Christmas — Nollaig

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The following was contributed by an Irish relative in County Sligo, Ireland. He will be a guest contributor from time to time:

Christmas Traditions in Ireland

As a child growing up in 1940’s rural Ireland Christmas was a time of excitement and wonderment. During Advent the adults were required to fast but this did not affect us children. The Christmas season really started the Sunday before Christmas and one of the first manifestations of Christmas was a visit to the local shop with an ass and cart to purchase paraffin, flour, candles and other provisions for the Christmas period. My grandfather killed the goose and turkey and plucking, which took place in an outhouse took about an hour and a half. (When my grandfather became too infirm to kill the fowl I took over his duties as my father was too squeamish for the task and I performed those duties for the family for about 10 – 12 years).

Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence (no meat) but my mother believed in the Celtic day which starts at night-fall and so we had a special meal after dark to commence the Christmas festivities. After the war tinned fruit became available and a big treat at that Christmas Eve meal was tinned pineapple, to this day my favourite fruit. A huge excitement was caused by lighting the candles as two candles were lit in every window in the house and to look around the village and to see candles in every window except those houses that had a bereavement during the year. (Someone who was a bit tight- fisted would be described as “He only lit candles in his front windows”).

We were lucky and unusual in that Santy came to our house with a toy, a book, an orange (a huge treat after the war) and a garment knitted by my mother or grandmother.

Christmas Day we walked to Mass fasting and while I was an altar-boy a big treat was the shilling we got from the parish priest after Mass. (We were terrified of upsetting him and he did not know how to deal with children but in hindsight he was a most compassionate and caring man. When I got involved in local history I found out that as a young priest he had campaigned vigorously to improve the material lot of his impoverished parishioners).

We had Christmas dinner in my grandparents’ house next door. My grandmother cooked the turkey and my mother the goose in large ovens by an open turf fire. Glowing coals had to be constantly replaced on top and under the oven and the duties of keeping the fire blazing and providing a supply of hot coals was assigned to one of the children. How they managed to get them as perfectly as I remember is a wonder to me as even with an electric oven I still struggle to get the goose right.

On St. Stephens Day we dressed up as mummers (also known as wren-boys or straw-boys) and went round the village singing and dancing in each house. A neighbor made the classical straw-hats for us and in most houses we got a few pennies and some sweets or cake.

The candles in the windows were again lit on New Year’s Eve and we had the Scottish custom of first-footing where it was considered lucky if the first person through the door was dark and carried a sod of turf for the fire. All children old enough blackened their faces with polish or soot and came as an excited group all together. Ours was a tee-total house so there was no whiskey as is usually involved.

The candles were lit for the last time on the eve of “Little Christmas” the 6th January. It is known in Irish as “Nollaig na mBan” . “The Women’s Christmas” and on that day my mother and grandmother did no cooking.

I still put two candles in a window (I am tight-fisted) after dark on Christmas Eve to welcome the Baby Jesus. Join me.

Guibhim Beannachtaí na Nollag agus Ath-Bhliain faoi shéan agus faoi mhaise oraibh uilig

(I wish for the Blessings of Christmas and that Next Year will be content and successful for everyone).



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