When we started our Ireland Project, and this blog, our goal was to learning more about our ancestry (recognizing we’d need/want to travel to do so) and to learn about how the traditional culture of our ancestors was still present in our lives. We wanted to take a fresh, and accessible, approach that connects cultural traditions and artifacts, like recipes and music, as a means to explore ones roots.
Irish Christmas Traditions
So in the spirit of the holidays, we wanted to examine some of our family Christmas traditions and explore which ones our Irish ancestors would recognize.
Family Christmas traditions are practices and customs that evolve over the years, they adapt with changing family, cultural and historical dynamics, and they adapt as families find themselves in new corners of the world and with new members.
These traditions are ones that we have grown up with – Meaghan in Cape Breton and Peggy in Alberta. We also believe that these are Christmas traditions at the core of many holiday celebrations for families of Irish decent.
Candle in the Window
Now this is a tradition that seems to be prevalent in Cape Breton, and throughout the Irish population in the Canadian Maritimes, but seems to have died out or never transferred to Albertan Irish families – at least not to Peggy’s knowledge and Meaghan was never able to find the candles to purchase in Alberta (thank god for Amazon!)
Traditionally for Catholic families the candle in the window was a symbol to welcome Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve. During Penal times (1700-1829: when Irish Catholics were forced to accept the practices of the Anglican Church) the candle in the window symbolized a safe home for a Priest to perform mass.
Today this popular tradition is considered to be one of the most well-observed of Irish Christmas traditions and has changed little over the years except in its increasing popularity and these days the candles are usually electrically or battery powered. The candles are placed in all downstairs street-facing windows throughout the festive season.
Decorating with Holly
Fresh holly was/is common in most homes across Cape Breton. The holly was used to decorate table centrepieces, candelabras, mantels, and wreaths on doors.
This dates back to when holly would have been the primary decoration of our ancestors, as it was widely available as it was around Christmas that this plant flourishes. It is still common to receive the gift of bows of holly from family and friends with holly plants.
Music is such a huge part of most Irish celebrations, and storytelling. One album that played constantly throughout the Christmas’s of my (Meaghan’s) childhood, and to this day, was the The Chieftains The Bells of Dublin. The album is a beautiful collection of traditional carols, but the one that brings a nostalgic lump to my throat is Il est Né/Ca Berger. It is my French Canadian Grandmother’s favourite and I have the most wonderful memories of baking holiday cookies with her as a child, which she hummed along to this traditional French carol that is included on The Chieftains album.
The Crib & Midnight Mass
The crib was always a central part of our homes during the Christmas season – and in the true holiday spirit a fight between the younger generation (of Meaghan’s family) as to whom would get to place the baby Jesus in the crib when we returned from Midnight Mass.
Next to the candles in the windows, attending Midnight Mass is probably the most widely practiced of Irish traditions. It brought together the entire community, it always seemed to be more of a celebration and chance to wish all a Merry Christmas, than a religious ceremony. And of course it gave the older generation a chance to whisper about the neighbours who they hadn’t seen in church since the Christmas before!
Even with church attendance declining around the world, we think you will find most churches full for Midnight Mass.
When we first discussed this post, Peggy mentioned her Grandmother’s recipe for Christmas cake as a tradition that her family still practiced. And it invited the following exchange between us…
Meaghan: Is Christmas cake, fruit cake?
Peggy: Yes, but fruit cake with booze.
Meaghan (with a confused look): There is fruit cake without booze?
Peggy: Of course!
Meaghan: Well not in Cape Breton there isn’t!!
Even worked a traditional Cape Breton double negative into that response!
Christmas cake was never a welcomed sight for Meaghan, there was something about the weight of the cake that was unappealing. However, as mentioned above for Peggy’s family it is welcomed Irish tradition.
While most people can be put off by the idea of a cake filled with dried fruit, there is a reason why this tradition has endured throughout the years. Christmas cake is like an aged whiskey or fine wine, the longer it ages, the better it will taste. A good Christmas cake has an array of flavour and texture owing its deliciousness to one essential ingredient, booze. Traditional recipes are typically made with whiskey, brandy or rum.
An extra boozy cake starts with soaking the fruit before making the cake, which can be done 1-3 days in advance. Once baked, the cake is wrapped in a liquor-soaked cheesecloth and placed in an airtight container. Then the magic begins! The key to helping the cake mature is to feed it. Feed the cake by drizzling it with 1-2 teaspoons of liquor every two weeks before serving. The best Christmas cakes are made at lease two months before Christmas. An aged cake that is well fed will be moist and flavourful.
St. Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day
In Cape Breton (and generally across the Canadian Maritimes) Boxing Day isn’t for shopping – in fact our Boxing Day shopping sales happen on Dec. 27 or 28; Boxing Day is for having a party. Everyone has been well behaved (at least you hope so!), put in family time, and now it is time to visit with friends and neighbours. Food is set out for those who will stop by, and fridges are filled with beer. There are no formal invitations sent out, just open doors as you make it from one neighbour to the next.
This Cape Breton practice seems to be very similar to St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland and the Wren Boys procession.
The festival stems from the story of a competition among the birds to determine who could fly the highest. The eagle was poised to win the contest until upon tiring a small wren came out of hiding from the larger bird’s tail features and soared highest of all. Another story tells of a wren that awoke the troops of Thomas Cromwell just as Irish soldiers approached, thereby saving the British encampment.
‘The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.’
These tales of treachery gave way to the tradition of hunting the wren on St. Stephen’s Day, followed by a procession through the town from neighbour to neighbour in celebration. Today the wren is no longer hunted, by some, especially in Southern Ireland, still dress up and visit neighbour to neighbour in celebration.
On the first of December when some friends would have there Christmas decorations up, I (Meaghan) couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. I would ask my Mom if we could put up our tree and she would promptly say “No, it would barely last till New Years”.
In our home the tree and decorations were always up until January 6th. A tradition I observe in my own home today.
I did not realize the connection before we began our research, but this is a long standing Irish Catholic tradition. Our ancestors considered it unlucky to remove decorations before Little Christmas
Little Christmas is also considered ‘Women’s Christmas’ a celebration of all the work women have done to make the holidays a special time and feast for their families. On the 6th of January, our female ancestors would have gone out to visit with friends and enjoy themselves while the menfolk cared for the children! Now that is a tradition we want to bring back!!