Christmas Customs in Ireland
One hundred years ago, in December 1920 in the Freeman’s Journal, Mary Mackay felt it was essential to share her views about a true Irish Christmas. She looked to the west and south of Ireland where they are “jealous and tenacious of their own national customs and celebrations”. “There we have words and phrases lingering through centuries to tell us”.
26 December is nowadays called “St Stephen’s Day” in Ireland. In the past – and in some places to this day – it was called “Wren’s Day” or in its Irish form “Lá an Dreoilín”. The tradition consists of “hunting” a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. “The Wren Boys appear, masked, beribboned, and covered with green and coloured wreaths and garlands, chanting the story of the captured wren, which their leader is supposed to carry attached to the top of an ivied pole”.
In her article, Mary Mackay explains that Christmas Day is scarcely noticed in favour of “Little Christmas” or “Twelfth Day” which was the day the festival was observed before the change of calendar. Little Christmas is marked on 6 January and is more widely known as the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated after the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmastide. In traditional custom, this was the day of a festival in Ireland. In some parts of Ireland, it was and still called “Nollaig na mBan”, literally “Women’s Christmas” and it is the day the menfolk take down the decorations while women relax or meet their friends socially returning home to a meal cooked for them. It is also the traditional end of the Christmas season and usually the last day of holidays for school children.
The article tells us of the old and purely Irish tradition of candles. On Christmas Eve, “custom says that it must be a man, preferably dark-haired, who will light the first [candle]; and all the other will be lit from that flame. They are supposed to be kept burning all night, though that is seldom found practicable; but it is extremely unlucky if one goes out or is quenched accidentally before its time. Then for Christmas wishes …”.
In more recent times, and I think appropriate now, is to light a candle in your window for the Irish diaspora in the world. This year, we will light our candle and think of all the family histories we have uncovered and the stories we have shared. From all of us in Genealogy.ie we will light our candle to send a warm glow and message of love to all the Irish and friends of Ireland around the world.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
If you want to read the original article, click on it below to download it.
Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI) is a representative body for professional genealogists in Ireland. It has been in existence since 1986. You can’t just join it, anyone* wishing to become part of the organisation will first need to apply to become an “Affiliate”. Affiliates who meet certain criteria will have a chance to become a full member in due course.
The initial application is assessed by an independent Board of Assessors and includes proof of experience and a case study.
Jillian decided to start this process and has now cleared the first hurdle:
* Membership is open to professional genealogists based on the island of Ireland, who are not engaged in full-time work outside of genealogy and whose research is mainly in Irish sources.
As we approach the Christmas season, we urge you to try and make time to share memories with your family, look at old photos to see if you can uncover any new gems. We take this opportunity to look back to Christmas in Ireland over 100 years ago. Christmas was simpler, but like today, it was also a family affair. We found this gem in a family memoir box, written by Kathleen Hassett in the early 1980s. Her childhood was spent on a small rural farm Knockanean, near Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland. The pictures show her as a girl and later in life.
Christmas in the 1900s, Kathleen Hassett (1897 to 1985)
I was born in the last few years of the reign of Queen Victoria, so I can say something of Christmas before the First, or Great War. It was a holy day rather than a holiday, but that did not mean we all wore long faces. Schools closed for almost a fortnight, as it does today; that in itself was a holiday; through as always had little tasks to perform – washing up, wiping up, dusting, shopping etc.
Each Christmas season the local grocer gave us a “Christmas Box” of a quarter stone of sugar, 1lb.tea, 1lb. each of currants, raisins and sultanas, and perhaps even half lb. of candied peel. Though the actual goods and the amounts varied from one business to another, the custom of giving Christmas boxes to customers was general, but it came to an end due to rationing during the 1914-18 war and was never renewed.
By Christmas Eve, we were excited – Father Christmas or Santa Claus would come during the night, but we had to be asleep. We hung up a stocking borrowed from an adult or used a pillowcase. We slept soundly and awoke bright and early to see what the great man had brought us. The toe of the stocking was usually filled with sweets, and an apple and an orange took up more room.
Each little girl got a doll usually beautifully dressed; my younger sister, born in 1908, was the first in the family to have a Teddy Bear from Father Christmas. Little boys usually got a game or a ball. Father Christmas was a wise man – if we had a doll, we did not usually get another. Dolly perhaps got a dolls house, or a tea-set, or some doll’s furniture. As we grew older, our gifts also grew older – we got a sewing-set or a book, which we found exciting.
