For 4 years now we have shared the various cultures and celebrations of Asia, so it just felt about time we shared the other side of our life, in Northern Ireland. And while Allan had always assured me, he “has no culture”, this is obviously not true, at least for those new to life there. As we do come from very different parts of the world. So, while we have spent 7 Christmases together, through 3 different countries, this year we will share the traditions of Christmas in Northern Ireland. From our now part-time hometown of Bangor, where we arrive shortly before an unlikely snowfall, as Bangor is blanketed in snow. Although this is a rather rare occurrence given the last white Christmas in Northern Ireland was back in 2010.
So my “Christmas in Northern Ireland” shares the traditions of a humble protestant Christian household, although traditions do overlap through other sects, as the Catholic church, for example, is really not so different. And many traditions are celebrated outside of the Church anyway. And while I do miss the occasional bits and bobs that Allan may have shared through the years, like the school nativity plays, or the work staff dos, I otherwise covered most of the traditions celebrated through Christmas in Northern Ireland.
The Advent Calendar
The period of advent marks the preparation for Christmas Day, and the Nativity (a fancy word for Birth) of Jesus Christ, on the 25th December. Although these days Christmas celebrations typically start long before. So the period of advent varies each year, where it falls between November 27 and December 3, with the First Sunday of Advent. But most advent calendars just start on the first day of December, and each day through the month doors on the calendar will be opened to find various Christmassy scenes and symbols, often along with gifts in more fancy calendars. For example, this year my advent calendar came with chocolates, and my last Christmas in Northern Ireland was mini make-up calendar with lipsticks, nail varnish, mascara etc. Meanwhile Allan would be opening beers and cheeses each day, as they are becoming more exciting and diverse each year. Also, another common symbol for advent, would be the advent wreath, which we don’t have ourselves, and it’s pretty much a fir-tree wreath, decorated with pine cones, holly, and 4 candles, and each candle will be lit one after another on the Sundays leading up to Christmas Day.
Celebrations and decorations generally start before the beginning of advent these days, and we actually missed the switching-on of the town’s Christmas tree lights in Bangor by mere days, when we arrived on the 21st November this year (image below from xmas 2018). But the tree and decorations will be lighting up the town through to the new year, and longer, so we don’t really feel that we have missed much. Other than gatherings of crowds. So Christmas trees would be erected at all the significant focal points of the town, like the shopping streets and major landmarks like the town hall below, and the main streets and town centre is also lined with fairy lights. It’s a somewhat magical time to be in town over Christmas. Meanwhile houses and homes will be decorated around the same time, some houses getting in ridiculously early, although we did hold off until the early days of December. This is when we put up the Christmas tree, and decorated the house with tinsel and other various Christmassy ornaments. And while we don’t go as far as decorating the exteriors of the house, the neighbour opposite seemed to go all out for the occasion with a homemade polar bear and Christmas scene on their lawn.
Belfast Christmas Market
The Christmas Continental Market is set to replicate the seasonal charms of Germany’s Christkindlmarkt and the winter markets of continental Europe, although they are more themed here, and not overly traditional to Christmas in Northern Ireland. Otherwise we have seen more traditional markets on winter road trips in Central Europe. But the Christmas Market in Belfast City replicated them fairly well, and most importantly it is Christmassy beneath the backdrop of Belfast City Hall, which is what Christmas markets are all about. Feeling Christmassy. So the market is lined with the usual continental treats, like frankfurters, schnitzels, and raclette maybe, and then there is of course the vin chaud (or mulled wine as it is called here) which is found in heated beer tents alongside other seasonal and continental beer favourites such as Paulaner, and Steins (2 pints) of various German Beers. One of the better known annual vendors at the Belfast however is the “Meats of the World” kiosk selling wild boar, buffalo and kangaroo burgers. Anyway, Allan put together a full write-up on the Belfast Christmas market for those interested.
