In ancient Celtic cultures, the period between February 1st and 2nd is called Imbolc - the first day of spring, midway through the dark half of the year. It was a time when the stirring of new life manifested itself in the first flow of milk in the udders of pregnant ewes - a sure sign that the lambing season was about to begin.
The Church tried to replace Imbolc which was dedicated to the Goddess of Youth and Fertility - Bride. Thus, in the 5th century, February 1st became St. Brigid’s Day and February 2nd became Candlemas.
There's a popular legend which explains why Candlemas falls immediately after St. Brigid’s Day. Mary was very nervous about bringing the infant Jesus to the crowded Temple. St. Brigid promised to help her by distracting the crowds. She did this by appearing to the multitude wearing a headdress bearing many lighted candles. In gratitude, Mary decreed that a feast day honouring St. Brigid should take place the day before Candlemas.
In Ireland, Candlemas lapsed during the time of the Penal Laws but was revived afterwards. People donated candles to their local church or took their own to be blessed. These would then be used on special occasions such as station Masses or when the holy sacraments were administered to the sick.
Weather forecasts were often made on this date. It was believed that if the day was sunny and fair, more winter weather was to come, but if a lark was heard singing, that was a sign of an early spring.
There is also a lot of folklore and superstitions involving candles. A bright spark in the wick is sometimes said to indicate that a stranger is coming or that a letter will arrive for the person nearest to the candle. A wavering flame where there is no draft is a harbinger of windy weather. A candle that doesn't light easily foretells rain, and in some areas, a bluish flame means frost.
It was considered bad luck to leave a candle burning in an empty room. The only exception is the Christmas candle which should be left to burn all through the night of Christmas Eve to light the way for the Holy Family and also to ensure light, warmth and plenty in the coming year.
To snuff out a candle by accident is a sign of a wedding; and no candle should ever be allowed to burn down to the socket of the candlestick. It should be blown out before that. Otherwise, misfortune may come to someone in the house, and in certain coastal areas, a sailor or fisherman may drown at sea.
At one time it was thought to be very unlucky to light three candles with a single taper. It is known that Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader was well-acquainted with the superstition. A friend once visited Parnell when he was ill and found him lying in a bedroom illuminated by four candles. During the visit, one of the candles went out; Parnell immediately snuffed out another while remarking how unlucky it was to have three lights burning together.
MAY DAY IN THE WEST OF IRELAND
May Day, the first day of the month of May, is one of the quarterly days in the traditional Irish calendar. Each of these quarterly days indicates the start of a new season. Spring is marked by 1 February (St Brigid’s Day), Autumn by 1 August (Lúnasa) and winter by 1 November (Samhain). There were also folk customs associated with the eves of these festivals marking the seasonal transition.
Traditionally on the 1 May and the 1 November, tenant farmers paid their half-yearly rents to landlords – these were known as ‘Gale Days’. People also took stock of their food supply that had to sustain them until the crops could be harvested later in the year.
May 1st was when many hiring fairs were held; people looking for work came carrying symbols of their skill - a spade, a hay fork, a reaping hook, or a spancel, which said the bearer was an expert milker.
Some Old Beliefs
Signs of the weather, the appearance of the sky and of the May moon, the strength and direction of the wind, the amount of rain, were all carefully noted, as indications of the coming summer weather. Rain was expected and welcomed : "A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay." A cold, east wind was a bad sign, while frost meant hard times to come.
May Eve and May Day was a time to divine the future. Women tried with snails on flour to foretell the man that they would marry.
"When gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion".
Furze (An Aiteann) which is also known as gorse is in flower from February to May.
This was also a time to study the weather and weather in the month of May would forecast what was expected to follow in the summer.
‘A wet May and a dry June makes the farmer whistle a tune’
‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay’
‘A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay’
Between sunset on May Eve and the dawn of May Day, one should stay close to home and never sleep outdoors. If you must be out and about, a piece of iron in the pocket might give some protection, as will a spent cinder from the hearth, or a sprig of mountain ash.
