) And the excitement of seeing which jammies you get is immense. Of course, it’s less immense when you’ve bought the bloody things for yourself, but I still get a kick out of the new jammies for tonight.

Christmas is also a time when people visit graves in Ireland. The recently deceased will had fresh flowers or plants, the less recently deceased will have something done to recognise the occasion. It’s an important day and sure there’s no reason to leave our dead out of it.

There is also the tradition of going shopping and buying enough food to survive an apocalypse. Just in case, with the shops shut for 24 or 48hrs, you might run out of something vital. Plus, boxes of chocolates. Wars have been fought (ok, slight exaggeration here) over whether Roses is better than Quality Street, while in recent years, Heros and Celebrations have gained real market share. Either way, it’s few houses won’t have at least one box of chocolates being passed around to tide you over from breakfast to dinner or dinner to the late night turkey sandwiches. Oh yes – the auld turkey and stuffing sandwiches. Y’see, after a hard days work, unwrapping presents, getting the dinner, eating the dinner, cleaning up the bare minimum after the dinner, lying around, watching telling, nibbling chocolates and cakes and pudding, round about 10-11pm, someone always suggests turkey and stuffing sandwiches. And frankly, it’s sometimes the best meal of the day!

Now, there are people who decide to go for a dip or a run on Christmas morning – usually for charity. My own brother is doing it this year, on the Irish Sea. He did the Atlantic last year. We’re looking forward to the comparison of temperatures for him. It’s certainly a bracing way to start the day, but not one I’d be too fond of! Lots of people do it, and there’s a real community spirit about it all. It will be interesting to see how it’s managed this year with social distancing etc.

Added on to all this, there is of course present giving, the visiting of family and friends, the sales, the massive over consumption, the joy the kids take in presents, the joy the adults take in presents, the quiet times over a fire, with old friends putting the world to rights. there’s the pulling out of the game boards and remembering why no one ever lets Dad be banker any more (that might be just my family!) or pulling out the decks of cards and teaching the younger members of the family the traditional family games. There’s kids falling asleep, adults falling asleep at any and all times of the day and night. There’s joy and laughter, the sadness and tears, rows started, feuds ended. It’s a great big mess in other words. And while this year, with COVID, it’s different (my usual visit to my parents was condensed into a 2hr visit this morning to get there before lockdown), each family will have it’s own traditions they will hold to.

If you celebrate Christmas, Nollag shona duit! If you don’t celebrate Christmas, Saoire shona duit! Now, whatever about you, I’m worried about Santaí arriving while I’m still awake, so I’m off to get into my new jammies, light the candles, pour a glass of wine, settle down in front of the fire and enjoy some time with my husband.

I know not everyone celebrates Christmas, I know not every country has the time off that Ireland usually enjoys at this time of year. But whatever your faith, creed or beliefs, I hope you get some time to spend relaxing and enjoying life during these dark days. And remember- every day now, we’re getting another minute or two of sunshine (even if it’s hidden by rain).

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