Christmas in Irish Literature

Nothing stirs up Christmas spirit quite like getting stuck into a few good festive fables and while Irish literature isn’t famed for its feel-good stories, it’s definitely not lacking in charm.

I’ve collected a few of my favourites below; some of them will make you laugh, some will make you think, and some will just give you that warm Christmassy feeling deep in your belly.

Do you have a go-to book that you love to crack out as soon as the tree is up? Let me know in the comments below – especially if there’s a hint of Irish magic in there!

 

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

This is one that I’ve definitely mentioned before, but there are very few situations in which James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ is not the perfect short story and you really do get something new out of it with each reading.

           

Set amidst the festive celebrations of an annual Christmas party held by the Morkan sisters, Joyce’s masterpiece is more accurately an ‘end of Christmas’ story, taking place on the 6th of January – the feast of the ‘Epiphany’.

Those of you who are familiar with ‘Dubliners’ (the short story collection which concludes with ‘The Dead’) will recognise the significance of this day, as the sense of epiphany pervades the book’s narrative - perhaps most beautifully in the closing sentences of the final story.

“He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow.”

The setting has all the makings of your traditional feel-good festive tale, but with Christmas behind us and New Years’ resolutions already in tatters, there will be no Ghosts of Christmas to turn the tale around, but rather quiet realisation in the wake of the celebrations.

 

‘The Magi’ by William Butler Yeats

A decidedly shorter piece of Irish literature which centres around the 6th of January, is William Butler Yeats’ poem ‘The Magi’.

 

While on the surface it is a description of the Three Kings’ journey to find the baby Jesus, it is heavily washed with symbolism about the ‘epiphany’ of life that humans search for in more modern days:

 

“With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,

And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,”

 

In old age when our lives have been dictated by what money can buy it is suggested that we, like the Wise Kings, turn to faith to guide us to a new ‘reason’. Yeats’ (as he is known to do) squeezes a lot of suggestions and possibilities into those eight short lines – so it’s worth reading with fresh eyes to determine your own understanding of his words.

 

A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh

Christmas is never more magical then when viewed through a child’s eyes, and that’s exactly what Patrick Kavanagh captures in his poem ‘A Christmas Childhood’.

Written from the point of view of an adult looking back on those whimsical moments of youth, there is definitely a sentiment of lost innocence embedded in the thirteen stanzas. However, there is also the budding sensation of hope that, although as adults we can never achieve that sense of wonder we once had, there’s something about Christmas that brings it all back:

“In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,

The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.”

There’s plenty to unpack in “A Christmas Childhood”, from the shifts in rhyme scheme and tone to the religious allusions – but overwhelmingly it reminds us of treasured winter days in rural Ireland, when the ordinary could become the extraordinary!

 

‘An Irish Christmas Feast’ by John B. Keane

 

The concept of cosying up next to the fire in the lead up to Christmas is a very welcome one, but sometimes even getting through a chapter without distraction is an achievement come Christmastime!

That’s why John Brendan Keane’s short story collection ‘An Irish Christmas Feast’, is a most welcome addition to any household. The omnibus edition contains over 50 stories, to be sampled at opportune free moments, or devoured all together in one sitting.

It’s a delightful blend of Irish wit, Christmas charm and eccentric characters that seem real enough to bump into at your local Kerry pub. Although, if it’s been a while since you’ve visited the Emerald Isle you may find yourself googling some of the faithful Irish vernacular.

 

‘Christmas Morning’ by Frank O’Connor

 

Larry is a mischievous boy who never seems to quite measure up to his insufferable younger brother in his mother’s eyes, so that’s why come Christmas Eve – he feels he should probably straighten out a few things with Santa Claus before his haul is decided.

Frank O’Connor’s character of Larry is a delightful mix of devilish and innocent, as reflected in his exchanges with members of the ‘gang’ that he has recently joined:

“The Dochertys said there was no Santa Claus only what your father and mother gave you, but the Dochertys were a rough class of children you wouldn’t expect Santa to come to anyway.”

While the meaning of the story stretches far deeper into everyday hardships than Larry’s own childish perception, it is an enjoyable short read, that is uplifting and poignant in equal measures.

 

 

‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice

 

 

 

For that good, old-fashioned, cuddly Christmas experience, you can’t go wrong with Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’.

The Belfast-born poet evokes the senses to bring to mind that wonderful juxtaposition of being in a cosy room facing onto the beautiful chill of the outside world – two entirely different existences, experienced as one.

“The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible”

His language unites the dichotomy in one moment, while reminding us of the barrier (the glass) that separate the warmth of the fire and the chill in the air outside. You can of course plough much deeper into ‘Snow’, upturning metaphors for conflict and political undertones, but it’s also beautifully appreciated on a surface level. Much like the real thing.

 

‘The Kerry Christmas Carol’ by Sigerson Clifford

 

Harking back to our Irish Christmas Traditions blog, some of you may remember the custom of popping a candle on the windowsill as a symbol of the hospitality that lies within. It is this ‘tall white candle’ which so wholesomely fixates Siegerson Clifford’s attention in this next poem.

 

Irish literature can often be ambiguous, complex and even rather dark in places (looking at you, James Joyce!), so the ‘The Kerry Christmas Carol’ comes as a welcome burst of light on this list.

“Don't blow the tall white candle out

But leave it burning bright,

So that they'll know they're welcome here

This holy Christmas night.”

 

The repetitive rhythm and rhyming structure, brings us back to a simpler time, calling to mind the child-like refrains of our youth. The poem exudes a genuine fondness for the poet’s upbringing in Kerry, and the traditions that he grew up with.

To truly appreciate the soothing tempo of the poem I would highly recommend listening to Tim Dennehy’s musical adaptation – which will make you feel Christmassy and Irish at Heart all in one go.

 

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