Many people leave the fairies an offering of food and drink either on their doorstep, or at a fort, lone bush or other fairy dwelling.
A favorite prank of the “good folk” is to cause people to lose their way by bringing down a mist. One way to protect against this is to wear your coat inside out. This disguise will confuse them and might allow you to escape.
Care should be taken not to keep anything you find of value on the roadway or anywhere. Best of all, don't pick it up. But, if you wish to be neighbourly, you should place the article on a fence, gate or bush so that the rightful owner can find it again.
The first water taken from the well on May Day was variously known as 'the top of the well' or 'the luck of the well'. In evil hands this water could do great harm; but in the hands of the rightful owner, it brought luck, protection and healing.
A child born on May Day has the gift of being able to see the fairies - but it was believed the child would not live a long life. Animals born on this day were also sure to be weaklings.
If a girl went out into the garden before sunrise on May 1st, she could find out the name of her future spouse by taking up the first snail or slug she finds. This is put on on a plate sprinkled with flour. A cabbage leaf is placed on top and left until after sunrise. Then, according to the superstition, she will find the initials of her lover traced in the flour.
The call of the cuckoo is ominous - to hear it on your right brings luck; on the left, ill fortune; from a church yard meant a death in the family, and before breakfast, a hungry year.
A busy time on the land
May Day was regarded as the symbolic start of a busy season of farm work. People worked in the fields focusing on the care of animals and their movement to different pastures. There was also an emphasis on fishing for example for salmon. It was a busy time for markets and marts in order to sell animals and at this time seasonal labourers were hired. The important job of cutting turf in the bogs also started in earnest around May Day.
Traditionally on the 1 May and the 1 November, tenant farmers paid their half-yearly rents to landlords – these were known as ‘Gale Days’. People also took stock of their food supply that had to sustain them until the crops could be harvested later in the year.
The first May Day butter, that is, the first butter made from the milk of May Day, was held to be the best of all bases for salves and ointments. And, it was firmly believed that any herb picked at random before sunrise on May Day was a sure cure for warts. Also, if you wanted to keep the rheumatics away for a year, the custom was to eat nettle soup three times during the month, beginning on May 1st.
May Day was especially associated with butter stealing: the stealing of the butter profit of the home. The cows were safe-guarded through attaching flowers around their heads and sometimes red ribbons or bits of rowan were tied to their tails. This was believed to offer them protection from the malign glance of those with the evil eye. The churn was especially vulnerable at this time so often similar items or iron objects were placed underneath it.
All those who visited the house at this time were encouraged to take a dash of the churn. They usually accompanied this with a prayer such as ‘God Bless the Work’. Holy water was often sprinkled on the animals, the churn and all objects associated with dairying. May butter was often kept and used in small quantities to add to the churn and dairy items for good luck and protection.
“People used make the ‘May Eve Churn’ and the butter of that churn was salted and put away for the coming year. Each night and morning before the milk is put in the pans, the woman got a small piece of butter of the ‘May Eve Churn’ and put it in the pan and then put in new milk. The ‘power’ of this butter prevents the milk and cream from being taken by ‘pishogues’ or any other supernatural power.”
May Flowers were picked on the evening before May Day and this was often done by children who went garlanding for flowers. Yellow flowers, such as primroses, buttercups and marigolds were especially popular, possibly as they reflected the sun and summer. Furze and ferns were also put around the outside of the home.
The flowers used varied depending on which area you lived. In central Mayo the most common flower used was Marsh Marigold (Still used in Castlebar), in North Mayo the flowers commonly used were primroses and bluebells, in parts of County Galway Cowslips were used, while in Munster Yellow Iris (Yellow Flag) were mostly used.
The flowers were placed on the doorsteps of houses and on windowsills. They were believed to offer luck to the house and offer protection from mystical forces - there was a strongly held belief that these were particularly active around the quarterly days. It was believed that the fairies could not enter the home as they could not pass such sweet smelling flowers.
