Na Nollaig Seo Caite – Earlier Clare Christmases

Santa arrives by helicopter, Quin, 1961 – Photo provided by Mike Reddan.

Present are Miko Ball, Frank Ryan (Santa), Seamus Redden and Fr. Hehir

We are astonishingly fortunate in this country that back in the late 1930’s someone got the idea to record for posterity our folklore, customs, sayings, songs and piseógs, that were then fast disappearing,. This was largely achieved by having school-going children interrogate their parents and grandparents about their daily lives and traditions. Consequently we now have a million copy-book pages full of precious records. It is from these reminiscences that a flavour of past Clare Christmases can be drawn.

Many of the listed Christmas customs will be familiar, others possibly not. For example grandmothers may have been speaking about Christmas customs in the late 19th century that have since changed. There are references here to two very ancient customs-  rushes and the Christmas log – both of which had continued until fairly recent times.

The creation of a carpet of rushes on the floor as a welcome gesture to guests goes back to early medieval times. The Christmas log, as distinct from the yuletide Nordic tradition, was practiced until open hearths were replaced by stoves and ranges. A Christmas continuity was maintained by the use of one large log burned slowly over the holiday period. Its remains would be saved and returned to the hearth next Christmas.

In the 1930’s Christmas was indeed changing. Santa was around but was not the overwhelming presence he is today; Christmas trees and nativity cribs were not yet common in the home; the goose had replaced bacon and cabbage as the Christmas mainstay, while turkey was fast replacing it as the meat of choice. The tradition of the Coinneal Mór na Nollag, the Christmas Candle, still continues, though many homes are now using the culturally questionable Hanukkah candelabra. Midnight Mass, still a strong practice, was not so evident in the 1930’s.

Underlying all activities was the great tradition of sharing and hospitality that still marks the Irish Christmas. In the following recollections, the school source is in brackets. Enjoy!

Christmas Preparations

  • Of all these feasts Christmas is the most important, and before it many preparations take place. Houses are white washed, chimneys are cleaned and on Christmas Eve holly is put up to decorate the house. The woman of the house also writes letters to her friends, and if there are any of her family out in America she expects letters from them and sometimes money to buy the Christmas fare (Killaloe).
  • People white-wash the houses before Xmas. We put straw under all animals in the farmyard on account of Our Lord being born among cattle and he had a bed of straw.

Green rushes under your feet

  • Placing of the rushes at the door step (threshold) reminds me of a common saying among the people here if it was a long time since you paid them a visit to say on your arrival “It is a cure for sore eyes to see you” or “If I knew you were coming I’d have green rushes under your feet” (Bodyke).
  • Some people place a bunch of green rushes at the door step as an offering to the Divine Infant and His Mother (Bodyke).
  • On Christmas Eve we cut green rushes and put them on the doorstep to welcome in our Lady during the night (Banshagh).

Christmas Eve, Candles/Decorations

  • It is said that it is the youngest in the house that should light the Christmas candles (Kilcorney).
  • Either a pound, or half-pound candle is placed in part of a pared turnip with a hole in the centre to hold it firmly. The turnip being covered with a bit of white or coloured paper to conceal it, and to make it look nice. It is the father or mother who will light it and it is the first light lit on Christmas Eve (Bodyke).
  • When Christmas night comes, it is usually the man of the house who lights the candles but if he is dead, it is the custom to let the youngest child in the house light them (Ennistymon).
  • We light big white candles during Christmas called Christmas candles, and we put up holly, laurel, ivy and sríans of paper to decorate the walls (Kilkee).
Christmas Eve, Candles/Decorations
  • The children have great fun. That night in some houses there is a fir tree and its branches are full of fruits and beautiful toys (Kilmihil).
  • The lighting of the candles and the burning of the Christmas log are some of the oldest customs carried on in Ireland (Drumadoora).
  • On Christmas Eve sweet bread (cake) was always eaten for supper and again on Christmas day. Every woman got a Christmas box and a big sweet loaf or barmbrack from the shopkeeper. On Christmas Eve everyone got a slice of that cake, a glass of whiskey or a glass of wine .There was no talk of porter 35 years ago, it was not considered respectable (Kilmaley).
  • The Cratloe people carried out many customs around Christmas long ago. First of all, on Christmas Eve they would make a hole in a sod of turf for the Christmas candle and that sod would be put up in the roof of the house until Pancake night and the pancake used be cooked with it (Cratloe).
  • Another one of the customs, the people had long ago, was when they would go to the shop where they were dealing for their Christmas box, they used to get a bottle of whiskey and they would bring it home, and three or four of the neighbours or the friends would come to the house and drink it, and that person would go to his neighbour’s and drink the whiskey, and so on until they got flaming drunk (Kilmihil).

Christmas Eve/Bloc na Nollag

  • On that night there is a piece of bog deal left burning beside the fire, and it is called the Christmas log. (Lacken).
  • On Christmas Eve there is a large block of wood put on the fireplace and is left burning all night and if there are any pieces left they are put up until the next year and burned with another one (Toonagh).
  • Another custom in the parish is to have a big black stick behind the fire on Christmas Eve (Kilmaley).


