7 Traditions we (mostly) look forward to at this mad time of year
Everyone knows that Christmas in Ireland begins on the last Friday of November. Though Penneys and Dunnes have had decorations and festive jumpers on display since October, Irish people tend to ignore Christmas until a certain magical November night when it all kicks off for real. That is, of course, Toy Show night. Explaining the Toy Show to non-Irish readers is nearly impossible. It’s a bizarre concept, taking over our national talk show for one night a year to display the season’s most sought-after toys and the country’s most characterful kids. We don’t know how it happened, but it's a fact that once the Late Late Toy Show has passed, it is socially acceptable to put up the tree. Since that first festive Friday, the Christmas carnage explodes and the whole country goes insane for the next month-and-a-half. This mad start only makes way for even more madness, like these Irish Christmas traditions we all know and love.
The Nativity or School Carol Service
If your mam or dad doesn’t have some shakey camera footage of you in with a tea towel on your head singing “Away in a Manger” are you even Irish? If you ever visited an Irish school hall or local parish church on the run-up to Christmas, you would see that everyone and their mother was present at the birth of Jesus. Not just your traditional donkey and stable animals, but all sorts of unidentifiable creatures and visitors arrived to pay their respects. In fact, in larger schools, you may even notice that there were not one, but two Marys, two Josephs and multiple wise men present. The Nativity play would have been in the works for weeks. Rehearsals would have been torture for our dear teachers as they pleaded with us to stop picking our noses and to sing out. However, parents and grandparents in attendance got a good giggle at the on-stage (or alter) antics that would be spoken about for years to come.
Heading into Town for the Christmas Shopping
Amongst our country folk, there is a strong tradition of heading ‘up to Dublin’ to do the Christmas shopping. If it wasn’t Dublin, it was most likely wherever your nearest “Big Town” was from Longford to Letterkenny, from Cork City to Wicklow Town. Though most of us are shopping online these days, going into town to do “The Christmas Shopping” is a tradition that still stands. It's something we look forward to doing all year but immediately regret as soon as we see the queues and the utter chaos of the Irish Xmas shopping experience. You’d visit the brightly lit stalls to pick up presents for everyone on your list from ‘genuine’ luxury perfume brands for your mammy to ‘real’ premier league jerseys for your nieces and nephews. Then, the part we most looked forward to…The long-awaited tea break on the top floor of the department store. Nothing tastes better than a slice of cake and a cuppa after Christmas shopping. After spending a fortune on your treasures, the gang would head home on packed public transport, satisfied with their day out until this time next year.
The Annual Santy Visit
We hate to be a Grinch at this festive time of year but all parents share one particular memory of their family’s annual Santa visit, and that is a headache. Let's set the scene: Terrified toddlers bawl as they are made to hold still in the arms of a stranger for a photo. Suspicious seven-year-olds pull at Santa’s beard to see if he is actually “the real one”. Tantrums are thrown left right and centre over who got the best gift. Whether you queued in the roasting aisles of Arnotts or your local shopping centre for a glimpse of the big man himself, the Santa visit was overrated, to say the least, and both mammy, daddy and the little ones would be only delighted when the ordeal was over.
The 12 pubs of Christmas
Only the Irish could take a charming festive carol and turn it into a drinking session. Taking a tour of your hometown’s most lively pubs all in one night was never a good idea, but it has of course become a Christmas tradition all over the world where Irish people can be found. Let’s be honest, not many of us make it to all 12 pubs. From the first of December, barmen and bouncers are on the lookout for hooligans dressed in gaudy Christmas jumpers. They turn many of us away - and we can’t blame them. As usual, the night ends with a few core members of your group at your local chipper singing a very flat, Fairytale of New York.
Going home for the holidays can have its stressful moments from rowing with your dad about football to trying to convince your mam that you’re not sick just because you look “a bit pale”. However, one amazing part of returning home is attending Christmas mass with your family. Though we are no longer a devoutly religious country, mass at Christmas is a tradition that transcends our personal beliefs as Irish people. The entire town gathers not simply to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, but also to have a good gawk at each other and catch up on what we missed over the last year. You learn more about what your schoolmates and neighbours have been up to in that hymn-filled hall that you’d heard all year round.
The Christmas Swim
Or, as many like to call it, the hangover cure for your Christmas eve antics. This is when the hardy amongst us go for a regrettable dip first thing on Christmas morning in the brisk Atlantic ocean or the Irish sea. It's another great opportunity to bump into and catch up with friends and neighbours, shivering over cups of hot cocoa or steaming mulled wine. Some do their bit by fundraising for a local charity on the run-up to the swim, and some get badgered into doing it the morning of. All in all, most will agree it's a tradition that will be upheld for years to come.
Nollaig Na mBan
Nollaig Na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, falls on January 6th and is traditionally the day that the women of the house get to chill after doing all the work for Christmas. We’d like to think that Christmas duties are now shared amongst all genders equally, so this one really shouldn't be necessary anymore. However, there is something so hilariously Irish about the mammies, grannies and aunties making a big show of their day off, whether they get all dressed up for afternoon tea or flake out on the couch for a hard-earned rest with all the leftover Christmas sweets.