Ancient Irish Yuletide Traditions, Part 3
Are you cold? Grab another blanket and settle in with a nice mug of tea (this is Ireland, forget the coffee) to read about a few more Irish Yuletide traditions. This installment has some that might really surprise you!
While American Christmas decorations are, well, often very American (take this 8-foot, LED lit Gingerbread Man, for instance,) the ancient Irish actually started one of our more understated looks. Who doesn’t love passing an old colonial with just one candle in each window? It always looks like a Christmas card come to life—those little flickers of light in all the darkness of 4 pm. The Irish called this custom “Coinneal Mór na Nollaig” (literal translation: the Great Christmas Candle, as they usually just had the one) and it was a sign that anyone cold, weary, or in need would find hospitality inside. It was tradition to have the youngest member of the family light the new candle with the stub of last year’s candle—a way of passing on the good fortune of your year to the next.
Eventually, as Paganism gave way to Christianity, these candles came to signify something less warm. When Catholicism was being oppressed through British, Protestant rule, the candle was lit and the doors left unlocked as a sign to any priests that they were welcome in that home to say a Christmas mass. When suspicious British soldiers asked about the candles, families had a plan ready: they simply said it represented a light for Mary and Joseph, to tell them they would have been welcome in their home. The British soldiers bought it, and some families, even today, hold on to the false explanation—it’s closer, after all, to the original intent.
On a lighter note: if you had to speculate, you’d probably hazard a guess that “Black Friday” was something cooked up by corporations to help boost their fourth quarter sales, right? And, in its modern iteration, you’d probably be right…but the ancient Irish did do it first! Since they obviously didn’t have Thanksgiving to mark the beginning of the holiday season, they chose December 8th for the “Margadh Mór” aka The Big Market! When Ireland was almost all rural, people would gather (generally at a crossroad, where they also gathered to dance!) to sell their wares and buy special items and gifts for the holidays to “bring home the Christmas.”
Now, these items and gifts generally weren’t the new iPhone or even new socks, but more closely in line with the Pagan tradition of feasting and giving. While the farmers went to sell their eggs, meat, and produce, they went to buy imported items that were special treats often reserved for the holiday for everyone but the wealthiest. Tobacco, tea, wines and beers, dried fruits and spices not native to Ireland, and even, simply: sugar. Sellers would often give gifts to their customers (kind of like our Black Friday discounts today,) and, much like Toys for Tots or the myriad of other Yuletide charities we have, the most prosperous farmers would make sure their less fortunate neighbors had a fresh Yule meal!
Lastly, while the UK and Canada have Boxing Day (and Americans have “lie around in your pajamas if you don’t work in retail”) the day after Christmas, the Irish originally had “Wren Day.” We mentioned “The 12 Days of Christmas” in our first installment of this series, but have you ever wondered what’s so special about a partridge in a pear tree? Many think it’s actually a reference to Saint Stephen’s Day, or as it was known before the church got involved: Wren Day. This tradition goes back to the Celtic myth (similar to that of the Holly King and Oak King in our previous post) that the robin of the New Year killed the wren of the old during the midwinter celebrations. Thus, there were “Wren Boys” who would wear disguises, chase and kill a wren, and sing as they placed it in its tree.
The tradition of chasing and tying a dead bird to the top of a holly bush or pole becomes a little more palatable when you learn that wrens in ancient legend often represented a betrayer (first to the Celts for betraying them to invaders, and later to the Christians as St. Stephen was also betrayed by the distinctive song of the wren.) Don’t worry, these days wrens are no longer harmed the day after Christmas, but certain areas of Ireland have turned this grisly concept into something more in line with Pagan celebrations of togetherness. For example, in Dingle, one can attend a Wren Day parade where money is collected for charities by a new version of Wren Boys. Though, a bit of the tradition does live on—it’s possible you’ll play the part of the wren and get chased!
Ultimately, the ancient Irish’s Yuletide traditions are a precursor to our own, because humans, at their core, need to be reminded that, eventually, the darkness will end. There’s no year better to remind ourselves of this fundamental truth: that to be human—no matter your religion, ethnicity, or even time in history—is to look for hope. So from us here at SRL, to you at home celebrating the return of the sun however you like, leathanta saoire sona agus athbhliain faoi mhaise duit!
This post is part of a series, read about more Irish Yuletide traditions here and 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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