  • There is a crib in most of the country churches now, and it is beautiful to see the numbers who visit on Christmas Day…  In some churches, they have first mass at 7 o’clock and at others at 8 o’clock. It is there quite dark and the church has to be lighted with (in our church) paraffin lamps. We have not been among the lucky few who today possess the electric light (Bodyke).
  •  On Christmas Day three Masses are said in the church. Most people receive on that day (Sragh).

 Hospitality/Staying at home on Christmas Day

  • This same idea of welcome is meant when the door is closed (latched) but not locked or bolted. They say the Blessed Virgin often times comes and the house should be free for her to enter…No one goes out on cuaird Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The houses in the country look beautiful with all the lights (Bodyke).
  • The customs pertaining to Christmas night are the lighting of candles, and leaving them on the window sill during the night in honour of the birth of the Saviour. Long ago the people used to leave the door “on the latch”, and they left a candle and plenty food on the table, and it was supposed that the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the child Jesus, would come in, and they would eat the food (Kilmihil).
  • On Christmas Day all the family stay at home. People do not usually go out on that night too (Toonagh).
  • No one visits the house on Christmas Day; it is sacred to the family. Those having position return home for that day (Kilkishen).

Christmas Food

  • They come into town and order a large box to be filled with tea, sugar and wine and stout. The grocer from whom they get these things has to give them a Christmas box. On Christmas Day they remain in their own homes. They have a big dinner in which geese and turkeys and ham are served. After this dinner they serve out plum pudding with apple sauce. But before they do this they light it with whiskey and decorate it with holly. After this they serve out oranges and apples and other fruit (Ennis).
  • They used to have a turkey for their Christmas dinner, or some other fowl such as a goose, and (if) all the members of the family did not stay at home for the dinner that day, the person would get bad luck’. As a rule people in the country stay in their own houses that night to celebrate the great feast of our Lord (Kilmihil).
  • The people of long ago used no tea. Potatoes and buttermilk were their general food. Some of the poorer people made bread from rye flour. They used to have tea on Christmas day. Some of the neighbours would kill a pig for Christmas and he would divide it with the others around the townland. They would have bacon and cabbage for dinner or Christmas day (Doora).
  • Previous to Christmas, fowl are fattened to be used at Christmas, or sold at the market. For Christmas Day the usual dinner is roast goose, Bacon Cabbage-Potatoes with a rice pudding for an after course (Kilkishen).

St Stephen’s Day/Lá an Dreoilín/The Wren.

  • The people go out in the mummers, they blacken their faces with polish, and they go out looking for a wren to put on a stick, to bring to the houses with them. They also have a fool, and they give the fool the wren to carry with (them) him. They go around to the houses, and they get money from the people. They bring a horn with them, and they blow it when they go into any house. Many people go out in the mummers gathering money. People love to see them coming, they make them sing and dance (Carran).
  • This day is also a day for visiting friends. The bride of the Shrove will always spend the day at her mother’s house. Very few people think of this feast of St. Stephen. It is call the wren (wran) day (Bodyke).
  • On Saint Stephen’s Day the most of the young people go out in the wren. They go from house to house singing a song or playing music. The song is “The Wren the wren the King of all birds Saint Stephen’s Day he was caught in the furze up with the kettle and down with the pan give us our answers and let us begone” (Toonagh).
  •  The children go out in the Wren. They turn their caps inside out and they wear eye fiddles. More have their faces blackened. They usually go about in bands and one of them carries the money box. They have musical instrument and have dancing and singing (Fountain, Ennis).
  • The people go on a wren on St Stephen’s day but it is very few wrens now that bring the dead wren on the bush (Kildeema) after course (Kilkishen).

Small Christmas/Nollaig na mBan/Epiphany

  • The old people used to say that from the 12th day or 6th January the day lengthens a cock’s step till on Candlemas Day they say, “On Candlemas Day, throw candles and candlesticks away, and eat your supper with the light of the day” (Bodyke).
  • Little Christmas Night it is said that the water is turned into wine at twelve o’clock (Scarriff).
  • On Little Christmas night they light candles and remain up with them until about twelve o’clock (Sragh).

New Year

  • On New Year’s night long ago a crowd would gather to go in the stiallóg and on the day of the New Year’s Eve the bean a tighe would put currants, raisins, flour, treacle, pepper, salt, soda, mustard, salts, ginger, sulphur, and sugar that would nearly kill them when they would eat it (Banshagh).
  • The first Monday of the New Year is called Hansel Monday. People like to get money or presents on that day (Fountain, Ennis).
  • The first Monday of the New Year is regarded an unlucky day to turn the clay, or to give a coal of fire (Bodyke).
  • On New Year’s morning some people are very superstitious. They would not let any girl rise off her bed on that morning until a dark haired man came in and wished them a happy New Year (Ennis).

Candlemas Day

  • The feast of Candlemas day falls on the 2nd of February. People come to Church on that day, though not a holiday of obligation and give a voluntary offering of money for candles that are to be used on the altar during the year. Each person receives a blessed candle after Mass, which is to be used if any person is dying. Candles are blessed before Mass. The people here are very faithful to this nice religious custom (Bodyke).

    Wren Boys in Abbey Tavern, 2019

    Written By Michael Houlihan December 2021.