Christmas in Northern Ireland is celebrated very much like in the rest of the UK. To share a Christmas wish is ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ which translated roughly is ‘happy Christmas to you’. In Ulster Scots, or Ullans, the words are “Ablythe Yuletide”.
According to the ancient Celts, mistletoe is for more than just stealing a kiss, it’s said to possess magnificent healing powers although it was banned for a period of time as it was seen as a symbol of paganism. Mistletoe is now hung in doorways to symbolise peace and goodwill.
In Northern Ireland, as is in the Republic of Ireland too, 26th December is celebrated as a public holiday. However, in Northern Ireland the date is known as Boxing Day, while in the Republic of Ireland it is referred to as St Stephen’s Day.
Placing a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas Eve is still practiced in Ireland today. Primarily, it was a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they travelled looking for shelter. Another Irish custom is placing of a ring of holly on doors. This originated in Ireland as holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and so the poor could use it to decorate their homes too. The decorations are taken down on Little Christmas on 6th January and considered bad luck to take them down sooner.
Belfast is known as a place for foodies to visit and during the Christmas season it builds on its reputation by holding festive food stalls. Christmas markets take place at the city’s hall and specialises in delicacies like Yellow man toffee, crisp shortbread and mulled drinks. In St George’s Market 248 stalls are said to hold festive food and a Christmas Continental market replicates Germany’s Christkindlemarkt.
Through the period of advent and during the run up to Christmas ‘Carols at Candlelight normally take place on a Sunday evening. This is when the church is decorated with lighting and candles and the church choir perform Christmas carols to the congregation and anyone who wishes to join. Mince pies and refreshments are served to keep people warm. It’s also a time when organisations like the Girls Brigade and Scouts groups organise bake sales and charity drives.
A personal story:
By Nial Sherrard
Q1. What do you have for Christmas dinner?
Christmas dinner in Northern Ireland is very traditional. My mother likes to cook a goose with all the trimmings.
As a child my mum would take us to the farm and we would select our goose and pay for it weeks before Christmas. The Goose would be collected a few days before Christmas and my Mum would pluck and draw the bird while I watched standing on a chair and when older I helped. Christmas dinner was always a four-course meal with a soup starter, fish, Main meal and pudding / cheese board. A very special occasion and very traditional.
Q2. What is your fondest memories of Christmas?
My fondest memories of Christmas are from growing up in Londonderry. My Granny and Grandad lived in the Fountain in a small terrace house but every Christmas morning the whole family would descend on my granny’s house for breakfast. This was a tradition and my granny would cook a full Ulster fry with an added addition of fried Christmas pudding which was delicious. I can still taste it now thinking about it. There were that many people in the house my granny would have to have 3 or 4 sittings at the table. It was always nice to see aunties, uncles and cousins having a great time together. Being Irish the adults would have a couple of drinks and neighbours would drop in to say hello and join in the craic.
At lunchtime everyone would head home to have Christmas dinner in their own house. My father always brought some beers for the Soldiers occupying the checkpoints on the Bridge between the waterside and the Derryside. Found memories of family, laughter and a cracking breakfast.
Q3. What types of presents do you get from friends and family?
Our presents were very typical of the rest of the UK. We would get one main present which we would have asked Santa for by writing a note and placing it up the chimney and then several smaller presents as surprises.
I have very fond memories of Christmas in Northern Ireland and still enjoy going back with my family today at Christmas and the new year.
Below, is a photograph of me , my mum and Santa- in Londonderry 1970.