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An Irish Christmas…
WE Irish love giving
presents — and there’s no better one than an Irish gift. So
if you’re stuck for an idea this festive season here’s a few
ideas — and a look at the history of Christmas time in Ireland.
course, if you were sufficiently Hibernian, you could argue that were
it not for the Irish there would be no Christmas at all. Europe evolved
from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era largely through the
efforts of Irish monks. Without Ireland, the transition could not have
Irish monks and scribes maintained the very record of Western civilization
— copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and
Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever
lost. After the fall of the Roman Empire assorted Goths, Visigoths, Vandals
and Frankish hordes ransacked the content. But across the Irish Sea the
monks and scholars of Armagh, Glendalough etc were quietly working away,
ready to re-introduce Christianity (and Christmas) back into Europe, bringing
a uniquely Irish world-view to the task.
Then again, it wasn’t just the Christians who were responsible for
mid-winter celebrations. The choice of December 25 as the date of Christmas
is a story as complicated as the Good Friday Agreement. The Celts (and
probably the pre-Celts) celebrated their New Year on November 1. This
was the big feast day in early Ireland, and many of the customs of this
festival were moved to the end of December to make Christmas more attractive
to the unconverted. Christianity has always been aware that it’s
The winter solstice on December 21 was also an important date in the ancient
calendar. At Newgrange, where the ancient Irish buried their royal dead,
a shaft of sunlight illuminates the entire passage for 17 minutes on this
day every year, and has done so for at least the last 5,000 years.
In the pagan Roman world, the Saturnalia (December 17) was a time of merrymaking
and exchanging of gifts. December 25 was also regarded as the birth-date
of the Persian god Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness, one of the Middle
Eastern influences in Christmas, aside from Christ himself. All in all,
the dying embers of December seemed to be a propitious time for the early
Christian Church to set out its wares. (In actual fact, the whole idea
of choosing a day for the birth of Christ was a bit of U-turn as early
Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ, considering the veneration
of anybody’s birthday to be pagan).
Christmas candles and Christmas lights owe their existence to both pagan
Celtic and Christian Ireland. The burning of candles has a direct echo
with ancient Celtic practices, and is related to the Yule log. In Celtic
times candles were used for divination — an attempt to prophesy
events. In Christian times, prophesy was out, and the candles now stood
for devotion. Their use was reinforced during the years of religious persecution
in Ireland when candles were put into the windows to attract fugitive
Two of the most persistent customs from Celtic times are the decoration
of the house with holly, mistletoe and ivy. Evergreen plants as symbols
of survival have been around in Ireland since pre-Christian times, being
used as a defence against demons and witches. As any right-thinking person
knows, or at least did then, evil spirits are afraid of green.
The Druids, the old Irish pre-Christian priests, were particularly keen
on the magic powers of holly, placing it on doors and windows to dispel
evil spirits. Mistletoe is the romantic plant around come Christmas, which
is slightly odd. First of all it’s a parasite, and secondly its
name is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated
from bird droppings. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for
dung, and “tan” the word for twig. In other words “dung-on-a-twig”.
From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious,
and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a bestower of
life and fertility; a protection against poison; and an aphrodisiac. So
it was a short step to kissing underneath the plant.
The Yule log is a pagan custom from the Yule festival of pagan Celtic
and Teutonic tribes. The festival was known by the Teutonics as Jiulies
or Guili, and in the Norse lands as Zyule. The log was burned at the winter
solstice, and the remnants of the fire were said to have magical powers.
The Christmas tree itself is a descendant of the Celtic Druid’s
tree worship — each of the Celtic months was marked by a different
tree. However its use in Christmas celebrations seems to be of Germanic
origins, imported to Britain in Victorian times.
Although Christmas is, along with Easter, the main Christian festival
of the year, it is steeped in pagan lore. Christianity was never shy about
incorporating and moving pagan festivals around to make itself more attractive
in the early days of the religion. Truly it can be said that the Christians
nicked Christmas from the pagans, and now the capitalists have nicked
it from the Christians. Today, most of the traditional trappings of Christmas
as we know it come not from Bethlehem but from various parts of Europe,
particularly from the Celtic, Germanic and Norse tribes.