Christmas in Ireland

The Christmas season in Ireland is a happy combination of modern and ancient customs that combine to bring a unique meaning to this special time of year. While Christmas shopping, decorated trees, and Santa Claus are evident everywhere, traditional customs that signify the true meaning of this holy season still remain, especially in the towns and villages where people still celebrate the holy feast as their ancestors had for generations.

On Christmas Eve, the windows of the house were decorated with garlands of holly and ivy, with candles centered in each – often in a hollowed-out turnip for support. This holly encircled candle should be familiar since the Christmas Wreath we know today is an outgrowth of an Irish tradition that began back in 16th century, when Penal Laws outlawed the Catholic religion and clergy. The Irish kept their faith though, and secretly met outlawed priests to celebrate Mass in the woods and mountains whenever they could. Mass might be celebrated once a month, or even less, but one time they never missed was Christmas. In spite of persecution, Christmas still brought hope. An alien power may have controlled the land, but they couldn’t control the hearts of the Irish; they still had their customs, faith, and pride, and by God they would have their Mass.

Some of those customs, by the way, were older than the race that ruled them, originating back to pre-Christian days, like the ringing of doors and windows with holly and ivy. That came from the ancient Celtic custom of ringing the openings of a dwelling with those magical leaves to ward off the evils of winter. After all, holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, so they were deemed immune to the killing force of winter. The custom carried into the Christian era as a decorative function, and the Brits marveled at the hope that still burned in hearts they had tried so hard to discourage. The source of that hope was their faith; and in each community, courageous families would risk fine and imprisonment to attend a mid-night Mass celebrated by an outlawed priest, and an especially brave family would host the celebration. Naturally, the house to be used was kept secret until just before the Mass was to begin, at which time a lighted candle was placed in the window to signal the faithful. Once the signal was given, candles were lit in every house window to confuse any who might try to interfere with the celebration. To the Irish, the meaning of the candle was clear, but to the stranger, it was merely an extension of the pagan custom of holiday decoration.

The candle eventually became part of the custom, remaining long after its need as a signal disappeared. Today’s wreath serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors who placed a candle in a holly-encircled window to send out the message “The Lord is in this house tonight”

As evening fell over the Irish hills on Christmas Eve, the candles in each window were lit casting a magical glow over the hillside like scattered jewels on Erin’s cloak of evening, the largest of which were the churches dotting the landscape and beckoning the faithful to Midnight Mass. After Mass the people returned home and retired for the night leaving their doors slightly ajar all night as a symbol of hospitality insuring that no wandering couple seeking shelter would be turned away as was Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas Eve. A cup and saucer was placed on the table in each home with home-made soda bread for the wandering souls from Purgatory who were thought to come home for Christmas. On Christmas morning, the candles would be snuffed out, preferably by someone with the name of Mary.

On Christmas day came the Christmas meal – assorted vegetables and potatoes deliciously prepared to compliment the Christmas goose or turkey, followed by the Christmas pudding. After dinner, the children would play games while the adults sat about the fire, reminiscing about Christmases past until it was time to cut the Christmas cake amid much excitement. The reverent celebration of Christmas in Ireland did not conclude with the setting of the sun on Christmas day. The season would extend for a full twelve days, and any feast that fell within that period was considered a part of the overall Christmas celebration. Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26, is one such feast.

In early times, the children of Ireland would begin St. Stephen’s day with a hunt for a small wren which they would kill and place in a little box. Today, a box decorated with feathers simulates the victim satisfying bird-lovers as well as saving the boys the trouble of the hunt. These Wren Boys, as they are called, dress in old blouses, pajamas, flour sacks, sashes and colored ribbons in as many combinations as the imagination allows. They then set off carrying the `victim’ and a collection of musical instruments centering around the Bodhran (a one sided drum similar to a large tambourine) which is beaten with a wooden stick as they make their rounds from door to door, singing the traditional Wren Song and collecting pennies as a reward for their deed, and to `bury the wren’. The Wren Boys are practicing a ritual that was old in western Europe before the Christian gospel was first preached in the hills of Galilee. Scholars suggest that it is of Celtic origin and that, with the coming of Christianity, its meaning was Christianized. What had the little wren done to be hunted down through history?
The ancient Druidic version is that the wren was condemned to persecution by his fellow birds because, he used trickery to oust the eagle from the kingship of all birds; the story was used as a lesson to children about the virtues of honesty. The Christian version related that the wren flew from a bush betraying the hiding place of St. Stephen who was captured and martyred as a result, which explains the custom falling on St. Stephen’s day, and why it is the duty of all good men to hunt and kill the little beast. The tale associated with St. Stephen adds one more measure of religious significance to the season which continues until Little Christmas on January 6, when the visit of the Magi, or the three wise men, is celebrated. Years ago in some areas of Ireland, as in many areas of western Europe, it was this day, rather than Christmas, when gifts were exchanged in remembrance of the gifts of the Magi.

