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.

Celtic Feast

Like their economy which was based on planting, growing and harvesting, the Celtic Calendar was centered around the Sun and agriculture. The four major feasts were Imbolc on February 1 which introduced the season of planting; Bealtine on May 1 which honored the god of cattle and crops and was associated with growth; Lughnasad on August 1 which signaled the harvest; and the final and most important feast of the year: Samhain (SAH-win). Celebrated on November 1, Samhain observed the end of one pastoral year and the beginning of another. To the Celts, Samhain was the point where the power of the sun began to wane, and fall under the growing power of the gods of darkness, winter, and the underworld. It was a day of bonfires lit to encourage the return of the sun, and to celebrate the fact that Oiche Samhain (EE-ha SOW-na), or the eve of Samhain had passed for another 12 months, for Oiche Samhain was a dangerous night indeed.

It was on that night that the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds were lowered, and residents of the underworld, both good and evil, were free to roam the earth. It was the holiday of the dead and the sidh (shee): the supernatural residents of the fairy kingdom, both fun-loving and fearful. It was a time sacred to the moon, and called for sacrifices to Crom Cruagh, Lord of the Mound, a golden idol surrounded by 12 stones on the plain of Moy Slecht in Cavan. Any who wandered out that night were in danger of being accosted by spirits, so most remained indoors. However, if one had to go out, he or she was advised to wear the skin of a sacrificed animal to disguise them self from the spirits. If an animal skin was not available, then the traveler would be wise to carry a candle in a hollowed-out turnip so that they would be mistaken for a Will-o-the-Wisp and be left alone.

With so many things to fear, the obvious question is why would anyone venture out at all, and the answer lies in the very same lowering of the veil. It’s a night when supernatural things are possible; when hidden things are visible; and, if one knew how to read the signs, a night when the future can be read for omens are clearest on Oiche Samhain. If, for example, a maiden were to wash her dress in a stream on Oiche Samhain and hang it on a bush to dry, the image of her future husband will appear beside it. It’s also a time when you can catch a glimpse of recently-departed loved ones, and perhaps secure some information from them – like where did they hide the money!

In spite of the temptation to see the future, the curious are cautioned, if you must venture out, be wary. You might hear music; the most beautiful music ever to come from fiddle or flute, but do not investigate, for the spirits will entice you away to the dance, and keep you entertained until the dawn breaks; then you will be trapped behind the veil. Tales are told of those lost to the Fairy kingdom who were not seen again until the following year when the veil was lowered again, and they were seen on the other side. Some have been enticed back to tell their stories, but they are very few, and they usually came to a violent end shortly after their return.

Another custom associated with Oiche Samhain was the leaving of food and drink on a doorstep to appease the wandering spirits so that they would trespass no further into a dwelling. If the offering was gone in the morning, it was a good sign that the spirits had accepted it, for no mortal man would dare steal a gift left for the dead. It was also a fortunate time for the hungry and homeless who wandered the roads and were willing to take that chance. Needless to say, there was great rejoicing when dawn broke, and the threat of Oiche Samhain had passed for another 12 months. The fear and the celebration associated with Samhain made it one of the hardest of the old Druidic feasts for the young Irish Church to dispel in the early centuries of Christianity, so it was decided to sanctify its meaning.

Henceforth, November 1 would be All Hallows Day – a day to honor the souls that had achieved heaven, followed by All Souls Day, a time to pray for the deceased who were still awaiting redemption. To the Irish however, All Hallows evening retained the connotation of a time dedicated to the spirits, and many of the ancient customs lived on. In time, the Christian meaning became accepted, at least on the surface. In many areas, the parish priest was given a polite nod of the head in acquiescence to the Church’s definition, while a wink of the eye signified that the ancient traditions were still being observed, just in case.

Stories of witches, goblins, and little people persisted, and the cautions proscribed as protection against the spirits of the netherworld remained as All Hallows Evening became Halloween – the only Celtic feast still observed on the modern calendar. Costumes are still much in evidence only they are the dime store variety instead of animal skins; pumpkins have replaced turnips as the Jack o Lantern; and the token food or candy given to visiting ghosts and goblins, who shout Trick or Treat, is a reminder of the food and drink freely given as a ransom against harm. I’d say the spirit of the occasion – no pun intended – is still intact. In recent years, a heightened awareness of the origins of Halloween has led to Celtic New Year celebrations in some areas, but there are still many who are not aware of the rich cultural heritage of our ancestors, who based their pastoral activities on a sophisticated celestial calendar fostered by a knowledge of astronomy unequalled in their time. As for the traditions associated with Halloween, well, think about it.

What happens after the demons in the dime-store costumes are tucked safely in bed with their treasure of candy bars and pennies secure in plastic pumpkins? What happens late at night when the streets are silent; what are those strange sounds carried on the wind each year; and what of the eerie occurrences reported each Halloween. Of all the Celtic feasts, why is it that only Oiche Samhain has survived. Is it because there is some substance to it after all. I can’t say for certain, but I know I’m staying at home. And if you must go out, please, whatever you do, be careful.