Growing up in Ireland: an Irish Christmas!
The days before Christmas & Christmas Eve
In Co. Tipperary, Ireland, where I grew up in the early 70’s, darkness fell very early around Winter Solstice and Christmas. It would be dark around 4pm and the lights in the shop windows and strung across the streets would come on. There was very rarely any snow but Jack Frost was always close by. In the mornings folks would be scurrying about scraping their windscreens (windshields) or they would have kettles of hot water to pour on the windscreens of their cars. The smart ones had sheets of newspaper under the wipers when they came out in the morning. No one had garages in that era.
In the town I grew up in, we had a milkman who delivered two bottles of pasteurized milk to every house in the neighborhood. The milkman also had fresh milk from a churn that he ladled into the bowl I would present for him to fill. I was always told to ask for a drop for the cat! The milkman made his route all year, but every year at Christmas the customers would thank him for his hard work delivering six days a week in all kinds of weather by giving him a wee drop of “the cratur.” “The cratur” is 80 proof whiskey, so by the time he got to our house, it took all his effort to get back up on the cart. Good thing the donkey knew all the stops AND the way home! Traveling by donkey is better than Uber!
My Dad, who traveled often for his work, was often given Christmas gifts of fresh game-birds -- turkey or pheasants -- from his customers. For days before Christmas, one or both of these birds would hang from the back door in our kitchen. I have vivid memories of the beautiful golden brown plumage of a pheasant hanging upside down from a coat hook by his claws. When the birds arrived you knew the Christmas was near.
Most times we would buy a tree from the same lad who sold bags of coal. Looking back on it now that I’ve become used to fine American raised Fir and Blue Spruce, my poor, misfortunate, gangly childhood trees seem to be a poor imitation. My wife still refers to the ugly Christmas Tree as "The Irish Tree." I seem to remember that sometimes we went up into the woods in the Mountains to cut a tree. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is, but I’m pretty sure you cannot do that anymore.
In Ireland in the 1970s, Christmas Eve was anything but relaxing. All the neighbors were running around town doing last minute shopping. If you were a regular at the local pub, you spent an hour or two getting your “Christmas drink” and meeting up with old friends or even making some brand new ones. Christmas Eve always seemed to me the busiest day of the year! Most families made it out for Midnight Mass, with some coming right from the pub. “The Gods in the back” who would never dream of joining in to sing any other Sunday of the year now belted all the songs. Ave Maria was sung with such gusto the Three Tenors would be hard pressed to reach such fervor. Who doesn't enjoy a good Christmas Carol? For me as a kid the hardest part was always staying awake that late with the anticipation and excitement of Santa. We had a chimney at home, so as soon as we got home from mass I’d keep one eye and one ear open to see if I could hear any reindeer.
Waking up on Christmas morning, I would always find my presents sitting at the end of my bed. Though the presents for the adults sat under our Christmas tree, kids were given gifts at the end of their beds. In retrospect, I realize now that it was probably to keep us in our rooms so the adults could get some rest. That Midnight Mass can wear you out and if you were as popular as the Milkman it was a long day!
When my siblings and I finally made it out of our rooms, we would find an almost empty whiskey glass and a carrot with a bite taken out of it. The whiskey had been for Santa Claus and the carrots had been for Rudolph!
When my parents woke up, we would eat a giant breakfast as a family. Soon after that my mother, Biddy Murphy, would kick the kids out of the house so that she could concentrate on making a wonderful Irish Christmas dinner without the kids getting in her way. We were content to wander the Irish countryside for hours and return to the house with giant appetites.
The dinner itself was always patriotic. Along with the turkey and pheasant, we often ate ham. Along with these meats, we served roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, brussel sprouts, and turnips. All together, the plate featured the colors of the Irish flag: green brussel sprouts, white meat and potatoes, and yellow turnips. It might not have been the healthiest meal, but it was delicious!
For dessert, we had Christmas pudding. A tradition in both Ireland and England, Christmas pudding is made months -if not a whole year!- before Christmas, giving it time to settle. Christmas pudding is made from dried fruits, a homemade dough, and guinness to give it a dark look. Made in a bowl, the pudding holds its shape when dumped out onto a plate. My Dad, who worked for a local distiller, would pour a first shot whiskey onto the pudding. He let it soak while the kids rushed around shutting off the lights, leaving only the twinkling Christmas lights on the tree and the light of the turf fire. My Dad would then light the pudding on fire, letting bright blue flames roll over the edges until the whiskey shot had been burned away. The fire left the pudding slightly glazed and ready to eat! If you want to make a Irish Christmas pudding, check out this recipe from RTE, Ireland’s major news station. It’s not quite Biddy Murphy’s recipe, but it should work pretty well!
St. Stephen’s Day & the Days After Christmas
Christmas Day is all about spending time with family, but St. Stephen’s Day is all about spending time in the community. St.Stephen’s Day, December 26th, is a major holiday in Ireland. The holiday belongs to the Wren Boys, a traveling minstrel group that goes back hundreds of years. Men dress up as women to give themselves a delightful alter ego and disguise. The Wren Boys went from pub to pub in various towns singing; it’s essentially a musical bar crawl! Visitors to the pub often buy the Wren boys drinks or give them money, and the group uses any money they earn to buy drinks at the next pub. Everyone in the community gathered to hear the Wren boys sing and join in the fun!
In Co. Tipperary, December 27th and 28th also bring loads of entertainment. Co. Tipperary is known as a place to breed horses for racing, jumping, and other sorts of sport. December 27th and 28th are then devoted to fox hunting. Large groups of seventy or eighty men, all dressed in the typical rider’s outfit of black hats, white pants, and red jackets, mount horses and ride across the Irish countryside. In their company are large groups of hounds, who try to scare the foxes out of their holes. When a fox comes out of the hole, the dogs chase it with the horses following closely behind; often, the fox finds another hole and doesn’t get caught! Running alongside the dogs is the hound master and a man playing a bugle, giving the whole hunt an extra air of excitement. We would drive our car alongside the road just to watch them run!
Even though I now live in America, I sometimes still make it back to Ireland for Christmas as an adult. Though some things have changed (there’s sadly no milkman with a donkey-pulled cart), the magic of a Christmas in Ireland still remains. Wherever you are, I hope you enjoy your Christmas season with your family and your traditions!
Nollaig shona dhuit! (Null-eg hunna ghwitch)! Happy Christmas to you!
- Eamon O'Gaoithin (Biddy Murphy CEO Ward Gahan)