Soon it was time to get washed and dressed and go to Church. The highlight of Christmas morning was to see the Crib where the Holy Child lay sleeping.
Dinner time brought fresh excitement, especially when the Christmas pudding appeared. We had all had to stir it, and we knew that silver 3d pieces and 6s pieces were there, and if one found a silver coin in your portion, you would have a year of good luck. Afterwards, we played games, or read until tea-time after which we were advised to get to bed early to sleep off the excitement of the great day.
At Genealogy.ie, we wish we could give each of you a big hug and hope this article will act as a virtual hug. We would like to wish all of our customers and friends a very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.
PS: If you are really stuck for a Christmas present, you might consider giving a Genealogy.ie. voucher. Contact us for more information.
Genealogy.ie gets commissions from around the world. From those whose ancestors left Ireland for the USA, for Canada (we just published a special edition of our magazine about this country) but also from the UK and Ireland.
And last but not least also from Australia.
After completing our work for this customer, Rod from Australia had the following kind words to say:
We are going to visit Canada this year. Yes, we will be visiting tourist haunts, do shopping, visit art galleries, etc. But a visit would not be complete if we did not also remember the influx of Irish people into Canada in one of its darkest times.
Although Irish immigration into the USA has traditionally received more attention, many Irish would move to Canada. Both countries were, of course, part of the British Empire until Irish independence. It was therefore much easier for someone in Ireland to move to Canada than it was to emigrate to the USA.
In our last magazine, we wrote about the Jeannie Johnston, a ship that transported people to Canada during the famine. It provided excellent care and is one of the few ships that did not have a single death during its voyages. Unlike many other ships, which caused these ships to be called “coffin ships”.
There were those that perished as a result of shipwrecks. We read a very interesting article on this here.
Most deaths were, however, the result of diseases. The deadly results were often exacerbated because crews would not let the passengers out on the deck, because they were afraid of becoming ill themselves. But of course, after delivering their human cargo into cities like Montreal, these diseases spread among the locals. To protect themselves, the Canadian authorities decided to create a quarantine station, at Grosse Isle, and island in the St. Lawrence river. We intend to visit this island during our visit to Canada.
The quarantining of immigrants would later also happen in the USA, where the Castle Garden Landing Depot, which is located on the island of Manhattan, was replaced by Ellis Island Immigration Station , which was on a separate island of the coast.
Grosse Isle predates this. It actually even predates the Great Famine! This famine has become very notorious and “overshadows” many other calamities. In fact, the quarantine station was created as a result of a major cholera outbreak in 1832. In the famine times of the 1840s, you can add of typhus, ship fever and starvation to the list. The station was however completely inadequate for the enormous numbers arriving as a result of the famine, starting in 1847.
Note: I have borrowed heavily from an article by Michael Quigley, who is a historian for Action Grosse Ile, an Irish Canadian lobby group for the below information.
“The Syria was the first ship to arrive [in 1847]. She sailed from Liverpool on 24 March carrying 241 passengers and anchored at Grosse Ile on 15 May. Six days later, 202 passengers from the Syria were ill. The quarantine hospital on the island, built for 150 patients, could barely accommodate 200, and was already filled to capacity.”
In May 1847, 40 ships with 12,500 starving passengers would lie waiting at Grosse Isle to “offload” their passengers. At that stage between 50 and 60 people would die every day!
A medical commission visited the island in June. There were then 21,000 emigrants at Grosse Ile and the death toll had tripled: 150 people were buried that day. They were very critical of the management of the quarantine station but were unable to offer anything beyond instructions to comply with the regulations — which was of course completely impossible: on 20 July 1847 more than 2,500 fever cases were housed in the island’s hospitals!
After this, however, it appears authorities got to grips with the influx. In September, there were still 14,000 people held in quarantine on board of ships at anchor off Grosse Ile. At the end of October, the Grosse Ile quarantine station closed for the winter.
Because the quarantine station was completely overwhelmed, it did not succeed in its intended aim. Many of the Irish immigrants who were “released” into the cities of Quebec and Montreal would later become sick. In these cities too, fever sheds were built, victims hastily segregated. It did not do much for the immigrants who would still die in their thousands.
And it did not protect their hosts either. Clergymen, Catholic priests, stewards, nurses, orderlies, cooks, policemen, and carters were infected and died. And it was not only them: John Mills, the Mayor of Montreal caught the fever at the sheds and died ad did Toronto’s first Catholic bishop, Michael Power.
