In many parts of world, once people have unwrapped their Christmas presents (including any lovely Irish gifts) and eaten their Christmas dinner, the holiday is pretty much over. Not so in Ireland. Here, Christmas really does stretch over twelve days. We don’t celebrate each one separately, but two of them do stand out. St. Stephen’s Day and Little Christmas (aka Women’s Christmas) have traditionally been important parts of an Irish Christmas.
Across Ireland, from Dublin to the tiniest villages, streets are festooned in garlands and lights in early December. Holiday tunes fill the air. Those who make their own Christmas pudding or cake would have it done and set to age in November. People decorate their homes with electric candles to symbolize welcome, particularly to those who live abroad and have returned to spend Christmas with their families here. Snow isn’t likely, but it is usually cold and rainy. The smell of turf fires fills the air and holly trees, an indigenous species, look their best in the countryside and woods.
The big day comes, and children race to see what ‘Santy’ brought them. Many families attend mass or other Christian services. Extended families gather to exchange Irish gifts and enjoy a massive dinner of turkey with dressing (aka stuffing), potatoes (roasted and mashed), brussels sprouts, carrots and perhaps a little cranberry sauce. Next comes the Christmas pudding or cake, baked full of raisins and soaked with whiskey or brandy.
St. Stephen’s Day
December 26th is not back to normal. It is the feast day of St. Stephen, which is absolutely not to be confused with the British celebration of Boxing Day. Stephen was a Hellenist, part of a community of Christians who spoke Greek. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Stephen being nominated as part of a team to investigate allegations that Hellenists were not being treated fairly by other Christians who were distributing their excess wealth to others more needy. But some of those early Christians only wanted to help those in their own community, and not the Hellenists. Stephen’s role in ensuring that the charity was distributed fairly to those in need earned him some enemies. He was stoned to death for saying that what Jesus taught was more important than the teachings of Moses.
Legend has it that Stephen was hiding from his enemies when a wren bird betrayed him. Long ago, Irish boys hunted and killed a wren, then carried it through their village collecting money to put on a dance. We stopped killing the birds long ago, but the custom of going through the village or at least the pubs to collect money continues throughout rural Ireland. Today, the money goes to charities. It’s a day when people visit friends and family to unwind and enjoy the Christmas dinner left overs.
Hospitality is one of our most famous Irish gifts, and at Christmas it traditionally fell on the mother of the family to do all the cleaning and cooking for the holiday. She’d work so hard all through December, decorating, buy and wrapping gifts, making costumes for the school play and looking after everyone else. On the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany, she got a break. For that day, the men of the household took over and did all the household chores.
Today, this holiday is fading out as more couples divide the chores more evenly. But many women do mark the day by getting together with their sisters and friends for a visit or a girls’ night out. Children still give their mothers presents, and what mother would fail to be delighted at receiving some extra Irish gifts?