The Magic of an Irish Christmas – Historical Yuletide Traditions

Historical Christmas Scene

There are many traditions surrounding this special season, but in Ireland, there are a number of superstitions and sayings that made it an extraordinary place to be at Christmas time.

Weather predictions

There are plenty of Old Wives’ Tales about the weather throughout the year and Christmas is no exception. Children would be delighted to see snow on December 24th because this meant that geese were being plucked in Heaven, ready for the dinner table. It was also a good sign because the colder the Christmas, the milder spring would be. However, if the night was temperate, everyone needed to worry because “a green Christmas makes a fat churchyard”, meaning that there was tough weather ahead, bringing with it disease and death.

Getting ready for the big event

As Christmas drew nearer, everyone got involved in the festive preparations. The men of the household would clean and tidy everything outside, preparing the house and yard for the winter months to come. Meanwhile, the women would be responsible for everything inside. This meant that any buildings on the property would be whitewashed, while all the furniture, bedding and kitchenware would be scrubbed and polished until they were as good as new.

Children were also involved in the Christmas arrangements. They would be sent out to the fields and forests to find appropriate foliage that could be used to decorate the house for Christmas. Of course, holly was always popular for its jolly berries and, just as in the carol, it was frequently teamed with ivy, which was draped around the home in pretty garlands. Laurel was also used to pretty up the home.

It was rare for anyone to bring mistletoe inside, since it wasn’t a very common plant in most of the country, but children living near Limerick or Wicklow might be fortunate enough to find a sprig of this symbol of good luck to include in their greenery.

Bringing home the Christmas

There was a tradition of ‘bringing home the Christmas.’ As you can imagine, this was a very exciting day, one that was looked forward to almost as much as December 25th! Family members would head to the Margadh Mór or Christmas market. Vendors would come from all around to sell their farm produce and then spend what they made on treats such as sweets, toys, new clothes and hard-to-get ingredients for the Christmas dinner.

The Margadh Mór was also a great opportunity to bring gifts to loved ones who lived in the town and children who were old enough to come with their parents often found themselves a little richer as generous friends and relatives gave them coins. Even shop owners joined in, giving out ‘Christmas boxes’ to shoppers, the contents depending on how good a customer had been!

At the end of the day, the shoppers returned home to a family who’d stayed up late to see what goodies they’d brought and everyone was delighted to see what they were going to enjoy when Christmas arrived.

The simple things in life

These days, it seems that people are obsessed with spending more and more to ensure the perfect Christmas day, but in days gone by, it was a much simpler time. The foliage the children had collected was put up around the house. They made paper chains out of coloured paper which was hung around the room. Christmas trees are a relatively new addition to Irish Christmas celebrations, and when they first started being put up in homes, they were small, not much taller than a young child, and simply decorated with chocolate and lametta.

In Ireland, it was common to burn peat rather than coal to keep the house warm and they’d save a special Christmas log for the fire known as the bloc na Nollag. The whole community would get together to make sure that the poorer members of the village had a good meal and a warm fire to share in the spirit of Christmas.

The local church would put up a manger scene, but on the night before Christmas, all it contained were barnyard animals and an empty crib. Imagine the wonder when children came to church the next morning to discover that baby Jesus had appeared, his loving parents by his side, while shepherds watched the miracle.

The mutton raffle

In olden times, you might enter what was known as the mutton raffle. Everyone would get together and put in enough money to buy a sheep between them. Over the course of a few nights, they’d play a few rounds of cards, eliminating the loser until one person was left to claim the prize.

However, the winner didn’t keep the meat for themselves. Traditionally, they’d share the prize with their family, friends, neighbours and the poorer members of the town.

Christmas music

“Calling the Waites” traditionally occurred a fortnight before Christmas. Performers would entertain the town before the sun rose, regularly calling out the time of night and whether it was cold, warm, raining or dry.

Similarly, youths and boys would congregate at the top of local hills to salute the season, calling out to each other across the peaks. Come Christmas Day, they’d come into town and wake everyone up with loud shouts and cries, helping young, old and infirm to church so that everyone could celebrate Mass together.

Then and now

Modern living is very different to live just a generation ago and our ancestors would struggle to recognise their beloved traditions while families settle down together to watch TV and over indulge from morning to night.

However, although many of the old customs may have been lost, one thing’s for sure. Christmas in Ireland is still a time of much joy and laughter, when families come together to celebrate and enjoy each other’s company.

Kippure Estate is the perfect place to celebrate an Irish Christmas. Why not get in touch and book your Christmas party with us?

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