Irish Christmas Traditions
CHRISTMAS MEMORIES IN CLONMEL
In Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, where I grew up in the early 70’s, darkness fell very early in the early days of winter, just about 4 pm. You’d know it was almost dark because the shop windows and streets would illuminate from the lights-a very pretty site.
We rarely got snow, but you knew Jack Frost was always nearby, especially on those crisp mornings when the citizens of Clonmel would be scurrying about scraping their windscreens (you know them as windshields) or pour kettles of hot water on them to get rid of the frost. Very few people had garages, and the smart people of Clonmel would place sheets of newspaper under their wipers to minimize the freeze.
Throughout the year, we had our milk delivered two bottles of pasteurized milk and our milkman would also have fresh milk from a churn on his cart, pulled by a donkey. It was my job to present him with a bowl to fill and ask him for a “drop for the cat”- a bonus pour if you will. Around 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," which is typically 80 proof. I remember some years during this time; he relied heavily on that donkey to get the cart backed up properly. It was a good thing the donkey knew all the stops AND the way home. No Uber in Clonmel then.
My Dad, Ned Gahan, who often traveled for his work, was often given Christmas gifts of fresh birds -- a farm-raised turkey or wild shot pheasants -- from his customers who were the owners of the renowned Public Houses within a 40 miles radius of Clonmel. 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 its claws. When the birds arrived, you knew that Christmas was near.
In Ireland in the 1970s, Christmas Eve was a busy time for families, especially the “Mammy” who cooked, cleaned and got ready for Christmas day. You would run into neighbors 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; some came right from the pub. And “the Gods in the back” who would never dream of joining in to sing any other Sunday of the year were now always in full throttle. "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, but with the anticipation and excitement of Santa, it was very tough. We had a chimney and you’d be keeping one eye and one ear open to see if you heard any reindeer.
Waking up on Christmas morning, I would always find my presents sitting at the end of my bed. The gifts for the adults sat under our Christmas tree. In retrospect, I realize now as a parent, what a smart move that was. That Midnight Mass can wear you out and if you were as popular as our milkman, it could be a long day indeed.
I always knew that the Big Fat Man with the long white beard had come to town because you would an almost empty whiskey glass and a half-eaten carrot on the kitchen table. The whiskey had been for Santa Claus and the carrots had been for Rudolph!
A favorite Christmas memory was prolonging the fun of opening presents. The whole family was ordered to leave the house, so my mum, Biddy Murphy, could work her magic in the kitchen.
We would be off to Carey’s Castle outside Clonmel or walk the Foothills of Slievenamon around Kilcash to work up an appetite. We were content to wander the Irish countryside for hours and return to the house with giant appetites.
Christmas dinner was a spectacular affair.
The dinner itself was not suited for vegans. Along with the turkey and pheasant, we often ate ham, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes with carrots in them and a few boiled spuds. One can never have too many carbs. Did you ever wonder if there is some famine residual going on? Then add Brussel sprouts and turnips. Altogether, 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! Time for a nap in front of the fire. But no wait. There’s more!
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 overturned onto a plate. My Dad, who worked for a local distiller, would pour a small glass of First Shot whiskey onto the pudding. He let it soak ,while we 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 an 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!
I sometimes still make it back from Michigan to Ireland for Christmas and did so for the last few years Though some things have changed (there’s sadly no milkman with a donkey-pulled cart), the magic of 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!
Ward Gahan, Chief Experience Officer