In medieval times Christmas was equal amounts religious solemnity and pagan-inspired revelry. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, was a fast period, meaning no dairy, meat or eggs. For most people it wasn’t too difficult to abstain. Only the very wealthy would have had large stores of food and most of these items would have only been available in the summer months, when cows had calves and hens were laying. During Christmas itself it would have been considered very bad show to serve fish, even Salmon, as fish was a food associated with fasting.
Some traditional foods were also a little different in times past. Mince pies were, as the name suggests, made of minced or shredded meat. It was considered lucky to eat one very large pie, or twelve small pies, one for each of the days of Christmas. Pies in the medieval period were often made of inedible pastry. The pastry acted as a container for the filling, allowing it to be stored for longer once cooked, sealing in the flavour and keeping the contents fresh. In keeping with the seasonal availability of food pork was often eaten at Christmas as it is traditional to slaughter pigs in the winter, especially in times when there was no refrigeration. Beef was also popular. If a bird was to be eaten it would be goose rather than turkey.
In Ireland a lighted candle placed in a window, lit by the youngest child in the house on Christmas Eve, is meant to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas night. A task which was jealously guarded at our house by my younger sister! If we take a moment to imagine a time without electricity and no street lighting we can appreciate the cheering sight of a candle in the window of every home on an otherwise dark and cold night.
Santy, as Santa Claus is known in Ireland, and the decorated tree are more recent introductions to Christmas celebrations, dating to the late 19th century. Christmas gifts were often small and reflected the more modest income of large families. Dolls, tin cars, bars of chocolate and oranges were common gifts.
St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, is usually reserved for visiting family members. Other Stephen’s Day traditions include the Wren Boys’ parade.
For many Stephen’s Day marks the end of Christmas, all that remains to be done is to eat the leftovers and relax in front of the television and fire. In earlier times the celebrations started after sunset of the 24th and ended on January 6th, giving us the 12 days of Christmas. In Ireland the 6th of January is often called “Women’s Christmas”, a day when women were supposed to get the day off from household chores. It is also considered unlucky to have decorations up after the 6th so we have to wonder if many Mammies really got the day off, or were they busy taking down the decorations?!
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We would like to wish all of our readers a Happy Christmas.
Going to Siberry’s cottage beside Glencar Waterfall where the only means of cooking in the 1950’s was an open fire. The Plum Pudding was cooked in a pillow case and when we went there on St. Stephen’s Day they would cut a slice off the pudding and fry it in butter. Before Christmas we would go there to collect a Christmas Tree and Holly. Wonderful memories of times past.
The Mummer Boys on St Stephens Day in Kilkenny always sticks in my mind and brings back lots of happy memories of Christmas in Ireland as a young child