They were often put on farm animals so as to protect them from being ‘overlooked’ by people with the evil eye, who might through envy, steal the productivity of the animals.
The tradition of spreading flowers at thresholds was most common in the northern half of Ireland, especially south Ulster. Throughout Ireland, there is a strong tradition of formally showing welcome, through the spreading of rushes.
Sometimes May flowers were placed in the local well so as protect the water supply and the livelihood of those who used it. The stealing or skimming of water from the well or dew from the fields of a neighbour, by those with evil intentions, was believed to result in a lack of produce achieved by the household or the community. Water or fire was generally never asked for or taken from the home on May Eve or May Day so as to retain the luck of the house. Mayflower water taken from the well on May Day was said to offer protection and cures. This water and May morning dew was believed to be good for the complexion.
I wash my face in water that has never rained nor run and dry it in a towel that was never wove on spun. [A face washed in May dew and dried in the open air]
‘Never cast a clout until May is out’ is an expression warning of not shedding too many winter layers until the end of the month of May.
Herbs gathered before sunrise on May Day were believed to have particularly effective curative properties.
May, the month of Mary
Since medieval times in Ireland, there has been a strong association with the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary during the month of May. Much of the traditions associated with May have been incorporated into the Marian processions found throughout the country.
Children and adults collected flowers for crowning Our Lady in town processions. They also used them to decorate grottoes, shrines and church altars. It was and still is very common to have a home altar either in the kitchen or outside in the farmyard. Sometimes the flowers picked for this altar were made into crosses. The maintenance of these altars and their replenishment with fresh flowers continued on from the 1 May, throughout the month.
Bring flowers of the rarest
bring blossoms the fairest,
from garden and woodland and hillside and dale;
our full hearts are swelling,
our glad voices telling
the praise of the loveliest flower of the vale!
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May…
The evening of June 23, St John's Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of St John the Baptist. The bible states that John was born about six months before Jesus, therefore the feast of John the Baptist was fixed on June 24, six months before Christmas. This feast day is one of the very few saints' days to mark the supposed anniversary of the birth, rather than the death, of the saint commemorated.
The Feast of St John coincides with the June solstice also referred to as Midsummer. The Christian holy day is fixed at June 24, but, in some countries, festivities are celebrated the night before, on St John's Eve. The feast is celebrated in various countries. In the west of Ireland this was the traditional night for the Bonfire. This celebratory bonfire was so called as in the past old bones were burned in this fire. In fact in the Irish language of Erris the bonfire is called “Tine Cnáimh” which literally means fire of bones.
For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.
In olden days the fire used to be lit exactly at sunset and had to be watched and tended until long after midnight. Prayers use to be said to obtain God's blessing on the crops, then at the peak-point of summer bloom.
In many places, the older people continued the preliminary proceedings with more prayers. Afterwards, the merry-making began. As the flames and sparks shot up, loud cheers would arise from the crowd, horns were blown and some people beat on tin cans. The musicians struck up and the young men asked their partners to dance. In-between sets, songs were sung; stories were told, and soloists - musician or dancer - demonstrated their talents.
By now the fire would be well ablaze. People leapt through the flames for luck in a new venture, or marriage, when trying for a baby, for good health and for self-purification. Farmers leapt high so their crops would grow tall. In many places, a young woman and man would join hands and jump together. Often, this was nothing more than a mere flirtation, but onlookers took it for granted that there was some intention of marriage between the pair. Some observers would even go as far as to predicting the outcome of such a union by the way the flames flickered as the couple jumped!
Some people used to take the ashes from the fire then extinct on St. John's morning to scatter them on their fields. At the close of the festival too about after midnight any man who had built a new house or had nearly completed it took from the bonfire a shovel of red hot sods to his new home so that the very first fire there would be started by the ceremonial bonfire.
It was believed that a house built on a path frequented by the fairies would suffer as a result of supernatural manifestations. Perhaps too, ill luck in the farm or personal illness might afflict the family. One remedy for these evils was to bring on St. John's Eve portion of the blessed fire and to build with them on the path in several places small fires which would be left burning until morning.
