Irish Christmas traditions

Historically, the Irish have maintained some unusual Christmas traditions.  In time for Christmas, the Eneclann research team have compiled a brief history and background of some of these very Irish goings-on from different parts of this small country.

Placing a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve.

When I was a child my mother told me the lit candle symbolised a welcome to Mary and Joseph as they neared the end of their journey to Bethlehem.  No matter that my family in Monaghan and Louth was separated from the Holy Family by almost two millennia and more than four thousand kilometres.  In a child’s heart the distances between place and time were erased.

In 1990 when Mary Robinson was elected president of Ireland, she harnessed the rich symbolism of lighting a candle in the window of her official residence, to guide back and welcome the descendants of the Irish diaspora.

In 2013 the lighted candle is an appropriate symbol for The Gathering.

The wren boys on Stephen’s Day.

‘Wren Day’ is celebrated on St. Stephen’s Day, the 26th December (Boxing Day to some of you!).  Traditionally a group, known as ‘Wren Boys’, would go out hunting a wren and once caught, tie it to a pole.  Today (thankfully!) a fake wren is displayed atop a pole.  The group, dressed up in masks, straw suits, old and colourful clothing, are accompanied by traditional music bands as they parade around the town or village collecting money for town celebrations, or nowadays for charity.  Those dressed in straw suits are commonly known as ‘Strawboys’.  Their straw suits are woven in three parts – to cover the head, the chest, and a skirt that covers the legs – similar to those worn by agrarian agitators in the 18th century.

There are many stories as to the origins of this Christmas tradition, including that it is a Celtic druidic ritual, symbolising the past year.  Another is the wren’s association with the betrayal of St. Stephen, whose holy day it is, to a lynch mob by flying out of the bush in which he was hiding.  This story was adapted to an Irish context – in the early 1690s during the Williamite Wars, the Williamite army made camp overnight as they advanced towards a major battle with the Jacobite army.  A Jacobite reconnaissance group found them, and decided to launch a lightning raid, as the sentries had fallen asleep.  A wren pecked at crumbs lying on a drum, and woke the sentries who sounded the alarm and fought off the attack.

In Irish, Stephen’s Day can also be known as Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the ‘Day of the Wren’, showing how the imagery of the wren is tied up with this particular day.  The event nearly died out, but has been revived in places such as Listowel and Dingle, County Kerry, Carrigaline, County Cork and Dublin’s Sandymount Green and is probably most associated with Munster.  It was always, and still is, a local celebration for Christmas with details varying between places.

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