These days, Christmas can make us feel like we have reached “peak stuff.” A modern Christmas is made up of awful crowds, getting trapped in shopping centre car parks, and long, soul-destroying queues. But it wasn’t always like this. Let’s remember some Irish Christmas traditions from way back when there were no queues in sight.
By Nicole Buckler
For as long as humans have been in Ireland, they have celebrated midwinter. Our modern “Christmas” is just the latest incarnation of this celebration. However, many of us feel that we have lost the meaning once ascribed to the month of December. So let’s go back and remember how Irish people traditionally celebrated the darkest part of the year.
Before Christianity transposed itself onto this time of year, we celebrated the winter solstice with abandon. Mean Geimhreadh (midwinter) as it was called in Irish was celebrated on December 21. Evidence from Newgrange, where the ancient Irish buried their royal dead, leaves us in no doubt that this was an important date in the ancient Irish calendar.
At Newgrange, a beam of sunlight illuminates an entire passage in the ancient tomb structure. This happens for 17 minutes on December 21, and it has been happening for at least 5,000 years. It will probably go on for another 5,000 years if we’re careful to preserve our history. The alignment of this ray of sunlight represents the Sun God, placing new life into the womb of Mother Earth. It is a hope of seeing new life in spring. And, a big “phew” to the fact that the days will start getting longer and the hard times will hopefully be behind us.
The ancient Irish celebrated the rebirth of the sun because as an agricultural society, their survival depended mostly on crops. The return of the sun was paramount to life. Other monuments across Ireland also stand testament to the celebration of the end of darkness: Knowth and Loughcrew are also aligned to the winter solstice.
‘Solstice’ by the way, means standstill. To the ancients, these were the three days around December 21st when the sun appeared to ‘stand still.’ All they knew back then is that the sun rose and set in the same place for a few days.
Celebrations held in December have always been steeped in pagan lore. The winter solstice is probably the oldest seasonal festival of the Irish. But it wasn’t just the Irish who went hard-core at this time. December 21 was similarly celebrated across Western Europe and Scandinavia, especially in areas connected with the ancient Celts.
The pre-Christian priests – the druids – called the festival of midwinter ‘Yule.’ The word is thought to come from ‘Thoul’, an ancient word for wheel. The Celts thought of the sun as a wheel, rolling through the heavens, giving long and short days. Arriving at the shortest day meant that people could once again look forward to the days getting longer.
Pagan celebrations on the darkest night of the year went on well into the morning to welcome the new light. And we’ve all been there. With ale, probably. In the Celtic lands, celebrations always included a large feast and huge bonfires. The remaining animals were slaughtered (their feed was usually running out by this point) and drinks which had been left to ferment over the colder months was ready to drink! Geese, ducks, beef, sheep and pork were all loaded up onto the roasting spits in the halls of chieftains in medieval times.
All this celebrating lightened the mood from life in the grip of winter. The days were dark and the sun low in the sky, the trees were naked of their leaves, and the ground was sterile and frozen. People were desperate for the light to return – the birth of the sun.
As Christianity spread westward across the Roman Empire, it encountered the Celtic world. The Celts already had their own gods and goddesses and elaborate belief systems. These were tied to nature, the seasons, and celestial movements. To make the conversion of the natives less jarring, Christians superimposed their own celebrations over pagan festivals.
Soon enough, the Church of Rome had overlaid the Celtic birth of the Sun with the birth of the Son. The indoctrinated Celts now worshipped the birth of Christ instead of the birth of the sun. But, both the sun and the Son offered to banish the dark and welcome the light.
By the 8th century, the traditional twelve-day pagan festival had been adopted by the Church as a sacred season and renamed the Twelve Days of Christ Mass. The old Celtic festival of feasting, merrymaking, singing, dancing, fun-loving anarchy and ‘misrule’ which took place at the end of December, was now a religious festival.
Fast forward to modern times. Now that we are becoming more secular, we find ourselves remembering our pagan roots. In fact, some people have even started celebrating midwinter and “Yule” once again. Plus, modern Irish people are creating new traditions all the time. Christmas is ever-evolving, and it always has been. There are some absolutely beautiful traditions from our midwinter past that we can revive for our enjoyment and as a way to remember our indigenous Irish history.
Ceremonial Yule Log
Most people think of a “yule log” as a chocolate cake that is served only at Christmas. If you ask anyone what the yule log cake represents, they will say, “Err I think it is German?” No, it’s not! It is Irish and Celtic! While the yule log cake is the most delicious thing going in December, the reason why people serve the cake is because they have ceased using actual yule logs in midwinter. But the traditions surrounding yule logs are wonderful, and deserve to be resurrected.