A walk around Killeen townland, in Drum Parish, a well called “Tobermacduach”. The name is ascribed to Colman-Mac-Duac, who lived at the beginning of the 7th century. (Another sister well is located in Kinvara, County Galway and is closely associated with Colman, who gave the name Kilmacduach to the diocese. He was closely related to Guaire, King of Connaught).
Stations of the Cross were performed annually on Good Friday. Pilgrims came and erected tents in this area. Over 100 years ago this tradition ceased and the well fell into disrepair.
In this area was the site of an old Church and burial ground for the unbaptised babies. It was said that little coffins were brought in the night and the only sign that a burial had taken place was a newly made grave. This practice stopped around 1900 and cattle were let graze in the area but it was never tilled.
The phrase "Children's burial ground" refers to an unconsecrated place used primarily, though not exclusively, for the burial of unbaptised children.
Those most commonly used in Co. Mayo are cillin/Killeen, lios/Lisheen. The word cill is derived from the Latin cella, and means Church or Graveyard.
Halloween (Samhain) - Tradition & origination of this Celtic Feast.
Halloween or All Hollow’s (Samhain) Eve October 31st is of one of the most important seasonal festivals of the Celtic world. Samhain's equivalent on the Christian calendar is All Saints' Day, introduced by the Catholic Church partly to supplant the pagan festival of the dead.
All Hallows Eve actually began as a harvest festival several millennia ago in Ireland. The ancient Celtic year was divided by the four seasons and reckoned by a lunar calendar. The full moon that rose midway between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice was called Samhain. It was the most scary and sacred time of all. Samhain was the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
The timing of Samhain coincided with the availability of large stocks of food after the harvest, which is why this was the time that political assemblies were called, fairs and regional markets were held, horse races and other competitions were organized, and religious rituals were celebrated to mark the passing of the old year. Winter was approaching, crops were dying, days were growing shorter, and the spectre of death hung heavy in the air.
Crops were gathered in and stored lest “An Púca” (the Pooka) a night-time goblin who delights in tormenting mortals, destroy the fruits of the field and bring on a season of famine. With storehouses full, the Celts marked the 3-day full moon period with revelry and ritual before facing the unknown. According to ancient sources, the Assembly of Tara, the seat of the High King of Ireland, the most important of the Aenachs( or fairs), was held on Samhain. Alcoholic beverages such as mead and beer would also be available in large quantities at this time of year.
The evening of the day before a new season marked a boundary in time in the Celtic world. Thresholds and boundaries, in both time and space, were important to the Celts, as can be seen in the archaeological as well as written sources. Prehistoric burial mounds often are surrounded by ditches, post rows or stone walls, as are churchyard cemeteries. Such boundarys work both ways - they protect the dead from the living, and vice versa.
On Halloween, according to Celtic tradition, the boundaries thin out and dissolve. The mounds of the dead - the Sidh in Irish - are thought to open on Samhain. The association between Halloween and ghosts and spirits today comes from the Celtic belief that it was at this time of transition between the old year and the new that the barrier between this world and the Otherworld where the dead and supernatural beings lived became permeable. Humans could be tricked into passing through to the other side, and might not be able to return to the world of the living, while the inhabitants of the supernatural realm were thought to be able to pass more easily into our world.
In Ireland, people didn't leave their houses on Samhain unless they absolutely had to, and they stayed clear of churchyards. If you heard footsteps behind you as you passed a churchyard at night on Halloween, it was best not to turn to look, for the dead would be on your tracks. The general disorder was intensified by mischievous pranks, including moving farm equipment and livestock and bombarding the houses of the ungenerous with cabbages pulled at random from gardens
Winter itself is symbolic of death - the power of good is seen as in decline, with all nature turning against humans, who, abandoned to the divinities of darkness, turn inward to protect themselves and their livestock against the elements. Space and time were both bounded in important ways in the Celtic world. Territories, like seasons, had to have their boundaries ritually redefined every year, as the English tradition of "beating the bounds" to keep public footpaths open still demonstrates today.
