Christmas in Ireland now begins with mass celebration … not in churches but in pubs, bars, nightclubs and restaurants across the country. The Christmas season in Ireland begins with the annual ‘work Christmas party’. This practice was seriously impacted by Ireland’s economic recession, but it is gradually making its come back. This activity is the first annual indicator of the commodification of Christmas, and in some cases begins early in the month of November. These sordid affairs are typified by copious amounts of alcohol, below average food and slurred renditions of ‘Fairytale of New York’. These parties have also become showcases, where men and women display gender identities; and flirt with each other across tinsel wrapped dance floors. Men now participate in new normative gender practices, where masculinity is displayed through the wearing of woolly Christmas jumpers. The more retro, innovative, wild or wacky the Christmas jumper the more masculine prestige attained. The Christmas jumper has become a ‘sport’, where Irish men can compete against each other for the title of best jumper.
The work Christmas party is often the first systemic indication that all self-restraint is soon to be abandoned and excesses indulged for the duration of the Christmas period. However, another illuminous indicators are Christmas decorations. Christmas has become an opportunity for families to create their own mini Las Vegas and compete against neighbours for the trophy of ‘Best Lit House’. Electricity suppliers rub their hands together in joy at this time, in anticipation of the increased demand on the electricity grid and subsequent generated revenue. Decorative displays are not simply about aesthetics; they are a means of acquiring status and creating an experience. These display have symbolic meaning. Through excessive lighting displays and oversized Christmas Trees one can demonstrate financial capital; and for some, more importantly provide an opportunity to get one over your neighbour!
Despite the competitive elements of Christmas, sentiment is demonstrated through the many rituals and traditions, which can be observed. Many people visit the graves of loved ones during this time. Wreaths or other ornaments are placed on graves as symbols of remembrance. Christmas cards with well wishes are sent as reminders of friendship and to reaffirm connections. Younger generations use instant phone stickers, snap chat photos and social media posts in the same manner. Appreciation and affection are demonstrated through the act of reciprocated gift giving. Family and friends visit each other to share stories and strengthen ties.
For children Christmas is a magical time, which is eagerly anticipated. Doting parents shower their little ones with multitudes of presents. Often spending huge sums of money and spending above their means. However, parents justify and accept this spending as a necessary in creating magical memories for their children and themselves. The look of awe and excitement in a child’s face on Christmas morning is the desired outcome that parents aspire to achieve. Those who are cynical might suggest that children’s expectations are too high, and that it is unfortunate it takes a mountain of gifts to achieve this magical affect. However, the problem is that it has become culturally normative for children to receive large quantities of or expensive gifts. Anything less might be a disappointment.
Gift giving is but one aspect of Christmas, other unique formalities and traditions are observed during this time. For many, devout and non-devout, Christmas Mass and or Choir Services are attended. Formal table arrangements are made and traditional foods prepared. Food is an intrinsic element of Christmas, with specific dishes having significant associations and meaning. Traditional family recipes are observed and repeated. Christmas is for many families a rare instance where they might all eat together as a group. It is also a unique time where other shared activities occur that would otherwise not normally take place. Families sit together to watch movies, play board games or put on variety shows. The singing of songs, reciting of poems or dancing around in crazy ‘onesies’ are all permitted as part of the Christmas festivities.
Christmas in Ireland has become a cultural event of monumental proportions, matched only by the epic size of free range corn fed turkeys and baked cured hams the size of small children. It’s a time where families reconnect, make amends and begin new feuds. It’s a time where people excessively indulge, all because ‘its Christmas!’ It is culturally normative to spend above one’s means, or to eat and drink excessively during this time, abandoning usual restraint and sensibilities. Worry is often postponed until the New Year. Salvation can be achieved through New Year resolutions and the January Diet.
Christmas is a powerful and significant time in the Irish calendar. It recharges tired batteries, bolsters wary spirits and gives hope. It provides closure for the year past; and offers time for remembrance and reflection. Christmas provides necessary indulgence, magic, silliness and fun. For sociologists, Christmas is a present in itself. Offering a window to observe unique behaviours and activities among kin networks and wider society. Woolly jumpers, Christmas puddings and gift giving all have significant meaning for the interpretative sociologist, and all warrant further exploration. But Christmas is more than interactions, activities and practices; its about a feelings and experiences. Christmas is unique to everyone, and can only be ‘created’ by the right combination of factors. However, one thing is essential, in the words of Ron L. Smith ‘he who has not Christmas in his heart, will never find it under a tree’.
© Clay Darcy, 2013