Opinion: from candles in the window and Nollaig na mBan to turkeys and mummers, Christmas traditions in Ireland have a long lineage
Christmas is a festival with ancient roots that continue to inform its development and progress. In the past, the festive season began only a short time before the day itself with little of the commercial hype that accompanies today’s celebrations.
December 8th marked the preparations with shopping for provisions being carried out on that day. Fish was often eaten before turkey became a standard item on the menu, and if fowl was consumed, it was more likely to be goose for the better off and chicken for others.
A RTÉ One's PM report on turkey production in Ireland in 1977
Folk accounts state that it was desirable for everyone to be at home on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A sense of quiet and stillness is also prevalent in folk accounts on Duchas. The Christmas Candle or Candles were important, symbols of welcome for strangers and especially for Mary and her child,Jesus, as they passed.
St. Stephen’s Day was the day for visiting. The Wren Boys were a common sight and continue in many areas to this very day, Dingle being a well-known example. Mummers occupied this niche in other areas and performed a play with stock characters such as Jack Straw, St. George, St. Patrick and others and adapting the lines to the houses the frequented. Gathering money in each house, the pooled the donations and enjoyed a big night at the end of the season.
The date on which the feast fell according to the Julian Calendar, January 6th, remains a more important marker than December 25th
As a solstice festival, Christmas carries associations similar to other calendar events with luck and good fortune being central desires. For example, people were careful not to pay out money for any outstanding bills during the Christmas season as that would set a bad trend in motion that might result in continuing losses for the coming year.
Sporting events took place as well and hurling matches were played on beaches and other open spaces. Participants hoped for bright frosty weather which made the playing conditions more appealing. Before the GAA’s reorganisation, these affairs could be marked by violence as rival factions settled scores with their opponents.
The date on which the feast fell according to the Julian Calendar, January 6th, remains a more important marker than December 25th. Some districts designated January 6th as Little Christmas, whereas Lá Nollag Beag in other areas was New Year’s Day, also known as Lá Caille or Coille. A belief that this date of the Wedding at Cana made it necessary to have all the water in the house before nightfall, as the well water was changed into wine at nightfall.
A common custom saw each member of the household lighting a candle that stood symbolically for their life span
January 6th was called Nollaig na mBan mainly in Munster and the poet Seán Ó Ríordáin’s famous poem Oíche Nollag na mBan records a stormy transition from festivity to ordinary time accompanied by the poet’s characteristic psychic turbulence.
Some areas designated January 6th as Lá Chinn an Dá Lá Dhéag, the last of the twelve days. A common custom saw each member of the household lighting a candle that stood symbolically for their life span. Whichever candle went out first indicated the first of the assembled company who would die. This custom forms the basis for Pádraig Breathnach’s classic short story Na Déithe Luachmhara Deiridh (The Last Precious Gods).
After Christmas the Shrove season set the tone for matchmaking and weddings, with couples wishing to conclude the proceedings before the extreme privations imposed by the arrival of Lent.
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