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18 December 2008 Edition

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Christmas traditions - The weird, the wonderful and the Irish

Weird and wonderful traditions

SO YOU THINK you know what makes a traditional Christmas? Well think again. Some of our deeply-held Christmas traditions are actually relatively new. Exhibit A: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – created in 1939. Exhibit B: The idea of Christmas with “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – written in 1944... during a sweltering July!
Other Christmas traditions have histories that predate not just Santa’s sleigh but the whole Christian period, beginning with even the Christmas tree.
One common thread through all Christian traditions is their sheer inventiveness and adaptability, the evolution of St Nicholas through Sinter Klaas into Santa being just one example. ROBBIE SMYTH delivers his Top 10 of weird and wonderful Christmas traditions that we were just not that sure about where they came from or even what they really were.
To cap it all, he highlights seven Irish Christmas traditions. 

The Traditional Christmas Top 10 Countdown

10. That Speech

WHAT is known in Britain as “The Royal Christmas Message” began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by King George V. The first televised broadcast was made by Elizabeth II in 1957 and Liz has held a monopoly on broadcasts ever since (though I don’t think the BBC are planning to release the box set just yet).
One of the great things about Christmas traditions is that there is always room for more and in 1993 Channel 4 began an alternative Christmas message broadcast at the same time as Lizzie’s irritating monologue. The need for monarchs to dominate public airwaves is, it seems, viral and Spain’s Carlos, (the one who told Chávez to shut up), Denmark’s Margrethe and Sweden’s Gustaf all get their few minutes every year too.

9. Christmas Stockings

NO general agreement here, but the clogs left near the fire by Dutch children for Sinter Klaas is a strong contender, as is the not very PC St Nicholas tale of the father who could not marry off his three daughters unless he had a dowry and Nicholas left bags of money in each girl’s stockings drying by the fire.
Perhaps the most believable is that famous American illustrator Thomas Nast used it as one of his Christmas pictures for Harper’s weekly magazine and the idea just grew. Mind you, the day of a child’s Christmas present fitting in any stocking is long gone.

8. The 12 Days of Christmas
SO, when do the 12 days of Christmas actually start? A web trawl yields common agreement that Christmas Day, 25 December, is the first day and the 5 January is the twelfth day, and so the Little Christmas, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January is the end of the Christmas.
One explanation for a two-week Christmas blast is that the solstice and Roman festivals usurped by the nativity were two weeks long so the extended festivities were needed to level the playing field, but it doesn’t explain the annoying song which a lot of sources on the web claim was a coded English Catholic ditty outlining core tenets of the Cathecism.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Google and you will find that all of these sources of the song’s supposedly secret history revert to an article written in 1982 by a Catholic priest, Harold Stockert, from New York. All of his sources for this claim were destroyed in a plumbing leak but the myth is still growing.

7. Yule Logs
THERE are both Germanic and Viking claims to the yule log burnt during the Solstice period and transferred to Christmas. The log was lit on the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, to ward off evil. Oak brings healing, strength and wisdom. Pine brings prosperity and growth. In Viking lore the log was engraved with specific requests for the coming year. Different woods were attributed to different effects. The log could sometimes be doused in alcohol or spirits.
In later years the log becomes a chocolate-covered cake and, in 1966, WPIX, Channel 11 in New York started a new ‘tradition’ of a televised yule log burning in a grate and it has been shown on US TV annually ever since. Through the wonders of YouTube you can watch it anytime you want.

6. Kissing Under the Mistletoe
CELTIC and Norse traditions both used mistletoe in religious rituals. Mistletoe had been a symbol of death until a Norse goddess declared it a symbol of love signified by kissing under it.
Every time a kiss is shared, a berry should be plucked from the sprig.

5. Christmas Cards
JOHN Calcott Horsely commissioned the first Christmas card in 1843 from illustrator Henry Cole and what was considered a passing fad has grown ever since.
Other than an occasional birthday card, Christmas cards are the only snail mail many of us actually post.

4. Christmas Tree
TREE worship was quite common, especially in pagan Europe, and legend has it that St Boniface, an English Christian missionary in Germany during the eighth century, cut down a giant oak tree used by local pagans to worship the Norse god, Thor.
A Fir tree grew out of the oak and so a Christian tradition was born. Decorating homes with green leaves and branches is a tradition that is found in the Egypt of the Pharaohs and Rome in its heyday but it’s the German evergreen that gives us the Christmas tree. Boniface is also reputed to have used the triangular tree to explain the idea of the Holy Trinity but wasn’t that why we have the shamrock?
Reasons for the tree catching on outside of Germany come down to two sources, the first and most commonly quoted is the impact of the German Prince Albert on the British ‘royals’ and the importing of German traditions into England. In 1846, the London Illustrated News published a drawing of Albert, Victoria and three of their children standing by a small tree decorated with lights and so a new trend grew in Britain. The Germans are credited with inventing tinsel and even Martin Luther had a Christmas tree, so it was an idea not before its time.
The second flank opened by the Christmas tree was in the USA, where German emigrants settled in Pennsylvania and where also regiments of German Hessian soldiers fought with Britain in the US revolution.
One recent Christmas legend has it that when Hessian troops were occupied with celebrating Christmas on 25 December 1776, George Washington was able to cross the Delaware River, routing them in the Battle of Trenton where 900 soldiers out of a force of 1,400 were captured.