Unbaptized children, for example, were often buried in boundary fence lines, suggesting that such places, like the unbaptized child, were not really "of this world". The place where these burials took place were known as Cillíní or Killeens. Halloween is the night when there is a "phantom on every stile". The dead and the living were thought to be able to communicate at the boundaries between this world and the next, and some kinds of spaces were seen as places where such meetings were especially likely.
A priest in Connemara recalled: “On November Eve it is not right to gather or eat blackberries or sloes, nor after that time for as long as they last. On November Eve the fairies pass over all such things and make them unfit to eat. If one dares to eat them afterwards, one will have serious illness. We firmly believed this as boys, and I laugh now when I think how we used to gorge ourselves with berries on the last day of October, and then for weeks after pass by bushes full of the most luscious fruit, and with mouths watering for it, couldn't eat it.”
This is also the reason divination, or fortune-telling, is practiced during these liminal festivals: they were literally "doorways" into the Otherworld and in the case of Samhain, a window into the New Year, so that if you said the right words and did the right things, you would be able to see what the future would bring. Marriage divination was one of the most common and popular examples of this practice: apple bobbing, eating or peeling an apple in front of a mirror by candlelight are some examples.
In addition to divination rituals, fire is part of most of the major Celtic seasonal festivals and bonfires were traditionally lit on Samhain as part of the festivities. The re-lighting of housefires was part of the Samhain practices, with the Halloween bonfire serving as the source of renewal for the hearthfires of the individual households, a clear representation of the communal nature of the festival and the importance of community to Celtic peoples and indeed all early, food producing cultures who were dependent on their neighbours and relatives for survival in times of trouble.
Consumed with fear that they might be carted away to the land of the dead, the Irish lit huge bonfires to ward off evil forces. At night they listened to Seanachies tell how the Gaels had defeated the magical Tuatha De Danaan. Undaunted, the Tuatha De plagued their conquerors with trickery, depriving them of milk and grain. Finally, a compromise was reached and the land was divided into two parts. The Gaels had won the right to live above ground; the fairy folk agreed to live underground.
But on Samhain the veil between this and the Otherworld was thin. The fairies roamed at will, the mounds marking the entries to their dwelling places glowed with eerie light, and many a mortal disappeared, lured to live forever below ground with the fairy Sidhe. This was Feile Na Marbh, Feast of the Dead. Children born that night were blessed with ‘double sight,’ able to see and play with the fairies. Spirits appeared to ordinary folk advising them of future events. Long-dead ancestors sought the warmth of a hearth fire and communion with the living.
In 432AD Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, but the old ways persisted. Rome attempted to take the easy way out and absorbed the tradition into its own calendar. For centuries, the Church had honored its martyrs and saints on May 13, so in 844AD Pope Gregory IV transferred the saints’ feast to November 1, renaming it All Hallows Day.
Five hundred years later, Celtic descendants were still celebrating their 3-day Feast of the Dead. In the 14th century, Rome decreed November 2 would be known as All Souls Day and masses would be said for the departed who had not yet been admitted to heaven. In an effort to finally eradicate the ancient festival, October 31 was titled All Hallows Eve and installed on the Church calendar as a vigil of preparation for the 2-day religious observance.
Christianity had absorbed Samhain, but the Celtic ceremony of honoring the dead – now fixed on October 31st and November 1st and 2nd instead of the final harvest full moon – remained. It was still an occasion for feasting and revelry. It was still the night when souls roved free. And it was still the time to seek answers on things unknown.
Compiled by Brian Hoban Sources: Various [ends]
Due to the influence of U.S culture Halloween has become much commercialised in recent years. In Mayo in times gone by Halloween or Oíche Shamhna was a simpler and more innocent time. Trick-or-treating is a modern day holdover of the practice of bribing the spirits and their human counterparts roaming the world of the living on that night. Large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces (Jack-o'-lanterns) and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays the humble turnip has been replaced with pumpkins.
