Analysis: from the Christmas box to An Margadh Mór, do you know all of these Irish Christmas traditions?

In Ireland today, Christmas is a near month-long celebration of consumerism and partying, but our ancestors celebrated it in a much more subdued and humble way. It revolved around the religious Christian celebration and featured respite from work and was a festive time to look forward to in the dark winter evenings. In the past, as now, the excitement and pre-Christmas build up is often more fun than the occasion of Christmas day itself. Christmas itself, broadly speaking, is a Christianisation of those ancient midwinter festivals marking the winter solstice.

December 8th

You could argue that the Irish Christmas season begins today the night The Late Late Toy Show is broadcast. Traditionally, the religious build-up to Christmas began on December 1st at the start of Advent,. December 8th marks an important date in the calendar too: it's the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and traditionally a popular day for pre-Christmas shopping in Ireland.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Lillis Ó Laoire on the shopping traditions associated with December 8th

This is a peculiarly Irish tradition, marking the day when "culchies" - the name (affectionately?) given by Irish townspeople to country people - descended on urban areas to do their Christmas shopping. Many made a trip up to Dublin city, in particular, to shop on that day. As a holy day, schoolchildren were given a day off, allowing parents to bring them on a day out to see the sights and sounds of the city along with the Christmas lights.

In the 1950s, trains from Limerick and Cork to Dublin were full, necessitating the provision of extra carriages. Traffic in Dublin city also peaked. Over the years the December 8th shopping tradition has been slowly declining, thanks to the development of regional local shopping centres and retail parks, and the tendency towards frequent shopping trips. In more recent times the expansion of online shopping and the growing popularity of so-called Black Friday sales have accelerated the decline.

The big market

Back in the mid 20th century, in an era before online shopping, large shops and shopping centres, not all rural families were able to Christmas shop in Dublin. On a fair day before Christmas, the "Big Christmas market" - An Margadh Mór – in the local town was considered a big day where rural people sold hens, eggs, geese, turkeys and so on. The woman of the house was usually in charge of poultry and dairy produce and earnings from these were known as her "pin money".

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From RTÉ Archives, Jeri Ward reports for RTÉ News on the December 8th shopping day in 1989

Having made money, people would go to the local village or town to 'get in the Christmas' on typically the Saturday before Christmas Day. A typical shopping list would include tea, dried fruits, spice and sugar, candles, sweets, clothes and household goods. The local shopkeeper had their pre-ordered box of goods ready: it would contain the usual provisions with an extra helping of tobacco, cake, bottles of porter, whiskey or sherry.

The Christmas box

Small business owners would give their customers an annual gift for their loyalty, known as the Christmas box. The size of the "box" was proportionate to the amount of business from the customer over the year. The custom of the Christmas box continues in parts of Ireland in some shape or form, with faithful customers variously rewarded with a free drink from the local pub, a free calendar from the butcher or a voucher from the beautician.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas there was increased work activity around the home which added to the excitement and bustle. Country people gave farm produce to urban relatives and plucked geese, bags of potatoes, eggs, butter and other goods were sent. They returned the favour by sending back ‘town’ goods as gifts, items bought in shops or money for the children.

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From RTÉ's Black & Irish podcast, Leon Diop, Femi Bankole, Amanda Ade and Boni Odoemene reveal their own families' Christmas traditions

The American letter

Emigrant family members returning home for the Christmas period was rarer in the past, and their cards and letters were keenly anticipated. Some contained money, others were a parcel of exotics from far flung places: shop-bought clothing, toys or trinkets. Some knew this as the "American letter".

The raffle and cards

There was a Christmas raffle for mutton in most areas, and the prize became turkey when that fowl became fashionable for Christmas dinner into the 20th century. In the ten days or so leading up to Christmas, protracted games of cards were played over several evenings with a similar prize for the eventual winner. Some men clubbed together to form a 'join' at a selected house where each paid a small sum that kept them in alcohol. These little social occasions might also consist of storytelling and chat.

Each year, street music and carol singers are heard throughout urban Ireland in the lead up to Christmas. In some areas, a custom known as ‘Calling the Waits’ took place involving groups of young men going from street to street wishing people goodwill. This was accompanied by with horn blowing, drumming and accordions. They might collect money and greet people by their names.

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From RTÉ 1's Nationwide, stories about Irish festive traditions

Praying, cleaning and cooking

In the past, there was also increased daily prayers as a type of spiritual preparation of Advent. Catholics fasted in during the period in some areas until the mid-20th century and extra prayers were added to their daily devotions.

During Advent in rural Ireland of times past, there was an intensive clean-up of the house and farm buildings. Walls were whitewashed inside and out, and unteriors were cleaned and reorganised. Pre-Christmas cleaning also extended to tables, chairs, crockery, pots and chimneys. Fuel was gathered and houses were decorated with greenery and festive materials.

The making of cakes and puddings for Christmas would have been well underway by now, as would advance preparation of Christmas food, such as ham, which would be placed in the chimney to be smoked. Better-off farmers shared some food and fuel with poorer neighbours so that they would have a meal at Christmas.

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From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report from 1976 on Christmas Eve shopping in Dublin city.

Christmas Eve

This period of hectic activity culminated in the ultimate pre-Christmas celebration: Christmas Eve. In many ways, Christmas Eve was just as important as Christmas Day in rural homes. Perhaps it was rooted in the major ancient feast days in the Irish calendar which traditionally began on the evening before at sunset.

After all the preparation, prayers, fasting and work, people looked forward to the festive break as darkness finally fell on Christmas Eve. They served Christmas cake after supper, poured a drink and lit candles to symbolically guide the Holy Family on their journey to Bethlehem.

It was a time of fond remembrance and sadness at the loss of recently deceased loved ones. During the day, greenery was traditionally placed on family graves and they were remembered again on Christmas Eve night. In some areas, the door of the home was left unlocked at bedtime on Christmas Eve so that dead relatives could return, in an echo of the Halloween and All Souls' Day traditions.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