3. Nativity Cribs

YOU thought it was just about Away in a Manger but in fact cribs are an early demonstration of class struggle (well, almost).
We have St Francis of Assisi to thank for the nativity crib found in many Christian homes and churches. Pictures of the Christ birth were common through the early centuries of Christianity with various scenes from the nativity story covered.
In 1223, Francis and some of his fellow monks enacted the first nativity play to remind people that Jesus was for all, as shown by his lowly birth in a stable to parents who, as a carpenter and his wife, represented simple, honest labourers. What was called the Presepio in Italian spread throughout the state and beyond into Europe and is found in many Christian traditions throughout the world.

2. Santa’s Reindeer
IF YOU’RE like me and you can’t get past remembering Rudolph, listen up.
Once again New York City is the source of this tradition and an 1823 poem written by Clement Clark Moore, A Visit from St Nicholas, was written for his children and is more commonly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Santa arrives with “eight tiny reindeer”, the names of which are: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph of the red nose joins the team in 1939, courtesy of Robert L May who had been working for the Montgomery Ward department store. In 1948, composer Johnny Marks wrote the song.
Montgomery Ward had commissioned the Rudolph story as a gimmick to give a free Christmas book to customers.

1. Egg Nog
YOU will probably have seen it name-checked on TV, usually in American films about Christmas, but haven’t a clue what it is (well I didn’t!).
Forgive my ignorance, even though there are over two million references to it on Google. At its basic level it is a drink made from milk, cream, sugar and beaten eggs and can be flavoured with ground cinnamon and nutmeg, and on and on.
In the US version there is usually alcohol involved, though the non-alcoholic version is sold commercially around Christmas alongside the milk in shop fridges. You add the whiskey, vodka or rum in the privacy of your own home. The ‘nog’ comes allegedly from the old English word ‘noggin’, meaning wooden cup. 

An Irish super seven Christmas traditions

 OK, so the Christmas An Phoblacht is a sort of tradition and although there were a few years of “Santa’s in the RA” T-shirts (particularly the 1989 version), they have sadly just become collector’s items and are not therefore technically ‘traditional’.
If you own one and are still wearing it on festive occasions, you would do well to send it in the post care of John de Chastelain, North Pole, for ‘putting beyond use’. It is probably a bit stretched and well-worn now anyway. Consistent use of said T-shirt could get you on the naughty list permanently. By the way, you should probably get rid of the 1988 league and cup double Celtic jersey with the CR Smith logo too. Splash out for Christmas and get a new one.

7. Holly

WE are not claiming that the Irish invented holly but there is a strong case for the Irish using it as a Christmas decoration and bringing that tradition to the USA as emigrants and making the traditional wreath one of holly.
Like other trees, Holly was used in druidic customs. Particularly as it was so vividly green and red during winter. It was seen to have magical qualities. Be warned, though, if you are bringing it into your homes as you have to bring branches from male and female trees otherwise whichever gender is left out will be dominated by the other in that household throughout the coming year. You have been warned.

6. Candle in the Window

I THOUGHT this was a universal practice but it turns out to be an Irish one (Google can’t be wrong, can it?) similar to the laden table below, where households were welcoming the wandering Holy Family or other strangers who might pass on Christmas Eve.

5. Whitewashing your home

PURIFYING your home in the winter and particularly the Solstice is an ancient Celtic tradition in rural Ireland. With the emergence of stone and plaster walls, the whitewash at Christmas emerged as a new variation on the original practice.
It was supplemented by a thorough clean of the house to welcome the baby Jesus, a tradition still carried out today and even covers a Christmas car wash.

4. Visiting the Graves

SOME may argue that this is a particularly Dublin tradition but in an ever-increasingly secular Christmas it is an enduring and growing tradition. The visit usually involves tidying the grave and laying fresh flowers although practice can vary.
Similar traditions are found in Norway and Finland so maybe the Dublin Christmas grave visits have a Viking influence.

3. Wren Boys

BIRDS feature a lot in Irish folklore but the wren comes off worst. One reason is that as Ireland became Christian the wren’s association with druidic customs made it a target of the new Christians. Some sources have the wren as ‘The King of Birds’.
In myth, wrens have twice played the role of tout. One version happens as the native Irish tried to ambush Viking raiders: the wrens beat their wings on the sleeping Vikings’ shields, awakening them to the danger. The second happens during penal times when an ambush on a platoon of British soldiers goes awry due to the pecking by wrens on the drum of one of the sleeping soldiers.
Since then, 26 December is traditionally ‘Wren Day’ or ‘Wran Day’, when the wren is hunted. In a wren procession, people travel from door to door, often in old clothes and with blackened faces. It seems to be an excuse for a lot of alcohol and music and wren processions are often now used to raise money for charity.

2. The Laden Table

IN MY own childhood this was the most important of Christmas traditions.
It is a simple one where, after dinner on Christmas Eve, the table is reset usually with milk and a loaf of raisin bread laid out. The house doors are unlocked in a symbolic gesture to a wandering Mary and Joseph that there’s room and shelter for them in your home.

1. Women’s Christmas or Little Christmas

ANOTHER unique Irish tradition is held on the feast of the Epiphany, on 6 January, often called Nollaig na mBan, where on this day men did all the housework and cooking while the women rested.
It seems to have originated in Cork and on this day the women went to the pub while the men stayed home. Irish it may be but not one as widely observed as it should be, eh, sisters?


An Phoblacht Magazine


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