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An Irish Christmas - The Day Before
by Bridget Haggerty
The goose got a bath and so did we. Then, we hung up our pillowcases at the foot of the bed, crawled in, curled up, and waited for Father Christmas.
How they got away with it, I'll never know, but a day or so before Christmas, a crudely wrapped parcel would come from Dublin. The gamey odor emanating from within heralded the arrival of our Christmas dinner. Mum quickly cut the twine and tore open the brown paper. There, plucked and headless was the goose. And tucked inside of it, a pound of pure Irish butter. In those days, no-one seemed to worry very much about spoilage - but then, I recall how the weather was in late December. Never the extremes we get in North America; but, in retrospect, it was cold enough to keep a smelly goose or rancid butter from killing us.
My mother was a beautiful woman. But she had on her the face of an angel as she cradled that bird in her arms, carried it over to the sink and washed it as lovingly as she might have a baby. She'd then dry it off and hang it in the larder where it stayed until Christmas Eve. As did the butter. That done, she had one less thing to worry about. No matter how hard up we were, she could now fix us a feast like the ones she remembered as a little girl in Dublin.
In her time, Ireland was not the booming, bustling place it is today. Most families lived in the country and made do with very little. But even the poorest went all out at Christmas time. Turf was saved during the year and by Christmas Eve, wood had been chopped to augment it, including a special Christmas log which would burn in the grate for several days.
With apparently no fear of food poisoning, the goose was cleaned and stuffed, and the ham, which had been smoked in the chimney was also prepared. Much the same routine was followed in the house of my childhood, except that we had boiled bacon instead of smoked ham. My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, so we also followed the custom of fasting. All adults and any children who had made their first communion would eat just one very simple meal of boiled potatoes, topped with a white sauce. When times were good, we often had a little bit of steamed fish as well.
Once the meal was over, the holly, mistletoe and our Christmas tree were brought indoors. My mother was very superstitious and she believed it was bad luck to bring in the greens before Christmas Eve - so, they had waited outside our front door until the time was right. In those days, people were a lot more trusting and trustworthy than they are today. No one ever made off with our decorations!
Every picture in our little flat was crowned with a bit of holly, Dad strung the paper chains we'd made across the ceiling, and the tree was placed in a pot on the sideboard. As hard as I try, I can't remember how my parents managed to make it stay standing straight up! Then, Dad would hang the mistletoe in a place where he knew he could catch my mother as often as he could - that was usually between the living room and kitchen. I can still see him giving her a smooch and she chiding him with a flirty grin on her face.
As soon as it was dusk, which was very early in a London December, my baby brother lit the big white candle in the front window (with major assistance from Dad!) This is an old Irish custom - the youngest child in the family lights the candle to illuminate the way for Mary and Joseph. It's also the tradition to leave the front door unlatched to let them know there's room for the Travelers to Bethlehem. There are many other customs associated with Christmas Eve; in some parts of Ireland, it was once common practice to leave a table set for three people and to leave a dish of water on the window ledge. According to folklore, this would be blessed by the travelers and then kept for curative purposes.
Before we were old enough to go to Midnight Mass, our Christmas Eve preparations ended with breaking the fast; dad enjoyed a glass of port, mum had a cup of tea and the children munched on sweets and apples. We'd gather around the fireplace and my parents would talk about the old days. How their parents told them that an angel stood on every spike of a holly leaf and that all prayers said on Christmas Eve would be answered. Tonight was also the night that animals were endowed with the gift of speech, but you must never try to listen in - that would be very unlucky indeed. It was also said, so they told us, that the sheep in the fields would form a procession, as if lining up to pay homage to the baby Jesus. We were always enthralled by these stories - even the scary one that said if you died on Christmas Eve, you'd go straight to heaven! Then, it was time for a bath, our prayers, and bed.
The ritual was the same every year. We went to our room and hung a white pillow case at the foot of the bed, in hopes it would be filled to over-flowing the next morning. I can remember lying very still in the darkness for what seemed like hours, hoping to catch Father Christmas in the act. But the sandman always came before Santy did. Drifting off to sleep, I can vaguely recall hushed voices in the other room, bits and pieces of Handel's Messiah, and a feeling of pure contentment. It would take me years and years to recognize and realize that these are the gifts that go on giving.
Resources: The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher.
Images: Father Christmas packing from Bare Walls Art Prints.
For more of our Holiday Stories click on the following links.
Time at this Point in the Year
An Advent Memory
Yes, Kelsey and Maddie, there is a Santa Claus
Waiting for St. Nicholas
Christmas - Preparing the Puddings
Christmas - Food for the Feast
An Irish Christmas - Then & Now
An Irish Christmas - The Day Before
Memories of Christmas Eve Past
An Irish Christmas - Ding Dong Merrily On High
Seasons Greetings in Irish
St. Stephen's Day to New Year's Eve
New Year's Day to Epiphany
Many Years Ago by John B. Keane
Rowing to Christmas Mass
Burying the Baby Jesus
White Washed Walls
An East Cork Christmas
Tue, Dec 2, 2014
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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