Irish folklore is full of customs which originated in medieval or even pagan times. Singing and dancing were an integral part of ancient rites, and it is quite natural that they should have survived in modern festivals, so that until recently Christmas time was celebrated in Ireland by groups of singers and dancers who would go from door to door, their songs and jigs being a degeneration of the medieval mummers’ plays. One favorite ballad described a wren which had betrayed St. Stephen to the Roman soldiers, and originally the group carried a wren in a cage and pretended that it was asking for alms. Although such groups are seldom seen today, the wren song is still widely known.
Christmas in southern Ireland-called Nodlaic, from the Latin natalica meaning “birthday”-is celebrated from Christmas Eve to Twelfth-night. Most of the inhabitants are Catholic, and Christmas Day itself is celebrated almost entirely as a religious festival. All the people go to church, where they find the building beautifully decorated and a creche, or manger scene, before the altar.The next eleven days, however, are given over to gay parties and a great deal of visiting.
Houses in Ireland, except in the larger cities, tend to be rather conservative, with things handed down from one generation to another. There are shutters and lace curtains at the windows, religious pictures on the walls, a fireplace with a marble facing, and, inevitably, a tea table, for the Irish are as fond of tea as the English. Fireplaces often furnish the only heat, and many homes are still lighted with kerosene lamps. At Christmas the houses are lavishly decorated with holly, especially in the south, where holly grows wild.
A distinctive feature of the decoration is a very large candle, . which is placed near a front window and lighted on Christmas Eve. Tradition says that it should be lighted by the youngest member of the family and snuffed only by someone named Mary. This light is supposed to welcome Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus, but candle-lighting at this time of the year can be traced back into antiquity, to the time when the ancient Romans lighted candles at their midwinter festival to signifY the return of the sun’s light after the winter solstice. Christmas trees and cards have never been common in Ireland. Their use in the cities in recent years is the result of commercial pressure.
To the Irish people, full of humor, social, emotional, but at the same time deeply religious, true descendants of their Celtic ancestors, Christmas seems a beautiful and happy time, a time for prayer and a time for gaiety, and their attitude is well exemplified in this old carolers’ song:
God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too.
May their barns be filled with wheat and corn,
And their hearts be always true.
A merry Christmas is our wish
Where’er we do appear,
To you a well-filled purse, a well-filled dish,
And a happy bright New Year!