Wake: Up to Poetry
Christmas in Ireland: Five Things You May Not Know
You are my second grandson, Christmas-born.
I put on specs to read your face. Whispering
Sweet nothings to your glistening eyelids,
Am I outspoken compared with you? You sleep
While I carry you to our elderly beech.
Your forefinger twitches inside its mitten.
Do you feel at home in my aching crook?
There will be room beneath your fontanel
For this branchy diagram of winter.
I take you back indoors to the Christmas tree.
Dangling for you among the fairy lights
Are the zodiac’s animals and people.
- One of the oldest Christmas carols, “The Wexford Carol,” is believed to have come from Ireland and dates all the way back to the 12th century. It originated in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, and tells the tale of the Nativity. This carol has been translated from Irish into English—you may recognize it from Julie Andrews’ 1966 Christmas album!
- The Wren Boys Procession happens the day after Christmas, otherwise known as St. Stephen’s Day. The tradition has mostly gone away, but it’s still celebrated in some places like Dingle, County Kerry. The parade traces back to the ritual of “hunting the wren,” in which people would march through the streets wearing straw suits, beating drums, singing, and asking all around town for a “penny for the wren.” The origins are debated, but most people say it was named for the wren that betrayed Saint Stephen, causing the Romans to stone him to death.
- After tearing open presents, many Irish citizens make a bold choice and take to the sea for some polar plunging! The “Christmas Day Swim” happens each year, during which people strip themselves of their clothes and jump in the sea in many places along the coast, including Sandycove, Co. Dublin.
- There’s no “Merry Christmas” in Ireland. In the UK, people typically say “Happy Christmas,” but in Ireland people say the phrase “Nollaig Shona Duit,” which literally means “Happy Christmas to you.” Santa is known as “Daidí na Nollag,” or Father Christmas.
- On January 6th, the last day of the Christmas season, many in Ireland used to celebrate “Women’s Christmas” or “Little Christmas.” This was a day when women were not to do any work and the men of the house were responsible for taking down all of the holiday decorations, cooking, and cleaning! The tradition has largely gone by the wayside, but some parts of the country still celebrate it.
When a girl I adored at Glencull School
appeared as an angel in the Christmas play
my heart ‘soared and fluttered’ et cetera,
while she tiptoed, dipped and sang
to light the tapering candles:
as each wick unfurled I lit up inside.
Her hair was long and princess-yellow
(or so I thought) with a silver circlet
on her brow: a ghost-light now.
When she brushed past me in the corridor,
then paused to turn and kiss me
all in one happy, swooping stride,
and I felt the flare of her tinsel
wings as thy briefly enfolded me,
I came alive, like a Christmas tree.