The yule log was once at the heart of the midwinter celebration, the highlight of the solstice festival. It represented hope for the future and the fire would burn away old wrongs. But here’s the loveliest part of the tradition: the yule log must be acquired from the householder’s land, or have been given to the householder as a gift.
A yule log, or Bloc na Nollaig as it was called in Ireland, cannot be bought for your own house. At first, the yule log was an entire tree, cut down and brought into the house complete with a special ceremony. That was in the days when fireplaces were huge, built for warmth but also for cooking. One end of the yule log would be placed in the fireplace while the rest of the tree stuck out into the living room!
The yule log would usually be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Sometimes the logs were so heavy they had to be dragged to the house by an animal or by multiple men. As families dragged their logs home, passers-by would greet them. That’s why vintage Christmas cards usually featured idyllic pictures of strong men dragging a huge log through the snow, wishing the recipient a happy Yuletide. Or children, looking healthy and happy while they dragged their little log.
As part of this custom, logs were given to widows and elderly people and poor villagers, to make sure everyone had a warm fire during the solstice. This log was intended to be burned over the twelve nights of Yule, so as one end burned down, the log would be shoved further into the fireplace until just ashes remained after nearly two weeks.
Over time, as houses developed kitchens and a separate fireplace for warmth rather than cooking, yule logs were cut into smaller pieces; one piece was intended to burn for a night. Whether the yule log was an entire trunk or a chunk of one, it still was decorated and fussed over as part of the celebrations.
Once the log had been acquired and cleaned up, it was decorated. It might be wrapped in seasonal greenery, like holly leaves and berries. Pine cones were another popular decoration, with their edges dipped in gold paint. Then, the log was soaked with whatever alcohol was available at the time, and dusted with flour.
When it was ready to light, tradition held that it would be set aflame using an ember saved from last year’s log. Once lit, the log was left to burn through the night. This was intended to conquer the darkness, protect against evil spirits, and bring luck. The leftover ashes were saved until spring, and then mixed with seeds, and planted in the garden or fields.
And here are the rules which have never changed: once lit, the yule log must stay alight for the entire first night. It was considered unlucky to light it again. So, people stayed up all night, drinking and feasting, to ensure the flames didn’t die. It’s a damn good excuse to keep the party going, anyway.
Traditionally, Irish people would sit around the log and tell ghost stories, sing and play cards. So, this Christmas (or whatever you celebrate at the solstice) you could give the beautiful gift of a Bloc na Nollaig to friends and family, and explain the lost Irish tradition behind it.
You can even personalise your yule log, and include the whole family in decorating it. If the log is for you, make a note of all of the things you want to let go of. Place this note into the log, and watch it burn away into the night.
In these days of tiny modern fireplaces, gas fireplaces, and even smoke restrictions in large cities, a fantastic alternative is the candle yule log. In this case, carve holes into the top of a log and place tea lights or other candles into them. Or simply glue tealights onto the top of a decorated log. The log can then be decorated as usual. It is a modern present, yet still infused with real meaning that recipients will love.
Another more chic way of giving a yule log is to bundle together a large bunch of sticks, all cut to the same size. Then bind them with string and holly to put a beautifully modern twist on the yule log gift. Glue candles onto the stick bundle log for a great effect.
You could even consider asking a florist to make you a nice yule log to give as a present this Christmas. And if you are a florist? Get on the yule log thing, we have a lot of readers, it will become a “thing” in no time!
During the solstice, Irish people decorated their houses with evergreen branches. These gave a sense of wellbeing akin to being in the green surroundings of the warmer months. It reminded people that spring would come again soon. In the Irish tradition, a house featuring evergreen branches such as holly, mistletoe and ivy offered a place of rest to spirits fleeing cold and darkness. They were considered a strong defence against demons and witches.
Now, we use red and green tinsel around the house and put a green wreath on the front door, but many people have forgotten exactly why we do this. Ancient Celts revered evergreen plants as a symbol of eternal life. Holly was an important ancient symbol for the Irish; it was particularly magical as it was “neither tree nor bush.”
Scouting for holly was the children’s job at the solstice. Finding a holly bush with lots of berries was considered a harbinger of good luck. And the practice of decorating the house with holly allowed poor people to decorate their homes in the same way as those who were richer. Holly was everywhere and the poor could be as fabulous – decoratively speaking – as the wealthy.