Games People Play
Some games usually played at Samhain or Halloween have stood the test of time and are still popular. Though sometimes modified to be less critical to health and safety.
One of the easiest rituals at Halloween must concern the weather - simply step out at midnight and note the strength and direction of the wind. As it blows then it will blow (or not) for a few weeks to come.
Take a look at the moon too: The more clouds are hiding it, the more rain we'll have in the coming months. Should you need further advice, simply stick a piece of wood into the nearest river. If the water rises, so will the prices over the next year. And floods will come.
An Bairín Breac (Barm Brack)
Another custom in western Ireland was that of the Bairin Breac (Barm Brack) or “Halloween Cake". There were a number of fortune-telling charms placed into the brack: a pea for poverty, a bean for wealth, a piece of rag indicated you would become on old maid or bachelor, a wooden matchstick indicated you would beat your life’s partner. Whoever found the cake’s hidden gold ring would certainly marry within the coming year!
Meals featured the fruits of the late harvest. No Hallows Eve dinner was complete without a steaming bowl Colcannon (potatoes and green cabbage mashed) with a “well” of melted butter in the middle.
The name Snap Apple already describes this game and sets out the only rule - you have to snap for the apple. An apple tied with a piece of string hung from the rafters. The apple was then set spinning and a player tasked to bite into an apple without using the hands.
Bobbing for Apples
Everybody knows this game - in a large bowl or bathtub apples are floating in water, you have to get one out using your mouth only. This was also called “ducking” for apples. A variation to provide an even greater challenge was some coins at the bottom, to be fished out by the same method.
Telling the future using Nuts or Beans
To prevent at least spousal abuse another method was employed - two nuts (or beans in some places) were "christened" with the names of a prospective couple and then thrown into the fire. A happy, quiet future awaited the pair if the nuts burned away in silence. If they started to snap, crackle or pop the marriage would be interesting to say the least.
Four plates or saucers were filled with water, a ring, clay and salt respectively. The person who wanted to know their fate were led into the room, blindfolded, and asked to dip his or her hand into one plate. Obviously the ring denoted marriage. But what did the other three stand for? Well, salt meant prosperity, water a long journey (or emigration) and clay ... an early grave.
Saint Martin's Day (November 11th) denotes the end of the agrarian year and the final harvest of the year. The geese were nicely fattened up, leading to wholesale slaughter of the species and the traditional Saint Martin's Goose in the oven.
In the old days, Irish celebrations started on the eve of Saint Martin's Day, echoing the Celtic tradition that the day started at sundown. The main ritual event of Saint Martin's Eve (Martinmas) reflected the ancient Pagan practices, the killing of a cock or goose, which was allowed to bleed out. The bird was beheaded and carried around the house with the blood being spilled out at the four corners of the house. The whole family then partook of the feast of the roast bird. (At this time in Ireland meat or fish were rarely consumed, so this was a major treat).
Another superstition associated with this Feast Day forbid certain types of work on St. Martin's Day, the 11th of November. No woman should spin on that day; no miller should grind his corn, and no wheel should be turned. In the south east of the country no fishing boat should go out to sea not go out to sea on this day.
According to local legend in County Wexford the fishing fleet was out one Saint Martin's Day, when the saint himself was observed walking on the waves towards the boats. He proceeded to tell them to put into harbour as fast as possible, despite the good weather and fishing conditions. All the fishermen who ignored the saint's warning drowned during a freak afternoon storm.
In rural Ireland the Christmas shopping started on December the 8th the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. On that date shops would decorate their windows with Christmas decorations and Christmas fare. I remember when I was young Cadburys merchandiser would organise our Christmas Display window. There was such a sense of wonder for us youngsters to view the chocolate boxes with their Alpine scenes or other landscapes adorning the larger chocolate boxes. People would come from near and far to view the extensive display of Christmas goodies.
