Some of Ireland’s Christmas traditions are rooted in the small island’s own rich and ancient history, whereas others rolled in with the tide over the centuries. In this week’s installment of Folklore Friday, we take an in-depth look at some of the the customs that have contributed to making Ireland one of the most magical destinations one can visit during the Christmas season.
A WHITE (WASH) CHRISTMAS
In the Irish countryside, you'll often see houses being painted white during Advent in an annual tradition dating back centuries. (Shannon DaGrava / Pixabay)
For people in pre-Christian Ireland, the build-up to the Winter Solstice (the darkest time of year, when the number of light-filled hours in the day would be whittled down to as few as seven and a half hours) usually involved a several day-long session of cleaning. This ancient version of spring-cleaning has featured in the studies of many historians, and provides fascinating insight into the values and belief systems of these ancient people.
Thousands of years later, the beginning of Advent (the four-week mark before Christmas) is still marked in many rural parts of Ireland by the whitewashing of houses in order to make them spotlessly clean to honor the coming of Jesus Christ, or, in the case of more secular communities, to prepare for the countless new beginnings brought on by the month of January. Usually, the outside work is attended to by the men in the family, while the women scrub down the interiors of the buildings to cleanse them from the inside out. One only need take a drive through Ireland’s country roads to be met with the sight of dozens of newly-whitened farm buildings agleam under the winter sun!
THE WREN BOYS’ PROCESSION
Wren Boys Procession in Dingle, County Kerry, c. 1990. (National Library of Ireland)
One of the oldest Christmas traditions in Ireland is known as the Wren Boys’ Procession, which takes place on what’s now called St. Stephen’s Day, or Boxing Day. The custom harkens back to a time when the young men of a village would hunt and kill a wren, before carrying it around in a ripped-up holly bush for all to see. Though the tradition died out in the early 20th century, in certain areas such as the town of Dingle, Co. Kerry, children still dress up to carry out a performance every year in homemade costumes, carrying a long pole with a sprig of holly attached to it.
Thankfully, no wrens are harmed in the name of tradition nowadays, although the children’s song hasn’t changed to reflect this. Accompanied by the sound of violins, accordions, harmonicas, or horns, they chant:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze!
Although he was little his honour was great
Jump up, me lads, and give him a treat.
Locals will often give the youths money in exchange for their performance, after being asked for spare change “for the starving wren.”
It’s a little-known theory, however, that the Wren Boys’ Procession is actually a custom first established by the Celtic people of ancient Ireland. In Celtic mythology, the wren was considered a symbol of the year just past, and the bird is well known in Europe for its habit of singing even in the coldest depths of winter, making it a popular subject for the rituals of druids at all times of the year.
The most common wren myth told in Ireland to explain the Wren Boys’ Procession is actually Christian in nature. It tells the story of how one day, God was curious as to who should be crowned the king of all of the birds he had created. He set out a challenge: the bird who could fly the highest and the furthest would be granted the coveted title. The birds all began their flight together, but one by one they grew tired and dropped out. The only bird that remained in flight was the eagle—however, as he began his descent in triumph, a sneaky wren emerged from beneath his wing, soaring higher and further than any other bird in the contest had. This is why the wren is referred to “the king of all birds” in the popular Wren Boys’ Procession rhyme.
In 1955, the song was recorded by famed Irish folk singer Liam Clancy, officially titled “The Wran Song.” Traditional Irish band The Chieftains included a collection of Wren Boy songs in their album, The Bells of Dublin.
WOMEN’S CHRISTMAS (OR NOLLAIG NA MBAN)
"L'Adoration des mages" or The Adoration of the Magi, by Edward Burne Jones, 1904. (Wikimedia Commons / Musée d'Orsay)
Another old Irish Christmas tradition is well-loved by many who discover it: the Feast of the Epiphany, falling on January 6, was also known as Women’s Christmas (or Little Christmas, or, in Irish, Nollaig na mBan) in many parts of the country. This was a day for the ladies of the house to unwind after the strenuous work that Christmas cooking, cleaning, and entertaining often involved for them. In order to give them a well-deserved break, their husbands and sons would do the housework and make the meals while they met at the houses of female friends to sew and enjoy each other’s company. This practise was especially prevalent in the counties of Cork and Kerry. Although the tradition has mostly faded out, some women in Ireland still get together on the Sunday nearest to January 6 to eat, drink, and be merry. In the West of the country, some local venues even plan special events for the day.