Jolly Saint Nick
Aka Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, or simply Saint Nick. This jolly fat man is the face of modern-day Christmas, and it is him who brings kids all their presents, or not. Depending on whether they have been well-behaved. But there is an actual back story to ol’ Saint Nick which is traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas, from what is now Myra, Turkey, who was known for his piety and kindness having given away all his wealth to travel the countryside helping the poor and sick. Only now he’s just that jolly fat man who circumnavigates the world to hand out presents. So of course I had to make my wish list and letter to Santa, only I am too old these days to go sit on his (or his helper’s) knee at the local mall, so instead I wrote a Christmas letter and burnt it in the fire. Most kids would otherwise post it in the nearby mail box, but I felt sorry for the Christmas postal workers, and there’s a tradition whereby burning letter it will float up the chimney in smoke, and the wind magically transports it to Santa in the North Pole. Of course Allan on the other hand has met the actual real santa, and the first time was on his arrival to his local mall (Springhill Shopping Centre, Bangor) when Santa literally parachuted into the shopping centre car park, and slammed into a parked car to break his leg. Ho! Ho! Ho!
The Season of Giving
Of course the receiving of presents is more for the children of the family, and it is mostly about giving for the adults, which is ultimately more rewarding, they say. As we otherwise end up spending money we barely have, on presents that others don’t really want, as what things we do want can easily just be bought by ourselves. So each year the family say “no presents this year”, which just becomes confused and hard to communicate, meaning everyone just buys everyone else presents to be safe. Christmas is an expensive time of the year. Otherwise it is more about giving to charity with the family these days, and instead they would give sponsorships of say fishing equipment to impoverished parts of the world etc. as presents (some charity ideas here). Along with a bottle of booze or something. The presents will then be wrapped and put under the Christmas tree to give on Christmas Day. Then there is the tradition of card giving, which again is similar, where we wait until last-minute to see who has first sent us cards, so we can then just reciprocate.
Traditionally folk here would celebrate all sorts of parties and get-togethers on the run-up to Christmas, with staff dos and Christmas events for clubs and organisations, where they eat turkey dinners and get festively drunk. But we obviously have no work or real connection outside of family here, so this is not something we can do. Plus we have been drinking and catching up with family since November, so instead we decided to celebrate our night out with Christmas in the Irish capital of Dublin. And this is there we spent a night on the notoriously touristy Temple Bar area of the city, with its cobbled streets and live Irish bands playing all the Christmas favourites. The bars as expected are packed to the gills with decoration, lively banter, and the night just epitomized the atmosphere not only of Irish Bars, but the cheer of Christmas. And of course there is the Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ (the millennial / PC version) and lots of Guinness and Whisky. We shared our time here. Although we did go on to do similar again in Belfast, at the Duke of York and the Dirty Onion, and it is easily the best time to be in the bars during Christmas in Northern Ireland.
Most of our time is spent indoors watching cheesy Christmas movies and television specials, while eating festive food, and drinking mulled wine. Maybe with a log fire set in the fireplace of the front room. So I decided to get more involved in this part by cooking and baking and testing recipes for Christmas dishes, which there are a lot. So mulled wine would be one of the easier and more obvious festive drinks, which is literally wine heated with a seasonal spice mix of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, nutmeg and some fruit. It’s a bit like the five spice mix. But I do venture further in baking a Christmas Cake, a heavy steamed dried fruit cake, which I covered with icing and topped with edible and cute Christmassy decorations. Then it was mince pies which are filled with a mixture of dried fruits and spices. And I considered eggnog, but no-one had a clue what it was, as it’s apparently an American thing. But obviously the most important feast of the season is the Christmas Dinner, which is traditionally eaten on Christmas Day, although it is still served all over throughout the Christmas in Northern Ireland. Traditionally this would be roast turkey here, served with cranberry sauce, roast potatoes and various vegetables, although people do pick and choose. So cranberry sauce doesn’t make our table, and we include mashed potatoes, and sage and onion stuffing, and Brussel sprouts…
Carols by Candlelight
