Irish Christmas Nostalgia: A Community Chat with Joe McGowan

The following is a transcript taken from the LIVE Community Chat chat hosted here at TheWildGeese.com on Thursday, December 5, 2013.  The focus for the discussion was bygone Christmas traditions in Ireland with Sligo-based author / historian, Joe McGowan.  Some editing has been applied for clarity.


The Wild Geese:  Céad míle fáilte, a chairde! So glad to see each one of you who have stopped by for this evening’s LIVE Community Chat here at TheWildGeese.com. Our focus this evening is on Irish Christmas traditions.

We’re being joined by Sligo-based historian / author, Joe McGowan. Joe has authored several books, including his most recent “A Bitter Wind.” You can read more about Joe and his writing at www.SligoHeritage.com.  Tonight’s chat is being sponsored by the lovely folks at MyIrelandBox (www.MyIrelandBox.com).

As a special treat, every member who chimes in on today’s discussion is automatically entered into a random drawing for one of their special January gift boxes! Our thanks to MyIrelandBox for that.

Thomas from MyIrelandBox will  be joining us for the chat today as well, so he may have some input on some of the questions about Irish Christmas traditions as well.
Welcome, Joe and Thomas!


Joe McGowan:  Hello all.  I’ll  kick off from this side of the Atlantic by saying that my most vivid memories of a childhood Christmas in a pre-TV age centre around visits from the Mummers, parcels from America, holly decorations and Santa Claus.

Parcels from our cousins in America were a special treat at Christmas. What excitement as we lifted out colouring books, red striped ‘candy cane’ shaped like walking sticks, packs of multi-hued crayon, bright coloured rock candy and pencil cases decorated with images of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the like.

Coffee we got too, teabags, chicken noodle soup and peanut butter which weren't available in Ireland then. 'Lumberjackets’ too ... Most of these memories are documented in my book, “Echoes of a Savage Land.”

One of the customs is the placing of a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve and is now observed to guide the Holy Family who found no room at the inn in Bethlehem. Also a token of welcome to deceased members of the family believed to return to their home at this time of year and to absent members of the family who may have emigrated.
Frank Walsh:  Joe, it was the same here in Newfoundland for our family - our Christmas box came early from our "rich" relatives in Montreal.

Belinda Evangelista:  \_/ Joe here’s my glass. I’ll have some of your poitin unless you’ve left it all out for the fairies :-)

Michael Waugh:  If I can start ...

The Wild Geese:  Please do, Michael.

Michael Waugh:  My grandmother on a farm called Barefield in County Clare.  She grew up pretty poor ... left there in 1916.  What might Christmas been like for her?  

Gerry Regan:  Yes, I see it here, on Google Maps, Michael:


Michael Waugh:  Yes - very cool Gerry!

MyIrelandBox:  Not that far from us here in Dingle, County Kerry.  The Southwest corner of Ireland.  I would imagine (and Joe would know more) that it would have been nothing like our Christmas today.

Gerry Regan:  We're talking Christmas 1915 then, Michael?

Michael Waugh:  Yes - she was born in 1898 - so what might have it been like for her as a little girl on Christmas.

Gerry Regan:  The Great War was in its 17th month. Not sure how the war impacted the Irish farm economy then, Michael, but of course the traditions would go on. That's where Joe can be of much more help.

Michael Waugh:  Right...I wonder if they even had Christmas...there were 12 kids...very poor.

MyIrelandBox:  Ireland was poor for most folks, but there apparently was a great sense of community.

Michael Waugh:  I would like to think that.

Ryan O'Rourke:  Surely one very simple gift would have been the extent of it for most.

Frank Walsh:  Does Ireland Christmas tradition still include "mummering" as it does here in Newfoundland - along with many trips to the shebeen?

The Wild Geese: Great question, Frank. Didn't know the mummering still existed in Newfoundland!

Frank Walsh:  Mummering is sill alive and well here.

Joe McGowan:  Hello Frank, yes I have heard that mummers are popular over there with you. The custom is dying out here in Ireland.

MyIrelandBox:  Joe, that custom still happens (the candle in the window) here and when I was young all my family said a decade of the rosary before us kids went to bed! What are mummers??

Frank Walsh:  Mummers are neighbours who went around from door to door at Christmas for a drop of cheer, some music and a wee bit of dancing.

Frank Walsh:  Of course the mummers were all disguised and guessing their identities is part of the fun.

Joe McGowan:  Yes Frank that's true that is part of the fun with Strawboys, Mummers and Wrenboys -- three very different traditions.

Joe McGowan:  Frank ... The annual rebirth of sun and life in mid-winter is symbolised in the mummer play by the resurrection of the dead hero by Doctor Brown. For more on Mummers go here.  Mummers is really a winter solstice/Christmas custom.

Joe McGowan:  It's very rare to see a candle now.  Most use a electric candelabra similar to the Jewish I have no idea where that came from!

Tiffany Silverberg:  Michael, are there any traditions from her that have been passed on to you?

Michael Waugh:  Only that she made real nice soda bread with rye seeds in it, and other cakes.

