We're delighted to present an extract from The Turning of the Year, the new book by Eithne Massey, published by The O'Brien Press.

The Irish have a close connection with the land and nature. This book brings us through the Irish seasons and the customs that welcomed each one in turn. From Samhain to Imbolc, to Bealtaine and to Lunasa, it examines the significance of, and legends associated with, this annual cycle.


Christmas and Midwinter

If nature sleeps, humans, as usual, decide that they must wake it up. With everyone at a low ebb some brightness is needed and Christmas obliges. We have seen how the solstices were of huge significance to the people who built the ancient monuments, such as Newgrange, where at dawn at the winter solstice light flows through the hole above the capstone, reflecting on the carved stone and the bones of the dead piled at the end of the main passage. The midwinter return of the sun reassured the community that light was returning, that growth would start again and life would continue.

If the origins of a midwinter feast seem to be closer to the Roman feast of Saturnalia, or, with its trappings of Yule log and evergreens, to Scandinavia and Germany, rather than to Celtic tradition, it seems that a long time before the Celts arrived in Ireland, the people of the country marked the winter solstice in the most permanent of ways, celebrating the rebirth of the sun. In more recent times, Christmas has become the archetypal family feast, and its customs bring light and comfort. The candle in the window, the presents left in stockings hung on the bedrail, the dark green of ivy and the bright red of the holly berries used to decorate the house: all of them help us through the dark time. Christmas was also a time when the community came together, at fairs such the Big Market, which was held before Christmas. This was where dried fruit and other Christmas luxuries such as the goose or spiced beef were purchased, to be consumed with immense pleasure after the Advent fast. The Market was also a chance to meet those people who lived at a distance and were rarely seen. Christmas Dinner was the major feast of the year and food was a huge part of Christmas, more so than in any other festival. Even the animals were given extra food.

The religious ceremonies were joyful and filled with song. Some areas had special carols, notably Kilmore in Wexford. The dead were not forgotten: on the three days around Christmas, wreaths were (and are still) brought to graveyards and on Christmas Eve, in many houses, food and drink were left out, not for Santa or Rudolph, but for those who had died during the year. There was a tradition that on Christmas Eve, donkeys and cows were granted the power of speech and could be seen kneeling in the stable and byre at midnight. Candles were lit in the windows and a single one left alight all night, to guide the Holy Family. This custom is honoured still, in Áras an Uachtaráin, the home of Ireland's President.

For the children of the 1930s who took part in the Schools Folklore Project at a time when Ireland was poor and rural, it was a bright, high point in the year, the greatest of the celebrations, with feasting and gifts and brightly decorated houses. The food and drink that played such an important part of the festivities were associated with specific traditions.

The sense of joy and wonder, the excitement of the child, can still make Christmas something more than the orgy of spending and self-indulgence it can sometimes seem to be.

On St Stephen’s Day the much more pagan festival of hunting the wren took place. The tiny bird with the loud voice is no longer hunted, killed and nailed to a pole, but in some towns the wren bush is still carried around the town, decorated with silver balls and accompanied by musicians and mummers in fancy dress and straw hats, the colours indicating their local loyalties.

In the Dingle parade, the most well-known enactment, a hobby horse plays an important role, as does the man dressed as the old woman, the Cailleach. The wren had a reputation as a magus, a magic creature, the druid bird. Folk legends give a rationale for his killing – that the bird called out and alerted the Danes, or in some versions Oliver Cromwell, to the presence of Irish soldiers, and his descendants must suffer for his crime for eternity. In other versions the wren is the bird who betrays St Stephen, patron saint of 26 December and in one particularly wild story from Kerry, the wren pinches Fionn Mac Cumhaill's ear to warn him the Orangemen are coming. The wren is said to nest in a holly tree and is killed with a holly stick, then interred in the wren bush, coffined and keened, its funeral games held. The wren is also credited with being the king of the birds, though it achieves its sovereignty by trickery.

The other bird closely associated with Christmas is the robin, the doyen of the Christmas card. The association of this bird with Christmas seems to date from Victorian times, but it is a bird that has always seemed to hold a special place in human affections, probably because of its cheery friendliness. The robin is very much in evidence in December. In late December, he sings, marking his territory and finding song posts from which to proclaim his lordship over a particular patch of ground. The legends associated with the robin connect his red breast with the blood of Christ and also with fire – in every case the robin is trying to help another being, whether it is a god or the two lost children who die in the woods. The robin is a friend of many.

The December festivities continued into the New Year, and New Year’s Day had its own piseogs – it was unlucky to throw out ashes, give away milk or spend money on that day. Little Christmas or Epiphany is on 6 January and is the celebration of the adoration of the Magi. In Ireland, it was known as Nollaig na mBan. This is when the women of the house put their feet up after all the hard labour involved in the Christmas celebrations. There can be magic in the air on this date – it was said that water becomes wine, rushes become silk and gravel becomes gold. In recent times it has had a revival as a quasi-feminist, Celtic Christianity festival. After the sixth, the crib and decorations were taken down, with some of the greenery kept to make crosses with on Shrove Tuesday and the holly stored to burn in the fire on which the traditional pancakes were cooked on that day.

The Turning of the Year by Eithne Massey (published by The O'Brien Press) is in bookshops now.