Christmas is obviously a Christian festival, so many celebrations and events take place at the local church, which is pretty much next door to us in Bangor. So these celebrations will include all the organizations, like Girl’s Brigade and Scouts groups, as well as various bake sales and charity drives. The usual Sunday services also continue, only the hymns become more Christmassy, and festive through the period of advent. But the main event on the run-up to Christmas would be the “Carols at Candlelight”, which would normally take place on a Sunday evening, but can vary. So this is when the church is decorated with lighting and candles, and the church choir come together for a chorus of Christmas carols to the audience of the church congregation. Although anyone can come and join. And it’s a bit like Home Alone, when Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley, only there’s a lot more people in attendance, and they won’t likely sing “Carol of the Bells”. It’s more the traditional Christmas classics of “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” And occasionally they will have similar outside events, and at our local church they gathered around the tree outside for a choir service, only it barely lasted half an hour before moving back inside. It’s cold and often wet here in Winter. There will often be mince pies and refreshments after the service to add some incentive. Or you could just watch them on “Songs of Praise” and various other programmes on the run up to Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve is traditionally for all the last-minute preparations these days, for those who left things too late. Like Allan’s dad’s traditional last-minute shop, when we queue for leftover poinsettias and anything Christmassy for mum, while he watches us from outside the shop. Like he does for birthdays and Valentine’s Day. He hates shopping. And then we have the phone call from our sister who had left turkey shopping to last-minute, because the excess are always cheaper, only now she needs the family to help source any turkey from anywhere, as they’re all sold out. So for many Christmas Eve is the most stressful day of the season, only for us it was just a drive through the neighbourhood, delivering Christmas cards to those had send us them. The evenings are then spent inside where Allan’s dad reads us “The Night Before Christmas” (a tradition he holds him to – because Allan thinks it’s funny) before we hang the stockings above the fireplace, and leave snacks for Santa and his reindeer, including a carrot for Rudolph, and a mince-pie and brandy for the fat man himself. Traditionally in the Catholic Church they would have midnight mass, at midnight, which we always say we will see at the nearby chapel, but end up sleeping long before the time.
Christmas Day kind of brings all the past weeks traditions together, with the church carols, the festive feasts, the parties, and of course the opening of the presents left by Saint Nick. Allan is awake first in the house, playing PlayStation games from around 05:00AM, like a big kid. Because “it’s tradition”. Otherwise the rest of the house wake at around 08:00AM to open presents, and I find Santa has got me a lot of sheep. Because I like sheep. But we are soon readying for the Christmas Service at 10:00AM, and for Allan’s “annual church visit” so he can top up his good “Christian Karma”. I know we are not overly religious, but the local church helps us reconnect with wider family members and the local community, so it’s a cosy day out. The service last 40 minutes, and of course follows the nativity of Jesus, before an excited wait until Christmas dinner time (15:00PM).
This will normally be at the parent’s home, although occasionally it’s mixed up a bit, at least with those houses capable of hosting the 10 of us. So this year we are round at our sister’s house, for a dinner of Christmas Turkey, roast ham, various stuffings, and it’s all relatively traditional. We then pull Christmas crackers after eating, and wear the paper Christmas, while telling terrible jokes found inside. Then the family move into the living room to share and open presents, before drinking and just catching up until it’s time to leave. Through the rain, as it’s probably more likely to rain on Christmas Day, than to snow. So it’s kind of traditional. Admittedly Christmas Day is a bit short-lived given the build-up through the months, but Christmas in Northern Ireland is more about the holiday season than the specific day of Jesus’ birth. And I guess all religions can join with similar festivities and traditions, and in Bangkok, which is obviously a Buddhist city, Christmas is celebrated to a ridiculous degree. Although it is mostly the commercial side of the festivities.
So there are still 11 days to come of the “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (25th Dec – 05th Jan) including New Year’s Eve (or “Hogmanay” as my Scottish Mum-in-Law calls it), and traditionally the decorations will come down on 5th January, although there really is no hurry with most. Otherwise Boxing Day is a lazy day, when we do little more than enjoy our presents, like chocolate selection boxes, whiskeys, and games, while watching more Christmassy television. There would normally be left over turkey and stuffing as well, to make into sandwiches or curries maybe, but this year we celebrated Christmas dinner elsewhere. So no leftovers for us 🙁 Then through the day there will be visits from other friends and family members who missed us on the day before, and the same would continue through the week to come. We are in somewhat of a semi-festive limbo before the arrival of the New Year.