Joe McGowan:  Jesus was born at midnight on Christmas Eve. In remembrance of that, on each anniversary, the gift of speech was given to the cows. It was held too that the cows and ass knelt at midnight in memory of Christ’s birth. Before going to bed we always gave them an extra armful of hay.

MyIrelandBox:  One of the biggest strongholds regarding the Wrenboys is here in Dingle.  It's a huge deal for all ages.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  Wren Boys still occur in Dingle but the electric candle is used these days.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  Let's talk about Christmas foods and drinks!

Joe McGowan:  Well of course eggnog is universal.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  My father used to make 'virgin' eggnog for the kids.

MyIrelandBox:  Never had egg nog.  What are the ingredients?

The Wild Geese:  Here's a recipe for top-shelf eggnog.

Ryan O'Rourke:  None of my friends in Ireland have heard of eggnog, Joe.

Joe McGowan:  Traditions surely differ from place to place, Ryan.

Ryan O'Rourke:  Indeed.

MyIrelandBox:  We do have Hot Whiskey (otherwise know as Hot Toddys!) and a great Christmas drink is hot port.

Tiffany Silverberg:  Hot Port, you say, Thomas? Does it have spices, like a Scandinavian glogg?

MyIrelandBox:  Cloves, lemon and sugar if desired Tiffany! And lots of PORT.

Joe McGowan:  Up to the '60s we had no Christmas trees. We had decorations of holly, ivy, mistletoe and other evergreens. On Christmas Eve children were told that an angel stood on every thorn of the holly leaf, adoring Jesus. If the holly leaves brought into the house were prickly the man would rule the home.

Joe McGowan:  It might be interesting to note that even though we raised turkeys for the Christmas market, we sold them all and had a goose for Christmas ... they were cheaper.
Belinda Evangelista:  Do you remember the Christmas puddings boiling in cloth Joe?

MyIrelandBox:  The MyIrelandBox team had a few hot ports when we finished shipping the December festive themed boxes earlier this week to get Stateside in time for Christmas.

Gerry Regan:  Joe, any idea why the cows got the gift of gab, and not the ass? The asses were at the creche too, so to speak!

Joe McGowan:  Good question Ger, maybe some wise person decided it might be another Tower of Babel.  :-)

Tiffany Silverberg:  And what did the cows say?

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  The same thing the FOX says!

Tiffany Silverberg:  Bah!

Katherine Haynes:  LOL, Patricia!

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  Glad someone got that!

MyIrelandBox:  Cloves, lemon and sugar if desired Tiffany! And lots of PORT.

Joe McGowan:  The candle had a special significance in Penal times in Ireland when the price on the head of a Catholic priest was the same as that on a wolf. A candle in the window might mean nothing more to watchful English constabulary than a peasant belief. Unknown to them it was often a sign to outlawed priests that you would have safe haven in that home.

Joe McGowan:  That was during the Penal Times. Mass was also said in the houses.

Joe McGowan:  Edmund Burke described the Penal code which necessitated such secrecy as, “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance and as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

Joe McGowan:  It proscribed the religion of the majority, prevented them from accumulating property and punished industry as a crime; it enforced ignorance by statute law and punished the acquisition of knowledge as a felony. By the time it was relaxed, the bulk of the population had been reduced to a state of poverty.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  I know that in my great grandparents' early years, they had to pretend they couldn't read or write (North Cork).

Gerry Regan:  Joe, what about 'Visiting Day' January 1 -- very popular among the ascendancy, what about the peasantry -- and was this strictly an Anglo practice?

Ryan O'Rourke:  Thomas ... were any traditional-ish Irish Christmas items included in the December MyIrelandBox?

MyIrelandBox:  Well as it still is a surprise for our subscribers, we won't disclose! But Yes, there was an Irish traditional Celtic theme.

The Wild Geese:  Here's a recent member review of MyIrelandBox.

Joe McGowan:  Around here Ryan we had no Xmas trees, just holly, what about you?

Ryan O'Rourke:  Only know about recently, Joe ... plenty of trees in Galway! :-)

Belinda Evangelista:  Tell us why the wren was despised Joe.

Joe McGowan:  The wren gave away the game on St Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Previously it was a matter of honour to have a live wren to wit: The Boys of Barr na Sraide.



Joe McGowan:  Now we have a cork with feathers in it or similar. Sorry to say all those traditions are dying out while Trick or Treat is thriving.

Frank Walsh:  When I look at he old pictures of where my great-grandfather’s family lived when they came over, I can't help but wonder how bad things were for them in Ireland.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  My grandfather never sat in a real chair until he came to America. Never owned a set of underwear until he left Cork.

Joe McGowan:  I hear you, Patricia.  :-)

Belinda Evangelista:  Joe, what do you think is missing from Christmas today as when you were a boy?

Joe McGowan:  In my opinion,  the reason is that no one makes money on the old traditions while trick-or-treating is a big merchandising time.  It was better when we had just a few presents. Now the children have too much and it's Christmas every day of the year.

