Keeping Alive best of Irish Xmas traditions
Cepta and myself have fond memories of our childhood Christmases and the stories that our parents told us of their own youthful days at this very special time of the year. We did indeed experience many of the characteristics of today’s Christmas such as Santa Claus, a Christmas tree in the living room and special programmes on the TV station. Nevertheless it was then first and foremost a deeply religious festival of Christian thanksgiving which our parents expected us to respect and to observe.
In my father’s (& mother’s) time…
On winter evenings around the fireside, mom, dad and particularly my grandparents, would tell stories of their own harsh poverty-stricken Christmas in a rural Ireland before the era of plastic trees, glittering baubles, twinkling electric lights, expensive gifts and sumptuous festive dinners. In those bygone days they would get up early and gather branches from Holly (holy) trees in the hedgerows to decorate their homes. For them the thorns and red berries symbolised the bloodied crown of thorns of the crucified Jesus. But the sacredness of this native Irish tree goes back thousands of years earlier, when it was recognised as a protector of Nature, with its red berries providing a rare source of food to the birds in the depths of darkest winter, and a reminder too of the resurrection of life during the coming Spring. Lots of families made their own wooden figures for Nativity scenes that were placed prominently in the kitchen and which was a microcosm of the larger crib in the local parish church (a custom introduced by Francis of Assisi during the European Middle Ages).
Morning mass, where they happily engaged with all the cousins and neighbours, was followed in the late afternoon by a family meal comprising exotic foodstuffs not consumed at any other time of the year. Before refrigeration, a key element was the Christmas pudding (kept in a recycled metal biscuit tin), comprising fruits that had been dried out and stored from the autumn harvest with a generous lashing of home distilled whiskey (poitín) even though my parents throughout their lives hardly ever drank alcohol (Dad was a lifelong ‘pioneer’). As in the modern era, the main delicacy was poultry. But rather than the American-originated turkey, they usually had the luxury of enjoying one of their own geese.
But in the lives of ordinary people, meat was then a rarity. It was only normally consumed on Sundays (the ‘Sunday roast’) and on important religious/seasonal festivals.
This celebratory meal was primarily a gathering for the extended family, when those bothers and sisters who had gone to work in Dublin or had emigrated to nearby Britain would, at least before they got married, try to travel home for the most important day in the Christian calendar.
As was the custom at the beginning of every mealtime in Irish Christian homes in times past, a prayer was recited in thanks for the food that was about to be served.
On Christmas night, a simple wax candle was lit and placed in the window. It represented the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ that guided the ‘wise men (possibly Zoroastrian magi from the land of or modern day Iraq or Iran), with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to the livestock barn where the newborn baby lay.
In the days before rural electrification, it must have been an awe-inspiring sight for children to look across a darkened Irish countryside vibrating with small flickering candle-lights emanating from isolated farmers’ cottages. It was as if the heavenly night sky had become one with the Earth.
So in honour of our parents for this and all Christmases, our family (as with so many other families) continue to observe some of the best of the old Irish Christian traditions. We decorate the walls with holly, make a Star of Bethlehem backdrop for an internal Nativity scene, place candles on the windows and doorways with some family members attending the local church and then enjoying a festive meal together.
Whilst I have many disagreements with the Catholic Church stretching back to my teens, nevertheless I have always being an avid follower of the great inspirational progressive, radical, pacifist, non-sectarian, communal feminist figure known as Jesus Christ.
So to all my atheist, pagan, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindi friends may I wish you all a peaceful and joyful Christmas and New Year.