From Advent to zeds: Your ultimate A-Z guide to Christmas
Is it Kris Kindle or Kris Kringle? And what exactly is egg nog?
'Maybe look for reusable alternatives to wrapping papers this year. Whatever you do, avoid the stuff with glitter on it, it is hideous for the environment.'
It is nearly upon us now and what better way to celebrate the start of the season which sees us spend all the money we have and shop like we are heading into a nuclear winter than with an old-fashioned A-Z guide to all things yuletide?
Advent: For some people, Advent is a time of spiritual enrichment. But for a lot more more people – at least in this part of the world – Advent is about finding and then eating chocolate hidden behind little walls of perforated cardboard – or in some cases eating cheese or drinking whiskey hiding behind the same class of doors once a day for 24 days leading up to Christmas. While the Advent tradition is more than 1,500 years old, the idea that it should be marked by a tacky Where’s Wally calendar and some pretty rubbish chocolate is a lot more recent. And since when did Advent last 24 days, as all the calendars claim it does? It actually starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
Booze: Let’s say the Christmas period lasts from December 23rd to January 1st – that is 10 nights. If you buy a case of 20 bottles of beer (€30), four bottles of red wine (€60), four bottles of white (€60), two bottles of cheap champagne (€50), a small bottle of brandy for the lighting of the plum pudding (€15) and one bottle of whiskey, to make Irish coffees, (€30) how much have you spent? It adds up to nearly 200 units of alcohol, which works out at five units per day over the course of the holiday season between four adults. Despite our comparative temperance, the bill still comes to €245.
To this, we add the cost of the four adults going to a pub just twice over the Christmas period and having two drinks each on each occasion – hardly excessive by Irish standards – and the bill for booze will hit €350. That is pretty steep.
Oh, and while we are on the topic, do you need to spend more than €50 on some class of fancy Dan champagne or will cheap sparkles do you just fine? If you shop smarter – look out for cremants rather than champagne, and don’t turn your nose up at the pink fizz from Jacob’s Creek, you will have a jollier, cheaper season. Aldi has some very good champagne for a lot less than you will pay elsewhere and Marks & Spencer has some great stuff too.
Calories: Would you like to know how many calories you’re going to consume over Christmas? No? Well, we are going to tell you anyway. Between the Christmas morning fry, the turkey, the ham, the roasted potatoes, the buttery sprouts, the gravy and all the other trimmings you will get through more than 3,000 calories. But you are only getting started. There is also the biscuits from the fancy tin and the mince pies (with cream) and the boozy plum pudding with extra brandy butter and the sherry-spiked trifle and the fancy cheese served with overpriced crackers and the Quality Street. On Christmas Day, you will easily wolf down more than 6,000 calories which is more than three times an adult’s recommended daily intake. Throw in a few glasses of wine, a couple of glasses of Baileys and maybe an Irish coffee and your calorie intake will come dangerously close to 10,000. Your calorie intake on St Stephen’s Day might be better but not a whole lot better. And there are still days and days of celebrating to go. Is it any wonder many people will put on half a stone between December 25th and January 2nd? It take a lot less than a week to lose it. Just saying.
Decorations: Now don’t think we are mental but if you feel your decorations could do with an overhaul, wait until December 27th and buy all your festive needs for 2020 in Woodies. You will save yourself an absolute fortune. And feel only faintly ridiculous.
Elf: We are not talking about the lovely elves helping Santa with the presents. We are talking about the Elf on the Shelf. What started out as cute thing for many families with children of a certain age has turned into something of a nightmare before Christmas. Not only do certain people in those families need to remember to stock the Advent calendars with treats before bed, they the also have to make sure that the Elf on the Shelf has done what is expected of it and found a new hiding place. Waking up at 4am and realising that you have failed once again to do that is hard.
Fowl: Turkeys were brought to this part of the world from the United States about 500 years ago but became associated with Christmas only during the reign of Edward VII which, as keen historians will tell you, was between 1901 and 1910. Incidentally, keener historians might tell you that Edward VII was the king who lost his virginity in the Curragh – although that is a whole different story. Anyway, while he liked turkey dinners, the commoners he ruled could scarcely afford to eat them. A turkey back then cost almost a week’s wages. Today they can be bought for less than a tenner. More than a million Irish homes will have turkey this year. And – according to the people at Safefood – about 400,000 of those households will wash the bird. Don’t do that. It helps spread all sorts of nasty bugs. Just bung it in the oven and you’ll be grand. Oh, and when you are buying your turkey try not to buy a small one. It might cost less but it is a false economy. The bone structure of a 6.35kg turkey and a 3.2kg turkey is pretty much the same, so all the extra weight on the bigger bird is meat. And you’re tired of eating it over Christmas, stick the rest in the freezer. You’ll be glad of it come the middle of January.
Grafton Quarter: Lordy didn’t people get upset when the burghers behind the lights that illuminate the well-heeled parts of Dublin city had the temerity to try something new this year. Last month the Grafton Street Christmas lights were switched and they included a new sign which said “Welcome to Grafton Quarter”. Hundreds of keyboard warriors took to Twitter to complain. Then a group of businesses led by Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, joined the fray and called on Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan to try to get the sign taken town. As it was put up and paid for by the Dublin Town business group, there wasn’t much chance of that happening and within days the furore was largely forgotten about. The sign is still there and it is grand.
Holly: So, this plant’s leaves stand for the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross and the red berries are the blood he spilled during the crucifixion. Nothing very jolly about that, really. And it is hardly an appropriate thing to bring into the house on an occasion designed to mark his birth.
Ice: It would be nice to wake up to a bit of this and maybe some snow on Christmas Day. Chances are slim, mind you. There have only been a handful of Christmas mornings which have seen snow since 1961 and nothing at all since the great snows of 2009.
