Christmas and New Year in Ireland Long Ago

And so we come to the great Feast of Christmas and the end of the year. Christmas, like Hallowe’en, was also an ancient time for commemorating the dead and approximated to the winter solstice. Holly, as a means of decorating the house, is now joined by commercially‑produced streamers and tinsel; and the Christmas tree, still absent in simple traditional country homes, has come from central Europe to invade our cities and towns. One of the most beautiful of our old Irish customs is that of lighting one large candle in the kitchen window on Christmas Eve, as well as a smaller one in each of the other windows of the house. This was said to be in honour of the Holy Family who sought shelter on that night long ago, and the lights also served as a beacon for lonely and homeless wayfarers. The placing of a large log (bloc na Nollag) at the side of the open hearth in Irish homes for the Twelve Days of Christmas had a possible counterpart in the tithe éigin (‘need fires’) custom in Gaelic Scotland. The religious observance of Christmas is, of course, the principal expression of the Feast in present‑day Ireland, as it has been down through the centuries.

There is no trace that I know of in Irish tradition of the European celebration of the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26) by horse-riding around castles and such; the fact that he is regarded as the patron saint of horses does not seem to have left any mark in this country. The day was, instead, popularly observed by “wren-boys” (say ‘ran‑boys’), groups of boys or young men who went from door to door carrying a holly bush, on which was either a dead wren; or something to represent the bird. They sang a song which began:

“The wren, the wren (pronounced ‘ran’), the king of all birds,
St.Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his family is great,
So rise up, landlady, and give us a treat; (say ‘trate’)
Bottles of whiskey and bottles of beer,
And I wish you all a Happy New Year.”

When the song had ended (often in the grey dawn, as rival groups tried to be first in their visit to each house), they would be given some money. All wore masks or some other facial and bodily disguise, in the traditional manner of carnival singers the world over. This custom is still strong in some areas, but has died out almost completely in others. People in many districts still abstain from meat on St. Stephen’s Day; the reason popularly given for this is that, when plague threatened the parish in olden times, the people prayed to St. Stephen to save them—which he did—and ever since they have thanked hbim in this way. It is possible too that, since meat was a comparative rarity in olden times, people ate so much of it on Christmas Day that they did not feel like eating more the next day.

Lána Leanbh (Children’s Day: Feast of the Holy Innocents) fell on December 28 and, for some unknown reason, was known also as Lá Crosta na Bliana (“The Cross Day of the Year”). The word “cross” (crosadh) here signifies prohibition: people would not begin any kind of work on that day or dig a grave or get married.

New Year’s Eve, the last night of the old year, was known as Oíche Chinn Bliana (Year’s End Night) and Oíche na Coda Móire (The Night of the Great Feast). Candles were again lighted in the windows and special food was eaten. It was a night which was associated with the dead too, and both they and absent members of families were remembered in the family rosary. As the New Year, with its many uncertainties, was near at hand, a cake of bread was dashed against the door to banish the danger of hunger, and the rise or fall of rivers was observed to foretell whether prices would correspond during the ensuing year. There was no general tradition of bidding goodbye to the old year and welcoming in the new one, which is now internationally observed in modern times.

From the booklet, ‘Irish Folk Belief and Custom’, by Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903 – 1996), published in 1967 for the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland.

A Box of Christmas Readings