Christmas past and present

Of all the Christian festivals, Christmas was considered by the Irish people as the most important. The mid-winter solstice (December 21) is a turning point in the year, with the sun weakening day after day and then miraculously recovering. It was a good time for a feast and mid-winter festivals were celebrated through northern Europe long before the Star of Bethlehem blazed in the Mediterranean sky. A Christian celebration was assimilated to the old traditions as happened with other festivals.

Up to 1917, Advent, like Lent, was a time of fasting. Children were encouraged to say additional prayers; this custom was still strong in Aughadown in the 1950s. Ireland, like many countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own. Many of these customs have their root in Gaelic Christian culture, while others pre-date Christianity.

Seán Ó hAo (1861-1946), usually called Hamit, who lived in Cregg, Glandore, was a fisherman, fluent Irish speaker and storyteller. He was recorded by folklore-collector, Seán Ó Cróinín, in 1939. In all, Ó Cróinín collected over 1,500 pages of folklore from him, including a chapter on Christmas. He called it ‘Féile na gCórsan’ (The Neighbours’ Festival); he relates how the people of Cregg, Brulea and Reenogreena depended mostly on fishing when he was young. Their neighbours, who concentrated more on farming, used to bring presents of butter, potatoes and vegetables in the days before Christmas, but he goes on to state that people had become less sharing – ‘Nil an grá anois mar a bhíodh sí roimis seo’. (The same love isn’t there now like it used to be).

Everybody gave their dwellings, the outhouses and the farmyard a thorough cleaning in the days leading up to Christmas. Usually the dwelling houses were whitewashed. A block of bog-deal or some timber was procured for the Christmas fire (bloc na Nollag). Holly and ivy were the only decorations and they were placed on the clevvy, the mantelpiece and on the small windows on Christmas Eve.

I can vividly remember cutting holly and garlands of ivy in the Cúl Mór field on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, there was no berried holly in Turkhead, but we were quite pleased with the plainer variety. Shortly before Christmas my mother went to town (Skibbereen) to ‘bring home the Christmas’, but making sure that the basics were bought in the local shop, Whooley’s. Usually at Christmas there was some extra money, as there were turkeys to sell at the Christmas market. Every family tried to have plenty food and drink at this time and the purchases included meat, dried fruit, currant cakes, barm bracks, sweets, fruit, bottles of stout and whiskey and toys for the children. Shopkeepers gave Christmas ‘boxes’ to their customers, consisting of seasonal fare, the size of the present proportionate to the amount of the customer’s business during the year. The arrival of the ‘American letter’ or ‘letters’ from relations living in the USA, and always containing some welcome dollars, added to the Christmas cheer.

Seán Ó hAo says that in Cregg people used to have a keg of porter and some whiskey which was shared with the neighbours when they called in. Often a pig was killed for Christmas and pieces were shared with the neighbours.

On Christmas Eve dinner was eaten late in the evening and in many parts of West Cork it consisted of ‘stockfish’ (dried ling), potatoes and white onion sauce. This custom still lives on with some families. As darkness fell candles were placed in every window, usually positioned in a hollowed-out turnip. The main candle – always red – (Coinneal mór na Nollag) was placed in the kitchen and lit by the youngest member of the family (with assistance if necessary), while the man of the house said, ‘Go mbeirimid beo ag an ám seo arís’ (May we all be alive this time next year). The lighted candle signified a welcome invitation to Mary and Joseph who could find no place in the inn; it was also a token for family members away from home and for weary travellers who might be out that night.

Seán Ó hAo says that people used to stay up later on Christmas Night (Oiche Nollag). About ten o’clock the family had the second ‘supper’. At this tea the rich Christmas cake would be cut; tea or coffee was drunk. The older people used to have a hot whiskey. While drinking this, they would say: ‘May we all be well years from now and all our relations wherever they are living’.

Contrary to other times of the year, to hear the cock crow at midnight was considered lucky. This belief existed in Shakespeare’s time. In Hamlet, Act One, we read:

‘Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated / The bird of dawning singeth all night long.’ 

It was held that Jesus was born on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Night, hence the popularity of Midnight Mass. It was believed that in remembrance of that, every year at this time the gift of speech was given to cattle. It was also believed that the cows and the donkey knelt at midnight in memory of Christ’s birth. Thomas Hardy, the great English novelist and poet, expresses this belief in his poem, ‘The Oxen’.

‘Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock / Now they are all on their knees / An elder said as we sat in a flock / By the embers in fireside ease. / We pictured the meek mild creatures where / They dwelt in their strawy pen, / Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then. / So fair a fancy, few would weave / In these years! Yet, I feel / If someone said on Christmas Eve / ‘Come; see the oxen kneel. / In the lonely barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know’ / I should go with him in the gloom / Hoping it might be so.’

(Barton is a farmyard; Coomb is a wooded valley)

Seán O hAo talks about Christmas morning when everybody dressed in their best clothes and walked to Mass, a big crowd together. It was usually dark as they had to be in the church by seven. Sometimes they carried lights – lanterns, but these wouldn’t be necessary if there was a moon. Three consecutive Masses were said. Every family made certain that they brought a bottle of holy water home from church. When they came home the mother sprinkled the holy water in every room of the house and in the outhouses.