On that day also people would visit Dublin, Galway or other larger population centres for their annual Christmas shopping outing. Back in the 1960’s following the emigration of the 50’s there was a large trade in tins of Kimberley, Mikado and Coconut Creams, which were posted to relatives in the U.K. or America. These varieties of biscuits were not then available in the U.K and had a nostalgic value for relatives abroad. A special parcel office was opened in towns like Castlebar by An Post for the posting of parcels. In Castlebar this office was situated on The Mall in the premises now occupied by Castlebar Boxing Club. All parcels had to have a customs declaration form and had to be sealed with red sealing wax. Free range turkeys, home cooked hams were also popular with our emigrants.
Our cities, large towns and villages would have street lights put up for the Festive Season and a special ceremony would be held to turn on the lights on December 8th often accompanied by carol singers.
The sending of Christmas cards in paper format is hugely popular in Ireland. It isn't the oldest of Irish Christmas traditions by any means but there's an element to it — the inclusion of a long newsy letter, often with some recent photos — that I imagine is a throwback to the days of mass-emigration from the island. Back then, a letter from a long-separated family member would have been the season's best present. A card, possibly bearing some essence of the foreign land from which it was sent, would have added an exotic touch.
The card would be placed on public display while the letter would be stored safely but readily available for regular re-readings.
Today, Irish Christmas cards are big business with cards exchanged between work colleagues, neighbours and friends, as well as family members near and far. And, in my experience, at least, the Christmas letter is still well-practised in Ireland. This practice is being replaced nowadays by more modern mean of communication such as Internet, email and Skype.
The last Saturday prior to Christmas was known as Margadh Mór. This was the day the rural folk would come to town to buy their turkeys, hams, brussel sprouts and other perishable goods to get them over the Christmas Festivities. All the shops would give a present (Christmas Box) or calendar to their customers in appreciation for their custom all year.
CHANGES IN RECENT TIMES
In more recent times Christmas is getting more and more commercialised and seems to get underway in mid-October (or even earlier) when decorations, cards, food fancies and festive gifts begin to appear in shops and on TV. While many complain about this long build-up and the over-commercialisation of what used to be purely a religious festival, the holiday season doesn't really begin in earnest until Christmas Eve: 24th December.
W.B Yeats once wrote “All is changed, changed utterly - a terrible beauty is born.”
This could easily have been written in relation to the Christmas period. Maybe it is time to return to the more traditional Irish Christmas with a caring and sharing mentality amongst our peoples rather than the greed and commercialisation experiences in recent times.
1. Whitewashing your home
Cleaning your home in the winter and particularly the Solstice is an ancient Celtic tradition in rural Ireland. With the emergence of stone and plaster walls, the whitewash at Christmas emerged as a new variation on the original practice.
It was supplemented by a thorough clean of the house to welcome the baby Jesus, a tradition still carried out today and even covers a Christmas car wash.
While there is no proof that the Irish invented holly but the Irish have used it as a Christmas decoration for generations and brought and bringing the tradition to the USA as emigrants and making the traditional wreath one of holly.
Like other trees, Holly was used in druidic customs. Particularly as it was so vividly green and red during winter. It was seen to have magical qualities. Be warned, though, if you are bringing it into your homes as you have to bring branches from male and female trees otherwise whichever gender is left out will be dominated by the other in that household throughout the coming year. You have been warned.
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in Ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
3. Irish Christmas Greeting Cards
Sending and receiving Christmas cards along with a lengthy hand-written letter and recent photos is immensely popular in Ireland. This tradition dates back to the days of mass-emigration from Ireland, when a letter from a long-departed family member would have been the best Christmas gift of all. A festive greeting card, perhaps embodying the foreign land from which it was sent, would have added an exotic touch. The card(s) would be prominently displayed while the letter would be safely tucked away but readily available for regular re-readings. Christmas cards and letters are still anticipated in Ireland today.
4. The Crib
(Brian writes) I have never known my mother fail to create a Christmas crib . As a child, it was a treat to help her set it up and to choose where to place the shepherds, the sheep & the donkey.
The placing of Mary, Joseph and the baby, Jesus was fairly straightforward. They got centre-stage on the straw-strewn miniature stable.
