CHRISTMAS is the time of year when we truly indulge in all the things that make us nostalgic; and nothing is more nostalgic than our Christmas traditions.
While the big day is centred around the mouth-watering anticipation of dinner, for me it is Christmas Eve that holds a timeless magical quality.
From the age of eight until I was 17, I spent every Christmas Eve with my gran. Dad dropped me off at her flat for the day while he and mum rushed all over the city picking up last minute presents and sorting preparations for big day.
I never wished I was with them, mingling with other Christmas shoppers, visiting Santa in his grotto or listening to carol singers, because I knew that I would be having my special day with gran.
We spent the day having a very grown-up meal together (always the same three courses: shrimp cocktail, roast chicken and black forest gateaux), and watch Christmas TV until it was time to go home.
I’d open the Radio Times and circle with a red pen the Christmas movies we’d watch on the TV after dinner as gran emptied a pack of liquorice allsorts into the sweetie bowl on the coffee table. Eventually, dad arrived to walk me home in the dark and frosty air; chatting about our days and looking forward to laying out the dresser with all the special treats and decorating the tree with my sister.
It was mine and gran’s special day together every year, same time, same place. And even though this year marks six years since her passing, there are certain things about those annual Night Before Christmas rituals that I still do now as a 40-something who still secretly believes in Santa!
The Night Before Christmas is a magical time for everyone, so I asked some of Cork’s female chefs, producers and writers what traditions they still observe every year on Christmas Eve.
The most important aspect to Christmas Eve is finishing the gingerbread house, a tradition I cursed myself with ten years ago and I’ve never been allowed to abandon since!
It starts at the beginning of December when the special baking mould emerges from the battered old suitcases where the Christmas decorations live, and gradually moves through various stages: making, moulding and baking the gingerbread dough, discovering that there’s a shortage of royal icing powder, finally tracking it down and making the icing, using it to assemble the gingerbread house walls, letting everything dry overnight, carefully putting on the roof and decorating the house with as many jellies and liquorice allsorts as it can hold...
Every year, the process is squeezed into random corners of December, and, despite everything, I love making it with them!
Christmas Eve is that rare occasion when the kitchen is in full tilt late into the night, with a core left in the kitchen to complete the two most essential of the late night preparations: stuffing and the trifle — the most mundane and most extravagant parts of Christmas dinner.
The trifle is a begrudging affair because both a normal and a gluten-free sponge has to be made and assembled to a soundtrack of useless suggestions from bystanders (between or with mouthfuls of tongue and spiced beef). Those going to the pub usually include the two youngest boys. They are to have the sprouts done before they go — an elbow jostling performance from the two 40-year olds, but they get the job done. As do we all.
My late mother Peggy would always cut her homemade Christmas cake laced with West Cork Poteen sourced by my father. There would always be a glass of champagne known as ‘Rosie O’Brien’, a brand created by my father, to wind down a very busy Christmas Eve at the English Market serving the people of Cork exotic fruits that are now in abundance.
We had 3lb Caraway seed brack which we got from Lynch’s country bakers in Macroom — a real treat at Christmas Eve. Nowadays, I sell Caraway seed biscuits at the stall!
Christmas eve has been my favourite day of Christmas week for the past number of years because I’m usually off work for the day! It’s usually spent with a quick run around town to finish the last of the gifts and then back home prepping for Christmas dinner: brining a bird (this year it’ll be an outdoor slow-grown chicken from Tony in Carigcleena, Mallow), peeling and chopping sprouts and spuds, and braising a ham. Dinner on Christmas Eve is always ham, (still hot from braising), and mustard sandwiches accompanied by a few cheeky glasses of mulled cider.
We always had a fun and boisterous Christmas Eve when I was growing up because it’s also my dad’s birthday. We would have a big breakfast, the fullest Irish, and pop to Ballinasloe town for the last bits of Christmas shopping.
For me and my children, Christmas Eve is very different. Work is usually a very busy day, so I come home to a glass of wine, put the ham cooking, take the turkey out of the brine and into the oven on a low temperature and, of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas in Cork without spiced beef!
We lay out the treats for Santa and the reindeer — a tradition that never changed — and off to bed.
Because Christmas Day has always been so much about cooking, in our family we have always opened our presents on Christmas Eve.
We put out a platter of sliced spiced beef and pickles and open a bottle of champagne. Then we open our presents in front of the fire while listening to Yma Sumac (a Peruvian soprano).
I get my love of Christmas from my mother. On Christmas Eve, we would get potato salad and Frankfurter sausages for dinner, (it’s traditional in Berlin), and we weren’t allowed into the living room until Santa had been — my uncle always played Santa for us!
When I grew up, I hosted Christmas Eve in my house to give my mum a break. I always have an open- door policy for Christmas; the thought of someone being on their own on that day would kill me. One year, I had 22 people coming and going, eating and drinking and being jolly.