Magical festive time: ’Twas the night before Christmas...

Christmas Eve family traditions: ‘We leave out coins for Santa to pay the M50 toll’

When you are a child Christmas Eve is the longest day of the year. With time hanging so heavily, it’s no wonder we remember long into adulthood what we did as the anticipation of Santa’s visit became almost too much to bear.

Those precious hours provide a lovely opportunity for families to create rituals that are special to them. Whether these are full of deep meaning or just a bit daft, the most important thing is that memories are created and family bonds strengthened as they are repeated year after year.

A walk in the forest, family gatherings, baking cookies, going into the city to see the lights, singing carols, lighting candles, midnight Mass, toasting marshmallows – they all take on a heightened significance.

New pyjamas, of course, are a Christmas Eve staple in Irish households, as is putting on clean sheets apparently (as if you didn’t have enough to do). And there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to a family’s choice of seasonal movie to watch together – there’s another two hours gone.


Indeed, so ingrained do customs become that it can be positively traumatic when a “stockings upstairs” person and a “stockings downstairs” person fall in love and have children – where will their children’s stockings go?

Here is a glimpse of what some families love to do on the night before Christmas . . .

Chorister’s family

Ever since Greg Hayes (12) became a chorister at Dublin’s

St Patrick's Cathedral

, Christmas Eve has become more of an occasion for his family than the following morning – and this one will be extra special.

It is the last year the sixth class pupil in the Cathedral Choir School will be singing at the magnificent Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, before moving on to secondary school elsewhere next September. There won't be any spare seats for this ticket-only service in the cathedral but Greg's mother, Lorraine; father, Tony; sister, Holly; and his two grannies will all be assured of a good view – a small perk for the heavy, year-round family commitment that having a boy chorister involves.

For the Hayes family, who live in Killester, on the northside of Dublin, the Christmas Eve rituals start with lunch with Lorraine’s sister and family in Carluccio’s on Dawson Street, a few doors from where Tony spends his last pre-Christmas working hours in Hodges & Figgis. But Tony will get off in time to get to the cathedral with Greg, while the others have a more leisurely wander over.

There will be a lump in Lorraine's throat as a boy soloist opens the service with the first verse of Once in Royal David's City – whether or not it's Greg who gets the nod for this honour.

It will be after 6pm before they're home, ready to collapse for the evening. Holly and Greg, who are both adopted from Kazakhstan, are then allowed to open just one present from under the tree.

“But the present I give them is always their new Christmas pyjamas,” says Lorraine, “and they have to sit there and pretend ‘what am I getting?’ At 16 and 12, it’s a bit stupid but they love it; the fire is lit, you sit there and you have your hot chocolate.”

They know the following morning is going to be a rush back into the cathedral with Greg so "it's lovely just to come home on Christmas Eve and do that and watch Christmas with the Kranks – that's the movie for us".

Atheists’ family

Sinéad Benn designates a family activity in each pocket of their Advent calendar and the one for December 24th is a walk together in a local park, to gather greenery to decorate the house.

She and her husband, David, both had a Catholic upbringing in Co Clare, but it is not something they want to pass on to their children, Fionn (7), Sive (5) and Cormac (3), at their home in Malahide, Co Dublin

“We don’t have traditional Advent, like going to church, we focus the Christmas [lead-up] on building family relationships,” Sinéad explains. By using the calendar in December, they make time to reflect on family values, to do an activity together, “and there is a small chocolate as well”.

She says their outing on Christmas Eve is always “a lovely time to just randomly have chats with people as they are walking along, there’s a real sense of community”.

Apart from not going to midnight Mass, their evening is not unlike that of their Clare childhoods and one of their families, usually David’s, comes up to stay. They have a big traditional dinner, with baked ham and red cabbage, at about 6.30pm.

“That was always something we did when we were kids – you eat the ham the night before and get a dinner out of it.” It’s an easygoing affair with lots of chat, similar to when she was growing up.

“We were given a gift the night before – usually when we came home from Mass. It was always like pyjamas and slippers and I wondered why parents got such rubbishy gifts. In a way it is like an extension of that.

"We have a fire and the whole family, whoever is there, comes in and we share a reading of The Night Before Christmas and another Christmas theme book. We leave out carrots for Rudolph and cookies we have made for Santa. "

Fionn and Sive both attend a Catholic school so are beginning to hear the religious beliefs relating to this time of year. In fact, Sive’s teacher told Sinéad she hoped she wouldn’t be offended that the Christmas story was to be part of the presentation by the class to mark the end of term.

“I said of course not. I don’t want her to feel left out. I was an angel myself several years ago,” she says. “The way I feel about it is that it is part of their reality and I would love the school to be secular but that’s not going to happen. So I would much rather that it would be an open discussion and for them to feel it is okay if they join in and it is okay if they don’t – I don’t want it to be taboo.”

Franco-Irish family

It all depends where the Cassidy family are when it comes to the question of how they celebrate Christmas Eve. When in her native France, Marianne, her husband, Micheál, and their four children – two sets of twins aged seven and nearly five – join her extended family for the main meal of Christmas, before the expected arrival of Santa, or

Papa Noel

, at midnight.

“All the children’s shoes are placed at the bottom of the Christmas tree so Santa knows where to put each child’s present,” she explains.

At midnight, their twins and small nieces and nephews go out in the garden to see if they can spot Santa’s sleigh.