This is an Irish Christmas traditions that may be on the wane. Not because the religious element of the festivities has been lost; Christmas remains essentially a religious holiday in Ireland.
Perhaps the little crib is considered clutter in homes that are often chock-a-block with people, presents, decorations and food at this time of the year.
Whether or not the crib-at-home is losing favour, there are often larger-scale cribs atmospherically lit up in town centres and there is certainly always one in every Catholic Church.
5. The Candle in the Window
It is customary in Irish homes to set a candle in the front window on Christmas Eve. The candle is an eminent sign of welcome for weary travellers in search of a resting place, much as were Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem.
6. Midnight Mass
There is no Irish Christmas tradition that compares to attending midnight mass. Every church in Ireland is sure to be packed to the rafters at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This is a huge social gathering where family, friends, and neighbours who you may not have seen all year come together and celebrate Christmas. With Christmas carols being sung and live music being played, midnight mass in Ireland is a splendid way to connect with the local community at Christmas.
An Irish Christmas Blessing:
“The light of the Christmas star to you, The warmth of home and hearth to you, The cheer and good will of friends to you, The hope of a childlike heart to you, The joy of a thousand angels to you, The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.”
7. The Laden Table
In my own childhood this was the most important of Christmas traditions. It is a simple one where, after dinner on Christmas Eve, the table is reset usually with milk and a Christmas Barmbrack laid out. The house doors are unlocked in a symbolic gesture to a wandering Mary and Joseph that there’s room and shelter for them in your home.
8. Visiting the Graves
This has become an ever-increasingly secular Christmas tradition. It is an enduring and growing tradition. The visit usually involves tidying the grave and laying fresh flowers although practice can vary.It has become customary in recent years to lay a Holly Wreath on the grave of a loved one in remembrance.
9. St Stephen's Day
The 26th December is known as St Stephen's Day in Ireland. In most homes it is a sociable day, when visitors may call in to share some seasonal foods or liquid (usually alcoholic) refreshments.
St Stephens is also the day when a purely Irish phenomenon can be witnessed: the tradition of “ Hunting the Wren.” This is when the Wren Boys take to the streets in colourful costumes and masks, and noisily parade a dead wren on a decorated pole. It's a strange tradition and its origins are often debated. Some say it originated in Pagan times. Others from the Viking invasion. Most opt for a simplified religious reference: the betrayal by a wren of St Stephen who was hiding from the Romans who subsequently killed him for his Christian beliefs.
This, then, gave the reason for hunting down the wren, and in olden days a bird was, indeed, captured and killed. The Wren Boys would then carry the dead bird on a pole from house to house and beg for money to bury the 'evil bird'.
Hunting the Wren on St Stephen's is a purely Irish phenomenon.
At each house they would sing their song:
“The Wren. The Wren. The king of birds
on St Stephen's Day it was caught in the furze.
Although he is tiny, his family is great.
Put your hand in your pocket and give us a treat.
On Christmas Day I turned the spit.
I burned my finger, I feel it yet,
so up with the kettle and down with the pan;
oh, give me a penny to bury the Wran.”
Hunting the Wren used to be a widespread celebration of Christmas in Ireland, but it is now observed in only a few locations (mostly in the southwest and Dublin), and is a much more organised affair than it used to be. Instead of running amok, the Wren Boys parade through the streets with music and collect money for charity from spectators and from the many pubs and bars they visit on their way.
10. 'Little Christmas'
The 6th January, or the feast of the Epiphany, commemorates the arrival of the three Kings or Wise Men at crib. It is the final day of Christmas in Ireland and is the time when all seasonal decorations have to be taken down. Failure to do so results in bad luck, so the superstition goes, unless you leave them up for a full twelve months!
This day is also known as Little Christmas in Ireland. In Irish “ Nollaig na mBan”- Women's Christmas. Traditionally, the woman of the house was given a day off after the twelve days of cooking and acting the hostess. Instead, the men would take over family responsibilities while the women went out with their friends. It was probably the only day of the year when the local bar would be full of women rather than men.