Irish Christmas Facts - Traditions of the Celtic Holiday Season
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Christmas whitewashing: Around Christmastime, you’ll still find the odd farm building out in the Irish countryside that looks like it’s just been whitewashed. Long ago, farm families cleaned and then whitewashed every building on the farm in December. They were covered in white paint or limewash, to symbolically purify them for the coming of the savior. The tradition traces back thousands of years, not just through Celtic culture, but through other Central European cultures as well.
Before Christmas trees: Having an evergreen-type Christmas tree is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland. Years ago, whole families went out to find holly bushes and ivy to decorate the mantelpiece and other parts of the house. Finding a holly bush with lots of berries was considered a harbinger of good luck in the coming year. Holly was also used because it allowed poor people to decorate their homes in the same way as those who were better off. The bush was so common in Ireland in winter there was plenty for everyone.
It’s considered bad luck to take down holiday decorations before "Little Women's Christmas" (sometimes simply called "Little Christmas") on January 8th.
A welcoming candle: A Christmas candle in the window, still popular not just in Ireland but here in the US, was long displayed as a symbol of hospitality (though Ireland never had a rule quite as strident as Scotland’s “first footing,” the New Year’s tradition dictating that one had to take in and lavishly entertain the very first person to enter one’s home after midnight). Window candles in Ireland were a symbol that the homeowner would welcome the Holy Family – unlike the inn keeper in Bethlehem who bore the guilt of having turned them away. During times of intolerance for Catholicism in Ireland, window candles also were meant to announce that it was safe to say mass in a home.
Leaving a mince pie and a bottle of Guinness out on Christmas Eve was once popular in Ireland. It was meant to be a snack for Santa Claus.
Ancient Celts believed that mistletoe had tremendous healing powers. Christians saw it as such a strong symbol of paganism, in fact, that they banned it until the so-called “revival of Christmas” in the Victorian era.
On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, virtually all schools in Ireland are closed for the day. It is traditionally the nation's number one day for Christmas shopping.
Pantomimes are still performed by small groups of amateurs and professional actors alike in the days following Christmas. Irish “pantos” are humorous productions of Cinderella, Snow White and other familiar fairytales. In them, men frequently play the part of women and vice versa. Generally, there’s a great deal of singing and dancing, with jokes making fun of eminent politicians or celebrities thrown in.
Children in Ireland are accustomed to finding presents left by Santa in their bedrooms, often in a sack at the foot of the bed. An occasional big gift may be left under the Christmas tree, but it’s usually unwrapped.
The Irish Christmas Tree Growers association, which has a goal of fostering the production of "real" Christmas trees in Ireland, has about 100 members. Those of us who've virtually never seen a tree in Ireland are interested to know that the Christmas tree group is actually an outgrowth of the Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA).
Christmas' Roman origin? "Saturnalia," a Roman feast dedicated to the god Saturn, was celebrated on December 17th in pre-Christian times. Some historians believe the holiday was adopted by Christians throughout Europe in the fourth century, and turned into a commemoration of Christ’s birth. The date was changed to December 25th to coincide with the winter solstice on the Roman or "Julian" calendar. A number of old pagan holidays were "Christianized" in this way (All Hallows day is another), because the Church wanted to adopt holidays people were already celebrating widely. A Roman practice of cutting down an evergreen tree on Saturnalia may be the origin of the modern day Christmas tree.