Irish History: Volume III
Ancient Irish Yuletide Traditions, Part 2
If you caught Part 1, you already know that ancient Ireland is the direct ancestor of many Christmas traditions, with the Catholic church adopting and adapting many Pagan practices into their own religion. But we were only just getting started! Ireland (like many other European countries with similar festivities in midwinter,) has contributed to many more modern traditions than you might think.
First off: the Yule log. Here in the U.S., you might immediately equate that to that warm, crackling, flickering fireplace you can leave playing on your TV (Netflix apparently has had four versions in the past, and Hulu even had one with puppies—go big or go home, America!) There’s also a traditional Christmas dessert with the same name in a different language: “Bûche de Nöel.” This rolled, flourless chocolate cake is filled with cream and often decorated with festive additions and powdered sugar to resemble snow, though it’s more popular in the UK and France than America. However, both these quintessential Christmas traditions come from an older concept: bringing the warmth of the communal fire into the home and hearth during the darkest time of the year.
The ancient Irish version of the Yule log (or “Bloc na Nollaig”) tradition took a more literal form: it was originally an entire tree chopped down, trimmed into a log, and brought into the house. But these weren’t what we think of as Christmas trees! Though fireplaces were much larger in those days, as they had to be used for cooking as well as heating the whole house, the idea was for the tree to be too big—it would stick out into the living space and be slowly fed into the fire throughout the 12 days of the midwinter celebration, or longer, depending on the log. The log itself had to be either from the household’s land, or a gift—people would gift their elderly or ill neighbors Yule logs so no one was cold on the darkest nights of the year. A small part of the log would be kept to start next year’s fire.
But what did the Irish do with all the branches they trimmed off their Yule log? They decorated, of course! The evergreen boughs, holly, and mistletoe we still think of as Christmas décor today were all common in ancient Ireland and used the same way we use them now—to remind us of warmer, greener times while we gather with family and friends. The Irish also added the belief that holly offered a place of rest for any good fey fleeing the cold, and protection from any evil afoot in the dark. There’s even an old Irish myth that midwinter marked the battle between the “Holly King” and the “Oak King,” with the solstice crowning the Oak King’s victory—kind of like an ancient Groundhog’s Day…you finally know spring is coming. (This is also the seed of the tradition of sometimes crowning Celtic Chieftains in holly.)
While we can deduce the modern Christmas tree came from a combination of the two traditions above, the early Irish’s reverence of the natural world attached more significance to this flora than we perhaps do today. All evergreen plants were considered sacred, a symbol of eternal life through the natural world as the great wheel of the sun continues to turn ever onward. Holly grows all over Ireland, even today, and was a way for even the least fortunate family to celebrate in their homes (just don’t forget the gloves if you go picking!) After the 12-day celebration, families would return their holly boughs and wreaths to the natural world by leaving them to fertilize other plants or burning them.
Mistletoe was even more revered than holly—the Pagans believed it represented the divine in the natural world and that it had miraculous properties. We now know that mistletoe is actually a hemiparasitic plant—meaning it can’t grow on its own, but needs access to a host plant’s water and nutrients—making it uncommon. All the early Irish knew was that it was rare, and therefore extraordinary, with Druidic priests making special trips into the woods to gather it. In fact, it was considered so sacred that it was once Celtic law that if two battling enemies encountered mistletoe, they were required to stop and call a truce until Yuletide was over. This fact, plus the belief that it was also an aphrodisiac and fertility blessing, is how we ended up with the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe today!
Visit the blog next week for our final installment of ancient Irish Yuletide traditions, or catch up on last week here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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