Embracing winter

Embracing winter Galway Christmas Market

Rory Fitzgerald shares ideas for family fun in wintertime

Autumn has passed, and winter has begun in earnest. The season’s cold tentacles now wrap themselves ever deeper into our daily lives. The biting winds and early nights leave us housebound, as the shortest day of the year draws ominously closer.

Yet during these long dark evenings, families can draw closer, too: there’s no better season to sit and tell yarns by the fire, or to recline with a good book.

Thanks to Christmas, our winter begins not with despondency, but with a sense of bright anticipation of one of the happiest times of year. Soon thereafter, the promise of a new year beckons.

Each new year brings hope of rejuvenation and offers a chance to begin again.

Perhaps this is why writer Enda O’Brien said: ”In a way, winter is the real spring — the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.”

There is strong and understandable tendency to deny winter: those who can, like to escape it for a week or two, fleeing to sunnier climes in a desperate search for a scintilla of warm sunlight.

But perhaps the wisest thing to do is to embrace the vicissitudes of the season, and to relish taking out once again our heavy coats and winter scarves.

As Shakespeare said: ”At Christmas, I no more desire a rose, Than wish a snow in May’s newfangled mirth, But like each thing that in season grows.”

As Christmas approaches, and winter deepens, there are a host of events and festivals happening across Ireland to help you and your family embrace the spirit of the season:

7up Winter Wonderland,Dublin (Dec 8 – Jan 8)

This popular festival held at Dublin’s Royal Hospital Kilmainham was originally developed in London’s Hyde Park. This year’s event will feature Ireland’s largest covered ice rink and a colourful family Christmas circus along with special ‘Le Cirque’ evening cabaret shows.

Naturally, it will host a Santa’s Christmas Village, as well as a big wheel and indoor heated bars and cafes such as The Spiegel Saloon.

It is advisable to book the ice-skating in advance. For more information go to 7up winterwonderland.ie

Galway Christmas Market (Nov 25 – Dec 18)

This year, Eyre Square, Galway will transform into a German Christmas market.

The market will feature traditional Bavarian and Irish stalls which will offer seasonal goods and food.

Indeed, the square will take the form of a whole new village with 70 wooden chalets being constructed for the occasion. Local producers will sell their wares alongside their continental counterparts. For more see, GalwayChristmasMarket.ie

Santa’s Workshop at Ailwee Cave (Nov 20 – Dec 20)

Santa Claus will be busy in his workshop at Ailwee Cave until 20 December, inviting boys and girls to visit him and his elves. Advance booking is recommended. For further details, go to www.aillweecave.ie

Cork’s Winter Wonderland (Nov 25 – Dec 21)

Cork’s Grand Parade will become a Bavarian market town this Christmas. Bavarian-style chalets will host a variety of traders selling Christmas gifts as well as seasonal food and drinks.

Bishop Lucey Park will be transformed into a magically lit winter wonderland, featuring a vintage kiddie’s carousel, a round grill BBQ and a Gluhwein bar as well as live music & entertainment.

Chocolate Garden(Nov 19 – Dec 24)

Chocolate fans can make and decorate their own chocolate Santa this Christmas at The Chocolate Garden of Ireland in Co. Carlow.

Visitors can indulge in chocolate tasting and learn how the various chocolate products are made. For more see chocolategarden.ie

‘Green Santa’ in Mullingar (Nov 27 – Dec 23)

A differently coloured Santa can be seen at Belvedere House Gardens and Park Mullingar this Christmas.

The people behind ‘Green Santa’ say they will take visitors ”back to a time when Father Christmas wore green robes, as in Victorian times”.

They say that modern day Santa Claus is only represented as wearing red because of association with Coca Cola’s 1930s advertising campaigns, but that he really should be green — in every sense of the word: Mullingar’s Green Santa promotes a Christmas beyond toys, Green Santa will help children pot up seasonal native Irish trees such as holly and Scots pine which they can plant in their gardens at home. The event also focuses on traditional treats and natural gifts.

Winter music events

Even after Christmas is over, there is still plenty to see across the country, such as Shannonside Winter Music Weekend (January 12-15) in Sixmilebridge & Bunratty, Co. Clare.

The festival boasts roots, bluegrass, jazz, gospel and traditional performances in intimate venues around the village, topped off with a gospel choir at Sunday Mass.

Most events are free of charge and further details are at www.wmw.ie

Some of the very best Irish traditional groups will play at the Gathering Traditional Music Festival in Kilkenny from February 22-26.

The five-day events include concerts, céilí, instrument masterclasses, set dance and sean nós workshops and free music sessions.

For further details, see thegathering.ie

Winter Walking Festivals

To help burn off the excesses of Christmas, and to make a healthy start to the new year, there’s nothing like a bracing winter walk.

The Glen of Aherlow Walking Festival (Tipperary) runs from January 27-29 and other wintry walking events in the new year include the Nire Valley Bogtrot (Waterford) and the Tain Walking Festival (Louth).