“We usually can hear him but have never seen him dropping the presents. He always comes through the other door or window every year no matter what door the kids pick – we have been extremely unlucky so far.

“However, the small ones are certain that next year they’ll manage to catch a glimpse.”

The children are now talking about splitting up but are trying to decide whether or not it would be fair for only half of them to see Santa.

“That will be a problem for them to resolve next year as we are staying in Ireland this year,” she says – and so they will have to wait until Christmas Day to get a taste of her mother-in-law’s “delicious and gigantic” turkey.

“When I came first to Ireland I could not believe how big the turkeys were for Christmas. Vice versa, when my husband came to France for Christmas for the first time his face dropped when he saw how small our turkey or goose for 25 people was – probably half the size of the one cooked by his mother for 12.”

His concerns panicked her mother into desperately looking for a second turkey on Christmas Eve morning.

She did get it in the end but it was left untouched, “as what my husband did not fully appreciate is that the turkey is one of the 11-12 dishes we have in the evening”.

The only concession in Ireland to the French way is that the children leave their shoes (as opposed to stockings) near the fireplace.

“They also leave a carrot and a glass of milk as usual. Daddy has tried to convince them that Santa may want to try some of Granda’s nice single malt but apparently Santa is not allowed alcohol as he is driving a sleigh.

“I think Granda had something to do with drawing that point to the kids’ attention,” she adds.

Migrant family

Christmas Eve is the time for a big feast of turkey cooked in red wine and spices, and a fish dish as well, for Priya and her family back home on the Indian Ocean island of



With December 24th and 25th being public holidays there, the entire multinational community celebrates Christmas, be they Christian, Muslim or Hindu, she says.

But as she, her husband, Binod, and their two teenage children spend their sixth Christmas in Ireland, they will wait until Christmas Day to eat their “so delicious” spiced turkey. Binod is in the restaurant business and has to work on Christmas Eve, but Priya finishes up from her cleaning job the day before.

She is delighted to be able to have a real Christmas tree in their home in Drumcondra in Dublin, which would be prohibitively expensive in Mauritius, where they put up a plastic one instead. “The children are happy, especially my daughter, she is so excited about Christmas. She is 15 and was asking should she put her shoes under the tree.”

However, Priya misses her mother, who isn’t well, and also her brother and two sisters, who still all live in Mauritius. They will talk on Skype and she will be thinking of them when they gather at lunchtime on Christmas Day in the back yard, under the shade of an awning, for a traditional meal of biryani cooked in a huge pot for about 25, as her own small family of four sits down in a colder climate more than 10,000km away.

Five-child family

A visit to the Blanchardstown Centre some weeks before is the start of an important Christmas Eve ritual for Corrina Stone, her husband, Colin, and their five children, who live in Athy, Co Kildare.

On that occasion they take a tag from the centre’s “Giving Tree”, in aid of St Vincent de Paul, for each of their children – twin girls Orla and Aoife (9), Séamus (7), Cillian (4) and one-year-old Lorcan. Then on December 24th they go to Dublin so the children can see their grandparents on both sides, “and while visiting my mam and dad in Clonsilla we go back to the Blanchardstown Centre very early, before the mayhem, to drop off the gifts we have bought for children on the tags,” says Corrina.

“Colin and I think it’s the perfect time of year to show our children that Christmas is not all about receiving gifts but rather helping others and spreading festive cheer.”

They head home after lunch to bake cookies for Santa and, while they’re in the oven, it’s bath time for the children.

“Then we all get into our new fluffy PJs and socks, that’s when we know Christmas has really begun. There is nothing like that relaxing quiet family time, the door is shut and the blinds are pulled. With a roaring fire on the go, we snuggle up for a Christmas movie and hot chocolate and, of course, one or two of Santa’s cookies – just to see if they turned out okay. We stick to the tradition from both of our childhood days of off to bed early after leaving out cookies and a bottle of Guinness for Santa and carrots for the reindeer,” she adds. But there’s one contemporary twist: “We also leave out coins for Santa to pay the M50 toll – even Santa doesn’t get away toll free.”

Traveller family

There’s always a bit of explaining to do at this time of year for those who live in homes without a chimney.

Sandra, a Traveller living in a mobile home in Finglas, Dublin, tells the youngest two of her four children – aged six, nine, 13 and 17 – “even though there’s no chimney, Santy is magic so he still gets in but I don’t know how he gets in”.

Christmas Eve is much like any other day before it gets dark, then she tries to get the children to bed early – but not before the RTÉ 9 o’clock news when they can see Santa is on his way. They leave out a carrot and milk, or sometimes Coke, for Santa, and put stockings with their names on them in the trailer’s small fireplace.

The children “can’t sleep with the excitement”, having written their Santa lists about five weeks previously. She always tells them he can’t bring everything and that if they pick out one main thing they really want, he will probably bring that and then see if he can bring the rest.

Christmas Eve was much the same for Sandra who grew up in the area, but in a house, one of seven girls. However, “presents are different now”, she remarks. Better? “Not really because they are so much of an ‘inside’ thing. The kids now get Xboxes and PlayStations; that time it would have been prams and dolls and skipping ropes.” She thinks it’s “a big pity” that children don’t ask Santa for those sort of “outside” toys any more.

Asked what special Santa gift she remembers from her childhood, she replies without hesitation: My Little Ponies, when she was about seven. “A box of about four; hairbrushes in them and there was all the brushing down.”