Halloween is just over and already the shops and social media are saturated with Christmas decorations, trees, fairy lights and enough sparkle and glitter to make Elton John look dull, grim and lifeless. So when does Christmas officially begin and end? In Ireland Christmas begins traditionally on 6th December (Feast of Saint Nicholas) and ends on 6th January (Old Christmas Day). On the 6th December, we put up our Christmas Tree and decorate to honour and celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas also known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Daidí na Nollag and The Saint of Children. We take down the decorations and the tree on 6th January (the Feast of the Epiphany) or Nollaig na mBan ‘Women’s Christmas’ which marks the official end of the Christmas season. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! Traditionally the men of the house take over for the day, preparing meals and allowing the women to have a rest. Women in Dublin organise lunches for their women friends, Limerick women meet in their own homes for lovely dinners, Sligo women come together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are organised all over Ireland. This is a tradition that is seeing a huge revival, long may it continue!
6th January is also known as Little Christmas or Old Christmas Day when the tree and all the Christmas decorations are taken down and put into storage. Holly and ivy were used to decorate the Irish home before the Christmas tree was introduced. It was believed the more berries on the holly would mean better luck in the new year.
Traditionally Christmas runs for one month In Ireland. However Christmas has become more commercialised in recent years, trees and fairy lights are appearing in shops and family homes as soon as Halloween is over. Most children today don't know WHY we put up a tree and decorations on the 6th December. The simple answer is to celebrate Saint Nicholas and his kindness to both children and sailors and to celebrate his impending arrival on Christmas Eve (24th December).
The most famous story about St. Nicholas tells how the custom of hanging up stockings to get presents in first started! It goes like this...
St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.
There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn't get married. (A dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the bride's parents on the wedding day. This still happens in some countries, even today.) One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house (This meant that the oldest daughter was then able to be married.). The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.
Cribs are also erected during the Christmas period some almost life-size, in churches, town centres and in shopping malls. Cribs are traditionally put out on the 8th December. But the figure of the baby Jesus isn't put into the crib until the evening/night of December 24th! We also place a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, a symbol to welcome strangers and to remember those who are far away from home. The little lights shining in windows gives a warm and welcoming feel when walking through a town. It's simply magical.
The Christmas day swim has been taking place in Ireland for over 40 years and has become popular with thousands of people taking to the cold Irish waters. Santa hats and costumes can be seen on beaches across the country from Dublin to Derry and Galway to Cork. It's fun for all the family and with many Irish people making sure it's part of their Irish Christmas celebrations every year charities all over Ireland benefit from this event. Your local Coast Guard unit will have the details of your nearest Christmas Day Swim event.
The day after Christmas Day is St Stephen's day (not boxing day, that's the UK) and horse racing meetings are traditionally held on St. Stephen's Day. St. Stephen's Day is the day for "Hunting the Wren" or "Going on the Wren." The Wren Boys Procession mostly died out in the early 20th century, although it still takes place in some towns including Dingle, in Country Kerry in the South West of Ireland.
Each family will have their own Christmas traditions but a lot of popular practices still remain today. The important thing to remember is that the magic of Christmas cannot be purchased in a shop, online or wrapped in expensive gift wrapping paper. Fill this Christmas with stories to tell, magical experiences and not stuff to show. The best gift around any Christmas Tree is the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each others company. Christmas is about opening hearts, not presents. There are many ways to open your heart and many charities hosting many events to get involved in e.g Christmas Shoe Box Appeal or volunteer with The Order Of Malta. On Christmas day certain units collect elderly or unwell people who reside in hospitals or convalescent homes and transport them home for the day or even just for a few hours, to enjoy Christmas with their families. The Knights of St Columbanus run a Christmas dinner in the RDS on Christmas Day and they may need volunteers (P 01 6761835 or email email@example.com) you can, of course, show up at the RDS Simmons Court Entrance from 10:30 onwards.The Simon Community look for volunteers for their Soup Run and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (01) 8895800. Luas have partnered up again this year with Inner City Helping Homeless for the Christmas Shoe Box Appeal 2016. If you wish to donate drop in your shoe boxes to Connolly Luas Stop, Thursday 8th December, between 7am-7pm. Additional information can be found on Luas website, items to put into the shoe box etc. Whatever you decide to do this Christmas do it with family, friends and with love.
"Nollaig Shona Duit" (NO-Lihg HO-nuh ghwich).
Why not tweet your Christmas traditions to @lifeoffreedomIr or send me a message on facebook.