Irish Advent/Christmas Tradition:
In Gaelic, Christmas is called Nollaig, which comes from the Latin natalica, which means birthday. Christmas is an important season to the Irish, lasting from the beginning of Advent until Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany. It is considered unlucky to remove any Christmas decorations before the Epiphany.
At the beginning of Advent, Irish families set out to clean their homes, and if they live in the country, their entire farm. Some families may even go so far as to whitewash everything from the mantelpiece to their entire farms.
Although the German tradition of the Christmas tree has taken over in Ireland as it has throughout the world, evergreens were used as decoration in Irish homes long before trees were brought indoors. The most common Irish decoration is holly. Father Gerard Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington, remembers hunting for ivy and holly with red berries when he was a child in Ireland.
The use of holly can be traced back to the Druids, who put out holly as a kind gesture to fairies who might use the leaves as a hiding place. When Christianity came to Ireland, Christians continued to decorate their doors with holly wreaths and their window sills with sprigs of the plant. The green of the plant symbolizes life during the winter solstice, and the red berries symbolize ChristÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s blood, shed to give life. The holly plant has thorny leaves that symbolize the crown of thorns Christ wore at His crucifixion. As the carol states, holly also yields a white blossom, which is connected with the purity of the Virgin Mary.
In Ireland on Christmas Eve, after the evening Angelus, it is customary to light a large white pillar candle in a front window. One belief says that the candle is lit to serve as a welcome to Mary and Joseph who sought shelter in vain on the first Christmas Eve. For this reason, the candles are lit every night from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. During Penal times when Christianity was a crime in Ireland, a candle in the front window served as a signal to a priest seeking shelter that he was welcome in the home. One tradition states that a daughter named Mary should strike the match to light the candle, another tradition is that the youngest family member lights the candle, and that it should only be snuffed by someone named Mary.
When Ireland was occupied by the British, three candles were lit by Catholic families, one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit.
Just as Americans leave milk and cookies for Santa, the Irish leave milk and bread on the table after the evening meal for the Holy Family as they travel.
Also a tradition stemming from Penal times, the carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is actually a catechism song to help people learn about their Faith. During these times, possession of any written material related to Christianity could get one hanged, so the song was used as a memory aid. The "true love" mentioned refers to God, and what he gives to "me" are the gifts given to every baptized person.
Another song, not as widely known, comes from an Irish tradition. "The Wren BoyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Song" is sung on St. StephenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Day when "Wren Boys" go door to door to collect money for a funeral for the bird. As they go, they sing variations on, "The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, on St. StephenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s day got caught up in the furze. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, give us a penny to bury the wren!"
St. StephenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Day falls on Dec. 26 and commemorates the first Christian martyr, who was killed shortly after ChristÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s crucifixion. In Ireland, Dec. 26 has also become known as La An Droilin, the Day of the Wren.
There are two stories behind the celebration of the wren. One story says that a chirping wren revealed the hiding St. Stephen to Roman soldiers and he was then murdered. Those who believe this story travel the countryside claiming they have killed the bird who betrayed St. Stephen. The other story claims that in the 700s, a wren tapped on a drum as Irish soldiers were trying to overcome a Viking camp and the Irish soldiers were killed.
Wren boys travel around from house to house wearing tattered clothes and covered or painted faces. The day has become a day for parties and fellowship as the wren boys visit all their friends and neighbors. No longer are the wren boys strictly boys, but adults and children of all ages, male and female, celebrate the day together.
Eileen McCormick, a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Winchester, recently visited her grandchildren in Killarney, Ireland, and they are excited about being "Wren Boys" this Christmas and collecting money for charity.
McCormick also said that she remembers that when she was a child in Ireland, everything was closed for the week of Christmas, even the post office. After her recent trip back to Ireland, she said she noticed that many things have changed. When she was a child no one decorated until the week before Christmas, but now all the shops are decorated and advertising Christmas goods. Growing up on a farm in Ireland, her family never had a Christmas tree, but recently, decorating trees has grown more popular. She said that Christmas was more of a spiritual holiday when she was a child. The only people who received presents were young children. Even so, McCormick said, "I loved Christmas. It was marvelous!"
As the Irish say, Nollaig Shona Duit pronounced "NoLik Suna Ditch," Happy Christmas.