Decorating the house all over with the holly bush was the precursor to the modern idea of bringing an evergreen tree inside the house during the solstice and decorating it. The modern Christmas tree was the next logical step from this tradition. This is especially true for people of Celtic descent, seeing as the Irish worshipped trees for centuries.
You could make your own yule wreath for your door, or give one to others. Make sure to wear gloves when collecting the holly! After New Year’s Day, you can burn the wreath or return it to nature. Now you know the real meaning of the phrase deck the halls with boughs of holly.
The ancient Irish loved a bit of mistletoe, hung as decoration, at midwinter. To the Celts, mistletoe had miraculous properties; it represented the Divine. Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest it. But unlike holly, it wasn’t easy to come by. Mistletoe was rare in Ireland, but children and druids from Limerick and Wicklow had an easier time because it was more plentiful in those counties.
Celtic law deemed mistletoe so sacred that warriors battling beneath it were required to cease fighting and exchange greetings. In fact, the two enemies were obliged to call a truce until the Christmas period was over. This tradition eventually evolved into the more recent practice of kissing beneath the mistletoe, and from there the fertility legend began.
Christians, however, saw mistletoe as a sign of wild paganism. They banned it until the Victorian era, when they gave up making a big deal of it. For the Celts, mistletoe is probably the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plant of indigenous folklore. It was also thought of as an aphrodisiac. No wonder this has morphed into a tradition of “shifting” under a sprig of it.
At Christmas, some people in Ireland still hang up plastic mistletoe. However, we need to revive the tradition of going into the forest to find some real mistletoe. It is such a lovely pastime, too nice to lose.
Candles in the Window
Some customs from the Yule of yore still exist today. One particularly Irish tradition that is really lovely and ancient – but is fast becoming lost – is the tradition of the big candle (Coinneal Mór na Nollaig) displayed prominently in the window facing the road.
Burning candles at Yuletide was a special event. They were usually lit by the youngest members in the household, using the stub of the previous year’s candle. The biggest candle in the window had a special purpose. Celtic pagans lit candles during midwinter for divination purposes. During yuletide, the candles facing the road were stared into and prophesies made… but they were also about showing passers-by that they were welcome into the house should they feel hungry or cold. And yet, some of the candle traditions were a bit creepy.
It was a medieval Irish custom to light a candle for everyone in the family and foretell who would die first according to the order the candles burned out in. When the Christians came along, they were horrified by this craic and transposed their own traditions over these pagan superstitions.
Soon, prophesy was out, and the candles stood for devotion. The tradition of having a candle in the window even morphed into a religious symbol. It soon signified that the householders would take in Mary and Joseph in their time of need, unlike others in Bethlehem. And, as the Catholic religion was suppressed, it later became a symbol offering shelter to passing fugitive priests. It was also a sign that it was safe to say mass in the home.
The invention of safe, electric candles means we can all have a good, solid candle in the biggest window once more. This would truly give us a lovely, historic feeling of a midwinter tradition that has been around for thousands of years. All of these practices are so meaningful and ancient – they should not be lost. Get on it this Christmas!
Why is December 8th the Traditional Christmas Shopping Day?
We all joke about it… the day people come to the big smoke to do all their shopping for Christmas. Many people even take a few days off work and make it an annual event. So why is the 8th of December the day that people do this? Well, it is because of the tradition of Margadh Mór.
The Margadh Mór (big market) comes from a time in Ireland when there were no shopping centres or retail parks. People came from all over the county to attend the Margadh Mór so they could ‘bring home the Christmas.’ And the Margadh Mór was huge.
In a time before XBox and fast fashion, the Margadh Mór was where you went to sell your butter, eggs, hens, geese, turkeys, bacon, potatoes and other vegetables. And after you had shifted all your produce, you could buy stuff to bring home: meat, tea, tobacco, whiskey, wine and beer, dried fruit, spice, sugar for the Christmas puddings, toys and sweets for the children, and new clothes. These markets only died out quite recently – when it become easier to preserve and distribute food, the supermarkets took over.
So, the Margadh Mór on the 8th of December became less of a market day, and more of a modern event in the shopping districts of the bigger cities across Ireland. However the date still holds a special place in the heart of Irish people, especially those from the country who were able to enjoy the Margadh Mór for a lot longer than the townies of the time. So next time someone asks you why December 8th is THE shopping day for Christmas, you’ll know the answer.
Wishing you a merry Midwinter, happy Christmas, and a festive Yule – however you choose to celebrate, keep some of our old traditions alive.