The highlight of a traditional Irish Christmas isn’t the gifts under the tree; it’s the huge Christmas dinner with generations of family crowded around the table. How big a deal is it? Big enough that preparations often start weeks in advance.
The first thing on the to-do list is the food eaten last – Christmas puddings and cakes. These are completely unlike American puddings and cakes. They are dense and rich. Christmas pudding is not everyone’s cup of tea, actually. People tend to love it or hate it. It is traditionally made before Advent with raisins, currents, other dried fruits, suet, breadcrumbs and lashings of brandy. It isn’t a last minute job. Some families make it in the summer so they can give puddings as delicious Irish gifts to any relatives visiting from abroad to take home and enjoy months later at Christmas. Christmas pudding is served with a brandy sauce or custard poured over it. Irish Christmas cake is more universally popular and includes many of the same ingredients. Basically, it is a rich fruit cake with icing. The critical thing to know is that icing is NOT American style cake frosting. The icing is fondant with a layer of marzipan underneath it.
The traditional Irish Christmas dinner is not dramatically different from what most American families enjoy, but there are some special touches it requires. For starters, serving only one potato dish is bad form. Mashed and roasted potatoes are usually both served. Carrots and parsnips are popular roasted as well. The Irish generally do not debate whether to have turkey or ham. The answer is easy: both. Cranberry sauce is optional, but Brussels sprouts are mandatory – even if no one actually likes them.
Puddings and cakes are not the only sweet things required for a traditional Irish Christmas. In the weeks ahead of Christmas, boxes and big tins of chocolates are quietly amassed and exchanged. The children get all sorts of candy in their Christmas stockings, but the adults get what are known as ‘selection boxes’ of assorted chocolates. These are very popular Irish gifts for households to exchange at Christmas.
Of course, dressing the table is almost as big a deal as the menu, and it is a great way for families around the world to celebrate their Irish heritage with Irish linens and serving dishes. Christmas is when the good linens and dishes come out. Table linens and serving dishes make great Irish gifts because they will be used at big family gatherings where they remind everyone of the family’s heritage and history.
Of course, the perfect way to recover after the dinner and the pudding and cake is with a nice cup of tea. Irish coffee only caught on in Ireland in the last 15 years when coffee became popular. Twenty years ago it was not a household staple in Ireland. But tea is part and parcel of being Irish, and it isn’t unheard of to add a splash of whiskey to a cup along with milk and sugar.
Nollaig Shona Duit!