By Michael Fortune
To understand Christmas in Ireland we must stretch our minds back to a time thousands of years before Christianity ever existed. It was at this time of year, in the depths of mid-Winter in Western Europe, that our pre-Christian ancestors marked the Winter Solstice through celebrations marked with fires or through the structures they erected such as at Newgrange in County Meath, or Knockroe in Co. Kilkenny, to mark the movement of the sun.
And so the understanding of the importance of light at this time of year carried through into the Christian belief; it was a star that guided the shepherds to the stable and it is candles that we traditionally placed in our windows at Christmas in Ireland to guide Mary into the safety of our homes.
Our pre-Christian festivals such as Saturnalia or Yuletide were always marked with feasting and excess and Christmas borrowed from this with carols, mumming, plays, hunting and games taking place between the 24th of December and 6th of January.
However, today, emphasis is based around a now two-month consumer lead up to ‘the big day’ and much pressure is placed on a relatively new and contrived construct of celebration which in most cases ends after the Christmas dinner.
Traditional in Ireland, it was the eve of Christmas when the festival truly began. It was on the 24th that my grandmother (1912-2015) claimed that they would begin decorating their house with evergreens such as holly and ivy which were readily available on our ditches.
They made their own garlands, banisters were decorated and sprigs of red-berried holly were placed over picture frames, religious pictures and thresholds within the home. My own father always gave bunches of this holly to neighbours, while the tradition of selling holly in the towns and from door-to-door was, and still is, a custom carried on.
Needless to say the Christmas tree wasn’t native to us here. It is said that Charlotte of Mecklenburg, the German wife of English King George III, put up the yew bough in 1800 and the tradition which developed eventually made its way here.
However, most rural people I’ve interviewed never had trees until the 1960s and if they did, it was a small affair, in the form of a bough in a bucket, left up on a table.