Christmas in Ireland is a mixture of ancient pagan customs and Christian heritage. Like everywhere else, the Christians in Ireland embraced old solstice rituals and modified them for their purposes. Holly was prevalent in Ireland and used to decorate the home for Christmas before the advent of the Christmas tree. Finding a holly bush with many red berries was considered to bring good luck for the new year.
The celebration of Christmas arrived in Ireland in 1171. The English King Henry II introduced the holiday to the country. He held lavish feasts and nativity plays in a purpose-built hall in a village called Hogges. Up to this day, Christmas in Ireland is very much a celebration of generosity and hospitality.
The Candle in the Window
Irish families put a burning candle in the window on Christmas Eve to show Mary and Joseph that they are welcome in the house. Later, the candle acquired an additional meaning. The youngest family member has the task to light the candle and only a girl named "Mary" is allowed to put it out.
The Laden Table
Another charming custom is the laden table. After dinner on Christmas Eve, the table is set again. The family provides a loaf of bread with raisins and caraway seeds, a big pitcher of milk and a burning candle. They leave the door unlocked, so that Mary and Joseph, or indeed any nightly traveler, can have a rest and a meal.
The Wren Boy Procession
The Wren Boy procession took place on St. Stephen's day, the day after Christmas. It shows similarities to Halloween. Children wandered the streets, carrying a stick topped with a holly bush. They painted their faces, wore old clothes, sang and played music, demanding money "for the hungry wren." Although this custom seems harmless enough, its origins are rather dark. The wren was said to be a treacherous bird; it was blamed for betraying the hiding place of St. Stephen to his persecutors. It was also claimed that the bird beat its wings on the shields of the Norsemen to alert them to the presence of Irish soldiers. However, going further back in time, the wren may have been used in Druidic rites, to which Irish Christians would have been opposed. Early Wren Boy processions sported a real dead wren on top of the stick. Currently, a fake bird is used and the processions usually occur in the southern parts of Ireland.
Little Women's Christmas
In the old times, housework was firmly considered women's business, which means that after all the cooking, baking and cleaning, the women used to be completely exhausted. Come the 6th of January, they got one day of relaxation. On this day, the men did all the housework and the women went to the pub for a day out. Although the "the New Man" has now arrived in Ireland, many Irish women love to keep this tradition alive. Little Women's Christmas also marked the day when it was "safe" to take down Christmas decorations. Any earlier was considered unlucky.
A very old custom, dating back to pre-Christian times is the Christmas Whitewashing. Farmers used to clean their house and stables very thoroughly and paint them snow white for Christmas. Catholics say they do it to purify their home for the arrival of the savior. But the custom is much older, which makes it a prime example for the interweaving of pagan and Christian rituals. Originally, it probably signaled the beginning of the new year. After the winter solstice, the light increased and everyone started with a clean slate.
- Photo Credit Christmas tree image by Mladenov from Fotolia.com holly image by david purday from Fotolia.com candle image by Sergey Galushko from Fotolia.com
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