Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Twelve Days of Christmas and other Irish customs

(Informational post by Mom)
Ireland, like most countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own. Many of these customs have their root in the time when the Gaelic culture and religion of the country were being suppressed and it is perhaps because of that they have survived into modern times.
from the website  

The Twelve Days of Christmas  
This old and beloved carol is Ireland's very own. During the centuries when it was a crime to be Catholic and to practice one's faith, in public or private, in Ireland and England "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written as a "catechism song" to help young Catholics learn the beliefs of their faith. It was a memory aid when being caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hung.

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.

A Partridge in a pear tree - Jesus Christ, the son of God.
Two turtle doves - The Old and New Testaments
Three French hens - Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
Four calling birds - The four Gospels and/or the four Evangelists.
Five golden rings - The first five books of the Old Testament (The Pentateuch).
Six geese a-laying - Six days of creation.
Seven swans a swimming - The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Sacraments.
Eight maids a-milking - The eight Beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing - The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (sometimes also listed as the nine classifications of angels).
Ten Lords a-leaping - The Ten Commandments.
Eleven pipers piping - The eleven faithful apostles.
Twelve drummers drumming - The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

The placing of a ring of Holly on doors originated in Ireland as Holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and which gave the poor ample means with which to decorate their dwellings. All decorations are traditionally taken down on Little Christmas (January 6th.) and it is considered to be bad luck to take them down beforehand.

The Laden Table 
After evening meal on Christmas eve the kitchen table was again set and on it were placed a loaf of
bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could avail of the welcome.

The Candle in the Window 

The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas eve is still practiced today. It has a number of purposes but primarily it was an symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they traveled looking for shelter. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as during Penal Times this was not allowed. A further element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name 'Mary'.

St. Stephen's Day (also known as Boxing Day in Northern Ireland)
During Penal Times there was once a plot in a village against the local soldiers. They were surrounded and were about to be ambushed when a group of wrens pecked on their drums and awakened the soldiers. The plot failed and the wren became known as 'The Devil's bird'.

Other lore suggests that a wren betrayed the hiding place of St. Stephen before he was stoned to death and became a martyr.

On St. Stephens Day (the day after Christmas) a procession, known as The Wren Boy Procession
takes place. A pole with a holly bush would be carried from house to house and families dressed up in old clothes and with blackened faces. In olden times an actual wren would be killed and placed on top of the pole. There is a famous song called “The Wren Boys” that was known to be sung as part of this procession. The Chieftains sing this song on their “Bells of Dublin” Christmas CD for those of you interested in hearing this catchy tune.

This custom has to a large degree disappeared but the tradition of visiting from house to house on St. Stephens Day has survived and is very much part of Christmas.

St. Stephen's Day is a national holiday in Ireland and most businesses remain closed until 27 December.

Other Irish Christmas Traditions
Merry Christmas in Gaelic is: Nollaig (Christmas) Shona (happy) Duit (to you) pronounced: null-ig hunna ditsh.

Traditionally the Christmas season begins on 8 December in Ireland and lasts until 6 January. Christmas is a wonderful time to be in Ireland. In Ireland there is still a deeper sense of the meaning of the season here. As you walk through the streets of cities like Cork you may hear choir’s large and small singing on the sidewalks, street musicians with flutes, harps, violins or guitars playing the strains of familiar carols or favorite Christmas recordings wafting from the shops. While few private homes decorate outside beyond the festive wreath on the door, the towns, cities and shops go all out. The Christmas season doesn't really get into full swing in Ireland until December when streets are lined with lit decorations and live Christmas trees are often mounted like flag staffs from building fronts. Larger department stores and shops fill their windows with animated scenes and figures.

Gifts for friends and from family members to each other pile up under the Christmas tree in the days before Christmas and as everywhere a lot of squeezing, shaking and guessing goes on, but in the back of everyone's mind is what Santa will bring on Christmas morning. And there is no peeking or opening any gifts until Christmas morning!

Santa Claus is a very popular fellow in Ireland too. He and his helpers can be found arriving at many malls and department stores by helicopter or fire engine to take Christmas wish lists or for the very lucky children a trip to visit his workshop in Lapland (the North Pole) can be arranged!

In Ireland, Santa works a little differently than in the United States. Instead of leaving everything under the tree he leaves each child's gifts in their room, often in a pillow case at the end of the bed, though sometimes a large gift may be left unwrapped under the tree. Christmas stockings are a tradition with some families and are hung Christmas Eve for Santa to fill. He arrives quite late as Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is still a strong tradition for many families and the chimney is his main entrance into most homes.

As with holiday traditions everywhere, food plays a big part of celebration in Ireland and, just like else where, there is some variation from family to family. A fairly traditional menu for Christmas dinner includes either a Goose or Turkey with stuffing (usually a sage and onion type), ham, roasted and boiled potatoes (Irish meals often include potatoes prepared several ways), brussell sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, parsnips and any other family favorites, followed by Christmas cake or a Christmas pudding. A favorite treat throughout the Christmas season are small mincemeat pies (in the states because of the size they would probably be called tarts). Candy canes are not very popular in Ireland nor wide spread but tons of chocolates is a must for Christmas.

Some photos of Belfast Christmas Market at Belfast City Hall (where Elder Penman was for Christmas 2015):

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