Frank Walsh:  Amen to that, Joe.

Katherine Haynes:  So true, Joe!

MyIrelandBox:  Agreed, Joe!

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  When I've spent Christmases in Dingle, I didn't get the feeling of merchandising overkill. Sure loved the super-size boxes of Maltesers that come out then, though.

MyIrelandBox:  Patricia when were you in Dingle?  That is where MyIrelandBox is based.

Belinda Evangelista:  Do you remember the Christmas puddings boiling in cloth Joe?

Joe McGowan:  No, we didn't have puddings but my mother made a 'boiled cake' which is quite similar.

Frank Walsh:  My mom used to make boiled raisin and sometimes partridge berry pudding in the cloth.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  Now you must explain boiled cake, Joe!

The Wild Geese:  Here's an excellent recipe for boiled fruitcake from "The Irish Kitchen" group on TheWildGeese.com.

Belinda Evangelista:  The cloth was twisted with a stick to tighten it.

Michael Waugh:  Joe - has anything changed since the Celtic Tiger bust around Christmas time?

Joe McGowan:  Well Michael, there still seems to be plenty of money around for luxuries.  I know families and they have a special room for the kids toys that is so crowded you can't get into it and still more and more comes.

Michael Waugh:  I was thinking maybe people might go back to simpler things.

Joe McGowan:  No Michael, I don't see that happening, anyone else comment on that? Ryan?

Ryan O'Rourke:  I've not seen much evidence of families slowing down on the extreme Christmas spending either, Joe, Michael.

Joe McGowan:  No austerity there. My mother came from a family of 6 boys and she was the only one to get a present: a bag of peanuts. Her brothers snatched it out of her hand while she was looking in wonder at it.  She never forgot it.

Patricia A. McAuliffe:  There's at least one child, 5 years old and my lovely grandniece who when asked what she wants from Santa, seriously announces, “'A jumprope!”  Gotta love that child.

Frank Walsh:  We were lucky to get one toy and a full sock (with some money) - but it meant more then.

Gerry Regan:  Any intersection between 'the little people,' fairies and Christmas, Joe? Was Santa a big part of traditional Irish Christmas, say, in the mid-19th century?

Joe McGowan:  Yes Ger, food and a drop of drink was left out for them and also for the departed spirits of the family.

Gerry Regan:  How about Santa, was he a part of Irish Christmas traditions in the 18th and early 19th centuries?

Joe McGowan:  Haven't researched that Ger, but I doubt there was a Santa back then. They were lucky to have enough to eat as it was post-famine.

Bit Devine:  Westport House does up fort Christmas in 18th Century fashion ... or they used to

Joan Millin Reilly:  Santa was born in New York, but Europe had St. Nickolas.

Gerry Regan:  But the image of the birth of Christ the King commanding these displays of wonder from even the lowliest of his creation I find very moving and powerful.  The traditions I'm hearing about inspire in me a sense of wonder, and loss too, as we move further from them into skepticism and materialism.  Or shall I say cynicism and materialism!

Joe McGowan:  Yes, Ger.  I regret the demise of the old traditions that seem to survive only when corrupted and heavily subsidised — but that should not be what they are about.

Frank Walsh:  Anybody still celebrate St. Stephens day?

Ryan O'Rourke:  They surely do here in Connemara!

MyIrelandBox:  Yes as it is the day we celebrate the wren here in Dingle!

Bit Devine:  We always celebrated fist-foot.  Is that done elsewhere in Ireland, or is it only in the north?

Joe McGowan:  That would be a Scottish or Northern Irish tradition, mainly.

Bit Devine:  We are of Armagh, Joe ... so that would explain it.  And then they emigrated to Scotland, as well.

Joe McGowan:  But there is so much more that is so impossible to cover in such a short space of time and limited by typing speed.  GET THE BOOKS!  :-)

The Wild Geese:  Okay, folks ... we'll have to call it an evening.  Thanks to Joe McGowan and Thomas from our friends at MyIrelandBox for joining us.  And thanks to all who participated!

The Wild Geese:  We'll announce the winner of the January MyIrelandBox very soon!

Frank Walsh:  Good night from Talamh an Eisc.

Mary Lou McKeone:  Thank you all ... It was grand!!

MyIrelandBox:  Thanks, nice being involved.  Good night from The MyIrelandBox team.

The Wild Geese:  Oiche mhaith, gach duine.

Joe McGowan: Nollaig shona, gach duine.

Views: 530

Tags: Chats, Christmas, Faith, Folklore, Food, History of Ireland, Mythology, Preservation

Comment by James McNamara on December 8, 2013 at 12:37pm

The Chieftains cover the wren with The Wren in the Furze on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyA1zKBUhxM  Also, Steve Hyde's version of the The Wren Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fov5HTEJDdk

But my favorite is by Ron Kavana in his collection of Irish Ways, the Story of Ireland in Song, Music, and Poetry.  I could not find it on youtube but have it in my collection.A very nice set indeed, four CDs and a great book which includes an overview of the history of Ireland in his collection of poems and music. 

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