Another significant element of Women’s Christmas is that in Ireland (and, interestingly, in Puerto Rico) it is the day on which Christmas trees and decorations are typically taken down. It’s often said that leaving them up any longer than January 6 risks the incurrence of bad luck for the household in the coming year.
Also noteworthy is the fact that a “Little Christmas” is a common figure in Irish set dancing. To perform it, half the set (four of the dancers) join together with their hands linked behind their partners’ lower backs. The whole figure then rotates in a clockwise motion, typically for eight bars. When done right, the figure evokes a powerful sense of festivity, living up to its name in spades!
The tradition of Women’s Christmas is one that has been adopted by many families even outside of Ireland, as a means of giving the ladies of the house the opportunity to unwind after the hard work the holiday season can entail. However, as times move on, we like to think that work is more evenly-split among the sexes during this (and every) time of year. As such, in many instances, there might not be much of a need to celebrate Women’s Christmas in the traditional sense—so why not pick up an extra special post-Christmas gift for an important woman in your life to mark the occasion with a modern twist?
A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW
Candles in the windows of Irish homes are a marker of a welcoming home for weary travelers. (M. Prinkle / Flickr)
The yearly habit of placing a Christmas candle in the window of one’s home is dearly held by many in the United States. However, not everyone is aware that this practise first began in Ireland as a symbol of hospitality and welcome. Window candles were used not just to draw in friendly neighbours for some quality time spent celebrating Christmas, but also to represent that the family was ready to welcome the expecting Mary and Joseph into their midst on Christmas Eve to observe the coming of Jesus. This is, of course, a direct reference to the many innkeepers of Bethlehem who turned the desperate couple away in their hour of need, and, in doing so, necessitated the delivery of the baby Jesus to take place in a manger. Being very serious about their ability to entertain guests, no Irish family would dream of sending someone away in such a manner!
It’s also important to note that, during a time when Catholics were considered second-class citizens in Ireland and were forbidden to legally practise their faith, a candle in a window was used to indicate that it was safe to say mass in this particular household. As such, the candle became a symbol of unity, strength, and hope for this struggling portion of the country’s population.
THE ALBAN ARTHAN FESTIVAL
In relatively recent Druidic tradition, Alban Arthan is a seasonal festival held at the time of the Winter Solstice. However, its ties with true Irish folk history are tenuous at best. Celebrants of the festival speculate that ancient Irish druids would gather at the height of winter by the oldest mistletoe-clad oak in the region. The head druid would climb the tree in order to cut some mistletoe free, while below him, his fellows would hold out a sheet to catch the sprig, ensuring it never once touched the ground. With the use of a golden sickle, the leader of the druids removed the chosen piece of mistletoe with a single swipe, and it was caught below for further ceremonial use.
This holiday is celebrated in a manner that pays homage to the neopagan Holly King, a archetypal figure highly associated with the wren (which, as noted above, is considered by many a symbol of the newly-approaching year). Among neopagans, the Holly King is commonly thought to have been killed by his son and successor, the Oak King, associated with the robin redbreast (another bird very much suggestive of the winter season, and new beginnings). During contemporary celebrations fo Alban Arthan, the battle of the Holly and Oak Kings is acted out in public and private rituals, usually by way of readings, although some interpretations in the past have involved choreographed sword fights.
A CHRISTMAS TUNE FOR THE AGES
Though it doesn’t quite count as folklore in the traditional sense of the word, “Fairytale of New York” is a historically renowned song written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan and recorded by their Celtic rock band, The Pogues. This Irish folk-style ballad is sung a as a duet by MacGowan and singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, and tells the story of an Irish immigrant couple reminiscing and arguing on Christmas Eve, all youthful hopes they once held crushed under the weight of alcoholism and drug addiction. The song has been repeatedly cited as the best Christmas song of all time in various television, radio, and magazine polls in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and rightly so—its melody and lyrics are every bit as beautiful as they are tragically comedic. (Bonus, the music video features a young Matt Dillon.) An Irish fairytale, indeed!
What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Share below in the comments!