While the Christmas carol ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ gets plenty of play this time of year, in North America Christmas is pretty much down to just one day, the 25th of December. Many office workers do short days on the 24th and return to work on the 26th. In Ireland, things are very different. While it is a crazy season for retail and restaurant workers, no one else expects to get all that much work done in December. We make the most of the season, and while we don’t really celebrate all of the 12 days of Christmas in Ireland, three of them still stand out and are acknowledged. One of the best Irish gifts is our enthusiasm for any sort of celebration.
Obviously, Christmas itself on December 25th is the biggest day. It is celebrated much as it is in North America with a few twists. Like elsewhere, for the Irish gifts are a big part of the day. Santa comes and children wake at the crack of dawn eager to see what he brought them. Trees are decorated. The food for the season has a few extras. Mince pies, little pies with minced fruit – not meat! , are a staple of the season. Christmas puddings are made weeks or even months in advance, and thanks to the generous amount of whiskey or brandy in them they are well preserved. Christmas cakes have many of the same ingredients as Christmas puddings – plenty of dried fruit and alcohol – but they are topped with marzipan and icing and are not made so far in advance.
Christmas day is the first of the 12 days, and the second day is St. Stephen’s Day. While the US returns to normal and the UK celebrates Boxing Day, Ireland hunts the wren in memory of St. Stephen, who was betrayed by the bird’s singing and killed. Traditionally wren boys went out, sometimes in costumes, to hunt the wren. Today, the wee birds are safe and wren boys are older. Now, they are likely to be hunting donations for a charity and perhaps a pint and a tune at the local pub. St. Stephen’s Day is also a traditional day for leisurely visits and feasting on leftover turkey.
Day 12, the end of the season, is also Epiphany, but in Ireland it is also known as Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan). The day was traditionally a time to give the mother of the family, who did all of the housework and child rearing in the not-all-that-good old days, a wee break. For one day, the men of the family would take on the housework and cooking. Perhaps not coincidentally, it became a popular day for groups of women to go out to restaurants and pubs. Children would also give their mothers presents.
However many days you can celebrate Christmas, it’s even more special when you can enjoy some Irish gifts and traditions of the season.