Grace Evelyn Gifford

One of Ireland’s most tragic daughters, Grace Evelyn Gifford, was born on March 4, 1888, the second youngest of 12 children of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in Rathmines, Dublin. As was then the practice, the boys were brought up Catholic and the girls as Protestants. Grace went to school in Dublin and at 16 went to the Metropolitan School of Art, where she studied under Irish artist William Orpen. Orpen regarded her as most gifted and in 1907 she attended a course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Art in London. She returned to Dublin in 1908 and tried to earn a living as a caricaturist, publishing her cartoons in The Shanachie, Irish Life, Meadowstreet and The Irish Review. She earned little money, but enjoyed a lively social life.

She met a London lady journalist, who brought her to the opening of the new bilingual St Enda’s School where she met Joseph Mary Plunkett for the first time. She also met the future leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, including Tomás MacDonagh, whom she would introduce to her sister Muriel. They married in 1912 and Muriel became a Catholic. Grace’s interest in the Catholic religion also grew leading to a closer acquaintance with Joseph Plunkett as she began to question him about his faith. She could not have found a better teacher since St. Oliver Plunkett was a member of Joseph’s family. Joseph proposed to Grace in 1915 and she took lessons in the Catholic religion. She was formally received into the Catholic Church in April, 1916. Having no knowledge of the plans for the Easter Rising, she had planned to marry Joseph on Easter Sunday of that same year.

Joseph hadn’t told Grace of the impending insurrection which was scheduled for Easter Sunday, nor did he expect the chronic health problems he was experiencing – an advanced case of tuberculosis – to require emergency surgery the week before. As it turned out, the operation forced Joseph to postpone the wedding, just as other circumstances forced the postponement of the rising to Easter Monday. The first indication to Grace that something was going on came on the evening of Holy Saturday when Plunkett’s young aide, Michael Collins, dropped by to deliver her a sum of money and a small gun for her protection. Grace was horrified at the sight of the gun, but Collins left without offering a confused Grace Gifford any further explanation.

One can only imagine the confusion, anxiety, and distress experienced by Grace as the events of Easter week unfolded with her beloved in the center of the fighting. After the Rising failed, Joseph and the other leaders were taken to Kilmainham Jail, swiftly court martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad. When Grace learned that Joseph was due to be shot on May 4th; she hurriedly visited a Dublin jeweler and bought a wedding ring. On the night of May 3rd she was given permission to visit Joseph. Arrangements had been made for them to meet in the prison chapel where the prison chaplain married them with two prison guards as witnesses. Accompanied by fifteen soldiers they crammed into Joseph’s tiny cell, on the wall of which he had scratched his memorable poem I See His Blood Upon the Rose. After only a ten-minute visit, Grace was ushered out. A few short hours later, Joseph was murdered by a vengeful British military in the stone-breakers yard of Kilmainham Jail.

Grace never married again; she resumed her commercial art work to earn a living. She also decided to devote herself, through her art, to the promotion of the Sinn Féin policies Joseph had given his life for. Throughout her long widowhood she became a staunch Irish Republican and was even elected to the reorganized Sinn Fein executive in 1917 where she served alongside Kathleen Clarke and Constance Markievicz and opposed the treaty which led to the Irish Civil War. Throughout the Civil War, many republicans were arrested and incarcerated without trial or charge. Grace herself was one. Arrested in February 1923, as fate would have it, she was held in the same Kilmainham Jail where her Joseph had been executed. In what had to be an extremely emotional incarceration, she was moved to paint a beautiful picture on her cell wall of the Madonna and Child, perhaps in honor of Joseph’s middle name. It became an instant treasure to all who saw it and it became known as The Kilmainham Madonna. It remained on the wall when the women prisoners were transferred to the North Dublin Union and after Kilmainham was closed in 1924.

When the Civil War ended, Grace, who was no friend of the Irish Free State, had no home of her own and very little money. Official animosity toward those who had opposed the treaty remained strong and she received no help from the government. Her talent as an artist was her only asset; her cartoons were published in a few newspapers and magazines and she illustrated W. B. Yeats’ The Words upon the Window Pane in 1930. She moved from one rented flat to another and ate in inexpensive city-center restaurants. She had many admirers, but had no wish to remarry. Her circumstances improved in 1932 when she received a Civil List pension from de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government. From the 1940s onwards, her health declined and in 1950 she was taken to hospital and then a nursing home, which she didn’t like. She returned to her flat where she died suddenly, and alone, on 13 December, 1955. This tragic lady, whose life was altered by her love for an Irish patriot and his cause, was removed to St Kevin’s Church and she was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery with full military honors.

But what ever became of the Kilmainham Madonna? For the answer to that question, go to the National AOH website AOH.COM and check out the December history there.