For more details see aherlow.com and nirevalley.com

For a more sedate stroll, Snowdrop Week runs from February 20-26 on the Carlow Garden Trail: carlow gardentrail.ie

Although January and February can be tough, unforgiving months, there is some consolation in the fact that the days are growing perceptibly longer — and some literal green shoots of hope as the first flowers of spring emerge through the frosty ground.

Indeed, by this time of year, the advent of spring is just weeks away and, before long, hearts will lift, and the words of the Song of Solomon will begin to resonate once again

”For behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”


Health Matters: Seasonal affective disorder – Dr Andrea Fitzgerald

It’s easy to understand why many of us suffer from the ‘winter blues’ this time of year: for most, it is dark when they go to work, and dark when they come home. It is thought that slowing down physically and mentally during winter is a physiological reminder that we once dwelt in cold, dark caves, with no artificial light or heat, and scarce food supplies. Our ancestors’ activity levels necessarily decreased to save valuable energy.

Indeed, the hormone levels in our blood alter according to our exposure to sunlight. Serotonin and melatonin levels both decrease as hours of sunlight drop in the winter. A fall in these hormones can cause reduced mood, increased appetite and increased sleepiness. Reduced daylight hours in the winter can also alter one’s circadian rhythm, disrupting sleep and wake cycles.

There is an unlucky minority (thought to be approximately 7 per cent of the Irish population) who seem to be particularly sensitive to seasonal changes in sunlight. They suffer from an extreme form of ‘winter blues’ known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The normal hormone changes to decreased sunlight exposure are thought to be exaggerated in SAD sufferers. Symptoms can range from mild decreased mood to disabling depression. SAD is more common in younger adults, and is almost unheard of in people living within 30 degrees of the equator, where sunlight hours are relatively constant throughout the year.

SAD can be difficult to distinguish from other types of depression, as their symptoms are similar: excessive low mood, feelings of despair, tearfulness, extreme indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating or apathy, sleep disturbance, irritability, loss of self esteem and loss of libido. There are some symptoms, however, that seem to be more common in SAD.

These include:

Increased tiredness and a tendency to oversleep

Decreased energy levels and activity

Increased appetite, with a particular craving for starchy or sweet food.

The defining features of SAD, however, are their seasonal nature. For most sufferers, this means that the symptoms usually manifest between December and February. As spring arrives, the sufferer’s symptoms disappear, often suddenly, and sometimes with a period of hyperactivity or excessive high mood. SAD sufferers experience these seasonally-related symptoms for at least two winters in a row, with few or no depressive symptoms in between, and with no other explainable reason for their depression.

Treatments for SAD include talking therapies and antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac). Many sufferers feel that they benefit enormously from light therapy, though the evidence supporting this in studies is mixed. A few might be fortunate enough to spend their winters near the equator — for most a light box is used to simulate sunlight. Treatment is thought to be effective within three to four days and should be used daily throughout winter.

Of course, with our modern lifestyles most of us ‘force’ our bodies to keep to the same daily routine year round, regardless of factors such as daylight hours. So there are a few things we can all do to ease the transition to keep our energy levels up through the winter gloom, including:

Spending as much time outdoors in daylight as possible, or at least by a window

Making your home and work environments light and bright

Exercising regularly — again outdoors if possible

Eating a healthy, balanced diet

Avoiding stress

Maintaining social contacts

Addressing your own or others’ concerns about your low mood, should they arise.


Family Activities – Choosing Christmas gifts for children – Anne O’Connell

Most likely, the latest game console or electronic device will be on your child’s wishlist for Christmas, but here we look at the best traditional toys that have stood the test of time. Research shows that simple open-ended toys have much more play value than one-trick wonders.

Here are some simple suggestions, depending on your child’s age:

A toddler’s greatest joy is to be with their minder and imitating what is going on.

So toys that should get good use include a toy hoover, brush and dustpan, a tea set with fake food, a bed for teddies or a toy mobile phone.

Another great staple is a trolley of blocks for a learner-walker to push along.

For pre-schoolers, a dressing up box can provide hours of fun and imaginative play, especially if filled with things such as adult shoes, bags, jewellery and hats.

Pieces of fabric ends, the more glitzy, the better are great for sparking imagination.

Simple toys for musical play include tambourines, xylophone, maracas or a keyboard.

Also fun is a pop-up playhouse.

Great toys for older children include Lego, train sets, sports equipment, a dolls house, a tool kit, a trampoline, an electric keyboard or a toy puppet theatre.

Avoid toys which make a lot of noise and which may stretch the parents’ patience.

Think twice about any pets — even a goldfish — without carefully considering the family lifestyle and animal welfare.

Cuddly toys often merely add to the mountain that’s already there; toys whose batteries need replacing every few days tend to try patience and add ongoing costs.