In 1909 a fifteen-metre tall Celtic cross was erected on the highest point on the island, built by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
We will come back to the story of Grosse Isle after we have visited it later this year.
Sometimes only visiting the sites where your ancestors lived can give you that last bit of information. And provide the rich context of their lives. If you are not able to visit Ireland yourself, we can go and visit these sites for you and provide a report and especially pictures.
A site visit is divided in a number of focus areas:
First, if you know in which cemetery your ancestor(s) are buried, we will go and look for their grave. Gravestones are often very informative on the people buried and/or give other names to research. Provided we find the grave, we will provide you with a detailed transcription and photos of the grave and surroundings. It should be noted though that especially the poor often did not have a gravestone. In this case we will make photos of the cemetery.
A second area is the village or townland where your ancestor(s) lived. We will provide background information on the village or townland. Some buildings that were relevant to your ancestor(s) might still exist, such as a church they likely attended or a school where they learned to read or write (like the 1907 school in the picture below). If their house still stands, we of course include that. And we will take photos of all of these.
Then there is the history of the local area. We are members of a local history society and have been published in their magazines. We will include research into the local area your ancestor(s) lived to provide an overview of how it would have looked and what was happening there in the time of your ancestors. Below is a picture of Blackrock train station, one of the oldest surviving stations in the world. The coming of railways impacted hugely on where people lived and worked and how villages developed.
Finally, we will bring together all documentation and findings of our research in a professional report and provide you with digital files containing all photos we have taken.
The Kilmacud Stillorgan Historical Society has been publishing its annual journal, Obelisk, for 13 years. Since 2016 – for 4 years now – Genealogy.ie’s Michael van Turnhout has been contributing an article to it.
These articles are about local history, rather than family history. However, we believe local history is important to get a better understanding of the society your ancestors lived in. In this case, it gives you a picture of what kind of school your mid-nineteenth Irish ancestor would have gone to.
St. Mary’s National School, Sandyford, Dublin, Ireland
On our page dedicated to the growing list of articles that we have contributed to magazines and journals – including the respected Irish Family History Journal of the Irish Family History Society and North American Magazine Your Genealogy Today you will be able to download our article and follow a link to the Society’s website, if you are interested in purchasing a copy of the journal.
You can visit this page by following this link:
Earlier in the year we worked on a very special project with Sarah. Her wish was to present her father with his family history for a special birthday. It was a beautiful and loving project as it involved connecting with several branches of her relatives to get photos and bits of information. With this in hand, we then undertook our research to weave it all together into a beautifully presented book of over 140 pages bringing to life their family history.
“It was really fantastic!! So much my father didn’t know. Was quite emotional to watch him discover all the information you found. I will be in touch again as I want you to branch out further now on both sides.”
We cannot share Sarah’s book with you but can show you a booklet we did on Edward Smith. Edward had a difficult start in life as the “illegitimate” son of a single mother. Raised by his grandmother, he fought in The Great War, and became a successful policeman afterwards. You can download it via the link below the picture.
If you have a great story to tell about your ancestors, a family tree is not always be the best medium. A book(let) contains lots of detail, background information, pictures, newspaper clippings, etc. And of course all the genealogical information. It can focus on one particular ancestor – like Edward Smith – or several – like Sarah’s book.
Perhaps an idea for your next genealogy project or, like Sarah, you might want to give a book to a beloved family member or friend for a special occasion. Genealogy.ie will be happy to help!
The Irish Family History Society, established in 1984, is based in Ireland and has a worldwide membership. The Society is for those who are looking to trace their Irish roots. The IFHS is a voluntary, non profit making organisation. One of our objectives is to help members to do their own research through information and advice. You can visit their website here.
The IFHS is a constituent member of the Federation of Local History Societies and an associate member of the Federation of Family History Societies.
Every year the Society brings out a journal, full of informative articles. This year, in Volume 33, our own Jillian van Turnhout was asked to contribute an article. The title of the article – which has pride of place as the very first article – is:
John Fenton Hudson, 1932 Captain Royal Dublin Golf Club, The “Missing Photo” Challenge
In it, Jillian outlines the research she did on behalf of the Golf club to find a photograph of this previous Captain. All past Captains were remembered with a photo in a gallery at the club. However, John Fenton Hudson’s was missing. As he had been a life long bachelor, so there were no descendants to ask. After extensive investigations, Jillian was successful in finding a picture, which is now proudly hanging in the Captain’s gallery. You can read her entry here: “Missing Photo” Challenge