December 8th: The day when people ‘from the country’ came to Dublin to shop
From the archive: December 8th used to mark the start of the Irish Christmas season
Late night Christmas shopping in Dunnes Stores in 1997. Photograph: Frank Miller
This weekend 52 years ago, most of Ireland was blanketed in snow overnight, and a cold snap had gripped the country. Munster had escaped heavy snowfall for the most part, and in Galway – surprise, surprise – rain helped clear the roads. The Irish Times ran a photograph of a garda assisting drivers through snowy roads in Dundalk on the front page, and cars were abandoned on roads in Roscommon. In the North, where snow was several inches deep in Belfast, people were digging their cars out of snowdrifts. Goods piled up at docks, with concern spreading as to whether Christmas goods would get to shops in time.
December 8th was crucial to Dublin’s retail calendar, as the traditional shopping day for people from outside the capital who journey to the city. “In Dublin the weather did not deter provincial shoppers who normally visit the capital on December 8th – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most of them seemed to have left their cars behind, however. Buses in the city were running up to one hour late,” the reporter wrote.
On Monday, December 5th, 1977, Mary Maher wrote The Survival Guide to Dublin Shopping in the Our Times section of the newspaper. “Despite the proliferation of shopping centres and branch stores in rural towns, there’s still an annual sentimental pull to the Capital to see the Christmas lights. Thursday – December 8th – is traditionally reserved for an out-of-town onslaught; suburbanites will begin to descend shortly thereafter.”
Maher had some decent advice for surviving said onslaught. “The only Christmas shopping advice I’ve ever acted on was a suggestion that the list be inscribed on a bit of stiff cardboard rather than paper,” she wrote, as the latter “ends up like a trampled bus ticket in the bottom of the handbag… Either Dublin is sprawling more or I’m getting older, but after an arduous trudge around – I’ve decided there’s a lot to be said for confining yourself to one area and even one shop if at all possible. It’s more possible now than it once was because the bigger stores are now more considerate about tucking everything under one roof.”
Dublin housewives would be well advised to leave their Christmas shopping for some other day
On December 9th 1959, bad weather was thwarting shoppers again. “The Christmas shopping rush starts in earnest in Dublin on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin,” the reporter wrote, “when thousands of country families take advantage of the holy day to see the decorations, the packed toy departments, the Santa Clauses in stores, and all the other facets of Dublin at Christmas time. The city stores were thronged with country people yesterday, but the storm and continuous rain throughout the night and morning prevented thousands from making their annual trip, with the result that the crowds were not as big as usual.” Trains from Cork, Limerick and Wexford were full, with extra carriages on Dublin-bound trains. The day also marked another tradition, the biggest traffic jams of the year in Dublin.
The following year, Charles Haughey, then the parliamentary secretary to the minister for justice, Oscar Traynor, tried to manage the traffic jams, as he warned Dublin motorists to forgo private transport. “With all the country motorists who will be in town, any Dublin motorists who can do so should leave their cars at home on Thursday [December 9th],” Haughey said, adding, “Dublin housewives would be well advised to leave their Christmas shopping for some other day.” No mention of when Dublin househusbands were meant to be doing their shopping.
Snarling traffic in Dublin in December remained an issue for decades. “It would be a good day to take sick leave,” a CIE spokesman was reported as telling The Irish Times in December 1978, as terrible traffic for that year’s December 8th shopping day was predicted, as blacked out traffic lights from an industrial dispute were yet to be repaired.
By the turn of this century, the tradition had faded. On Friday, December 9th, 2011, Conor Pope wrote: “December 8th used to mark the start of the Irish Christmas season and it was the day when people ‘from the country’ travelled to the city to do their shopping – but not any more and, say retailers, it is now just like any other day… For many people from outside Dublin the traditional meeting place was under the Clerys clock, but, says the store’s chief executive, PJ Timmins, ‘shopping patterns have changed’. Over the last 20 years, he said, there had been a shift away from the practice and with so many more places to shop outside Dublin, December 8th had become ‘pretty much just like any other day in the run-up to Christmas.’”