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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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An Irish Christmas Eve Menu


Near Rosscarbery, Co. Cork - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

In Ireland, Christmas cards and decorations in the shops might be seen as early as October, but the practice of decorating trees began late, mainly in the sixties with the advent of television. The ornamentation is similar to that in the U.S.--colored lights, tinsel "icicles," colored balls, etc. with the most popular treetop ornaments being a star or an angel.

Homes were decorated long before trees. Typical embellishments include garlands, candles, holly and ivy. Wreaths may be hung on the door. Some homes might display a miniature creche. Irish homes typically have a candle in the window to light the way for the Christ Child. Often the task of lighting the Christmas Eve candle falls upon the head of household. Additionally, an Advent calendar and candles add a nice touch. Decorations remain up until Epiphany, January 6.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve in Ireland has been a fast day, so it's not surprising that the evening meal (for many, the only meal of the day) of choice is fish. Even though this custom is less stringently observed today, our sample Christmas Eve menu returns to that tradition. Customs change, depending upon the area in which one lives, whether city or countryside, so the gathering of holly and boughs might not be as easily accomplished in one place as the other. Still, there is much one can do to recreate the traditional Irish Christmas Eve no matter where one lives.

This week's feature offers ideas for those wanting a typical Irish Christmas Eve menu. Light food is in order for the observance of the occasion and in anticipation of the feasting to begin the following day, yet the meal is festive enough to be very special.

First lay the table with a nice fabric runner and use cloth napkins and candles--always a decorative touch. A large fat pillar with a homemade wreath of holly would be an appropriate centerpiece. In the countryside, the Christmas Eve meal was taken in the kitchen, so informality is the keynote.

If holly and fir branches have been gathered, you may want to decorate the windowsill with small boughs and a candle to light for the Holy Family. Today, single electric candles work well for all-night burning and are much safer. In some homes, a lighted candle is place in every window, in others, only one window has the candle. The significance is to show the Holy Family they are welcome in that particular house. In the countryside, it was often common for the children to be taken up on a hill to observe the many lighted candles in the windows of houses.

The evening menu traditionally is creamed fish with creamed potatoes, and I have included a simple recipe and a more elaborate one for each. Though traditionally a fast day, the fast rarely lasted until midnight. After the decorations were completed and the candles lit, it was time for hot tea, punch or other beverage, and the cutting of the Christmas cake which signaled the beginning of Christmas proper. Thus fed, the family might sit around the fire until time for night prayers and bed. In Ireland the holy significance of the occasion is never lost.

The Recipes

Creamed fresh Haddock
Wild Salmon in Basil Cream
Creamed Peas and Potatoes
Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Cream
Brown Bread
Christmas Rum Punch
Irish Christmas Cake
Irish Plum Cake

Nollaig Shona Duit agus Slainte.

Until next time.

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