The excitement of Christmas Eve was probably surpassed by the anticipation and wonder of Christmas morning. Santa in the 1950s was poorer than today’s Santa, but we were happy with what we got. Maybe my memory is selective, but Christmas morning always seemed crisp and cold with a star-studded sky and a light cover of frost. Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem, ‘A Christmas Childhood’, captures the wonderment of a little boy on Christmas morning:

‘As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry / I knew some strange thing had happened. / Outside in the cow-house my mother / Made the music of milking. / The light of her stable-lamp was a star / And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.’

Entering the church it seemed to us that the crib inside the altar rails was a hushed island of peace. The Christ-child in a bed of straw stretched out welcoming arms to us. The statues that represented Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the farm animals that gazed on Him, were all bathed in a warm light. It was the simplest and most touching thing we would ever see. It remains so to this day; a surprising and welcome constant in a fast changing world.

On Heir Island, where I was born, Christmas Day was a day of sport, singing and dancing. After rising as early as four o clock to cross to Cunnamore Point and walk to Lisheen Church, the people had to walk back again after Mass. After a quick breakfast, all the young men and women gathered on the Trá Bán and most of the day was spent singing and dancing. There were also athletic events – races, long jump, weight-throwing and a football match.

Tomás Ó Criomthain describes Christmas Day on the Great Blasket Island in his book ‘An tOileánach’ – The Islandman. ‘On Christmas Day there was a match in which the whole village was engaged. Two were appointed captains, one for each side. Each of these called in turn until all present on the strand were divided. The match was played with hurleys and ball on the White Strand without stockings or shoes, but out to the neck whenever the ball went into the sea’.

In Cregg, Seán Ó hAo states that they also played hurling. ‘They used to go to the ditches and cut a stump of furze that had a bas (wide part) and a handle. The ball was made of old rags or stockings, tied together with cord. Then they used to select two teams in a field that a farmer would cultivate that year. They used to spend the day playing. Middle-aged men as well as youths, and they would be worn out in the evening, as tired as a hunting hound’.

One of my happiest memories is of Christmas night, seeing the twinkling candles in every neighbour’s window.

‘Would you think Heaven could be a thing so small / As a lit window on the hills at night.’ (Helen Jane Waddell)  

It was considered lucky to see a robin on Christmas morning, so we were all on the lookout for the perky little bird which has become so associated with the festival.

In 1840 Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gothe. The young consort brought with him from his native Germany the custom of bringing a tree into the house at Christmas to decorate and hang presents on. The fashion quickly spread from the royal household and people have been putting up Christmas trees ever since although the custom had not reached Turkhead in the 1950s.

The custom of having holly in the house seems to be very old. It is said to have been done to appease the fairies or the ‘good people’ who appear to have had a considerable say in how harsh the weather was long ago. The custom was Christianised and a new symbolism was given to it. The wreath of prickly berried holly commemorates Christ’s crown of thorns and the drops of blood at the Crucifixion.

The writings of Charles Dickens, especially ‘A Christmas Carol’, had a big influence on Christmas customs in England; customs which we have adopted. People became emotionally involved with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Crachitt, Tiny Tim and the four ghosts – Jacob Marley, Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come; also with scenes of snow, trees and robins.

The Christmases I have described in Turkhead in the fifties, Cregg in the early twentieth century, Heir Island up to the middle of the twentieth century, are quite different to Christmas today. The Christmas we celebrate today is a mixture of old Irish customs, and imported customs principally from England and America. Christmas was always a season of giving presents but it has been transmuted out of recognition under commercial pressure. The commercial festival has been assimilated to the Christmas celebrations, all but overwhelming it.

Christmas, at its core, is a time of giving, of peace and goodwill with the little Babe at its core. It’s time to put Christ back into Christmas and to attempt to practice its message of generosity and love throughout the year. Today’s Christmas, consumerised and to a large degree artificial, does not do justice to the wonderful message of Christmas: joy, generosity and peace. 

It’s not unusual nowadays for people to say that Christmas has become too commercial. Curiously St. Francis of Assisi said something similar in 1224 when he made a crib in Greccio, not far from his home town. For too long, he felt, the Incarnation had been a subject of study by theologians and academics, and lacked a three-dimensional expression for ordinary people. The simplicity of Francis’ Crib became the model of all future cribs throughout the Christian world.

Ireland today is more prosperous probably than it ever was, yet people seem to be less happy, as indicated by the increased number of suicides and the increase in the use of alcohol and drugs. It appears that in this era of posh cars, foreign holidays, big houses and general excess and the need for instant gratification, there is less joy, less neighbourliness. Goldsmith in this poem ‘The Deserted Village’ might have been writing about Ireland today: ‘Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey’; Where wealth accumulates and men decay’.

Máirtín Ó Direain, the great Irish poet from the Aran Islands, captures the simplicity and spirituality of Christmas in his poem, ‘Cuireadh do Mhuire’ – (Invitation to Mary) translated as follows:   

‘Do you know, Mary, / Where you will go this year / Seeking shelter /

For your Holy Child, / When every door / Is closed in His face / By the hate and pride / Of the human race?

Will you accept / My invitation / To a sea-bound island / In the remote West? / Shining candles will be / Lit in each window / And a fire of turf / Kindled on each hearthstone’

Eugene Daly

A retired primary teacher, West Cork native Eugene Daly has a lifelong interest in the Irish language and the islands (both his parents were islanders). He has published a number of local history books and is a regular contributor on folklore to Ireland’s Own magazine. Eugene’s fields of interest span local history, folklore, Irish mythology, traditions and placenames.

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