Jumpers: When Pricewatch were a lad no one ever wore a Christmas jumper. They just weren’t a thing until the early part of this century when they first appeared on the festive landscape. In the early days there were only a handful of them. Then they started selling in pop-up shops – which themselves were something of a novelty. And then Ryan Tubridy started wearing them on the Late Late Toy Show, as did hoards of drunken people doing the 12 pubs of Christmas. All of a sudden the shelves of Penney’s and some fancier shops were groaning under the weight of the things. They now come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they light up. Often they play music. It is hard to think of anything more annoying that a brightly-lit, loudly-singing, slightly scratchy Christmas jumper really. And when it comes to cost per wear, they have to be considered spectacularly bad value for money.
Kris Kindle: Do you call this Kris Kindle? Or secret Santa? Or Chris Kindle? Or Kris Kringle? Who knows what it should be called. It started out (in its most recent incarnation) in Irish offices almost two decades ago – not in The Irish Times office, obviously, we would never have any time for such frivolity. From offices it made its way into people’s homes as more people cottoned on to the idea that it made no sense to buy bad presents for everyone in their family when they could instead buy one good one for a random family member drawn out of a hat. Of course some people – full disclosure, Pricewatch is one of them – hate the idea but others see it as a clever and fun way to circumvent the madness of Christmas consumption.
Lights: Time was when Irish trees would be draped with one or two sets of feebly-flickering lights that would have to be untangled and then repaired by stressed-out parents. Now, with prices of outside lights falling, homes across the land flash like Las Vegas casinos. The LED lights are more reliable nowadays, which means the fun game of trying to work out why the lights aren’t working is no more.
Mistletoe: What is now seen as a cute sprig to kiss under was regarded by the Celts as a symbol of fertility because they reckoned its white seeds looked like semen. The ancient Greeks sort of agreed and called it “oak sperm”. The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding, while according to Norse legend character called Loki tricked a blind god by the name of Hodur into murdering his twin brother – called Balder – with an arrow made of mistletoe. It was the only plant that could kill Balder, you see. You can use all of this as an anecdote if you find yourself standing close to mistletoe with someone you fancy this season. You are welcome.
Nog, egg: What is egg nog? Is there egg in it? Can you get drunk drinking it? It is a staple of Christmas films but there is a good chance you don’t know the answers to any of those questions. We didn’t. So we took to the internet and found a recipe. It is made with four egg yolks, lots of sugar, milk, double cream, bourbon, nutmeg and then egg whites for the peaks. You probably could get drunk on egg nog but its sounds like a revolting thing to do.
O Holy Night: Is there a better, more uplifting Christmas carol that this? No, no there is not. Fun fact: the first AM radio programme was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1906 by a Canadian inventor called Reginald Fessenden. He discovered that by combining two frequencies together, radio waves could broadcast something other than Morse code. The second song he chose to play on day one was O Holy Night. He played it himself, on the violin. The first song was by Ombra Mai Fu, opening aria from Handel’s opera Serse.
Perfection: We are constantly told to chase perfection over Christmas. Have the perfect clothes, make the perfect meal, give the perfect present. It is all ridiculous. The truth is the perfect Christmas does not exist. No one roasts chestnuts on an open fire, Christmases are seldom white, and when they are it can be a bit miserable. The turkey does not have to look like it has come straight out of a Jamie Oliver post on Instagram. So relax. It will all be grand.
Quality Street: The quintessential Christmas chocolates. If you find yourself making your way through a tin faster than last year, don’t be too hard on yourself: the purple tins were reduced in size by 18 per cent last year. Has the price fallen? No. Bah, humbug.
RTÉ Guide: Nothing says it’s Christmas quite like the arrival of the Christmas edition of the RTÉ Guide into the house. Does it matter that with smart tellies and Netflix and all the rest, we don’t actually need the Guide any more? No.
Searching: Did you know that one of the most common Google searches in Ireland over the days ahead will be “What time is Mass?” Or where is mass on near me or some class of derivative of one of those questions. Come January, it is likely that the search engine will not be troubled by anyone trying to find out.
Taste tests: Over recent years Pricewatch has reviewed all manner of Christmassy things. Here are the things that have got five stars over the last three years. Dunnes Stores’ Simply Better hand-made Irish free-range chicken liver paté was deemed to be “gorgeous” and we loved the brandy butter from the same collection. The Tesco Finest Belgian biscuit selection was “excellent” and the Marker Hotel’s Christmas pudding was said to be one “to relish”. The Avoca cranberry and apricot stuffing was said to be “possibly the nicest stuffing we’ve ever tasted. We also loved the Aldi Specially Selected cranberry sauce.
U: All I want for Christmas is. . . sorry, but we were struggling with this letter.
Virgin birth: It is what the whole thing is about, after all.
Wrapping paper: It is only going to get ripped to shreds within seconds. Maybe look for reusable alternatives or gift bags this year? Whatever you do, avoid the stuff with glitter on it, it is hideous for the environment.
X-Factor: This show single-handedly ruined the race for the Christmas number ones. At least that is what we thought until we actually looked back at some of the Christmas number ones when the race was on. There was Slade and St Winifred’s school choir and Renée and Renato and Shakin’ Stevens and Boney M and Benny Hill. Not all that great, truth be told.
Yuletide: Yule be familiar with the word but do you know where it comes from? Yule was a German festival to the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranicht.
Zeds: Never mind the perfect turkey or the amazing presents or It’s A Wonderful Life on the telly, the thing that brings most joy to the world is the chance to have a few days free from early-morning starts, angry commutes and other people getting in your way. And isn’t that what Christmas is about? Or at least it was until retailers started hauling their unfortunate staff into work at ridiculous o’clock on December 26th so they can start selling us more stuff after a break of almost 36 hours.