I have always had a great interest in folklore and folk customs, so I was delighted to get a copy of the newly published Irish Customs and Rituals published by Orpen Press for my Christmas reading.
This is a wonderful book that details the rituals and customs carried out by past generations living in Ireland. Its a perfect book to dip in and out of or read cover to cover as I did with a pot of tea in front of the fire. I’m delighted that the book’s author Marion McGarry has agreed to share her knowledge relating to Irish Christmas traditions and has kindly answered a series of questions about how our ancestors in past generations celebrated Christmas. I hope you find this interview as interesting and informative as I do.
Marion, many congratulations on this wonderful book. How did you first become interested in Irish customs and traditions?
Thanks Louise. I grew up with some of these customs and rituals, and was aware of many more of them. But I became really interested in them when I was writing the book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design. In parts of that book I discussed the house as a space to be safeguarded from supernatural activity and where rituals were performed at specific times of the year. The research for Irish Customs and Rituals really expands that and looks at common calendar customs, rituals of daily life and beliefs of important life occasions such as births, marriages and deaths, all from the 19th to mid twentieth century.
What also drove me on was the realisation that many people are not aware of these customs, but there is a huge interest there. And I thought that a well-researched but readable book would inform and entertain people.
As Christmas is almost upon can you tell us what a typical Irish Christmas was like? How did people in the past prepared for and celebrate Christmas?
Advent was a time of great preparation for Christmas in Ireland. First of all, people would go and do a massive spring clean of their house, and any outhouses, barns and so on. Inside and out would be pulled apart, tidied and given a fresh coat of whitewash. WE see this big spring clean is a feature of many Irish festivals, people cleaned their homes in advance of St Brigid’s day, and Halloween, too. Fuel was stockpiled. Decorations of holly and ivy were foraged and brought back home and used to decorate the house (and even the animals barns). This was the children’s’ job, and supplemented with their own handmade decorations. The Christmas tree usually comprised of a branch from a Christmas tree potted up, so that it was considerably smaller than what were used to today. This approach to decorating is much more sustainable, too. So was the approach to food – most things on the Christmas dinner menu in rural Ireland was grown or raised by the person eating it, and if not it came from the local community, goose, bacon, potatoes, winter vegetables.
Like all Irish festivals the big celebration started on sunset on the eve of the festival day, so on Christmas Eve in Ireland past candles were lit in windows (in a ritual manner, either by the youngest child or the mother of the house). This was to be a sign to show the Holy Family they were welcome to the house, as they sought an inn. Also, on Christmas Eve night, the door was left unlocked so the dead could return to the household, this custom was practised by many on Halloween for example. Greenery was placed on graves, too, over Christmas to remember the dead.
What are the main changes in how we celebrate Christmas today from how out grandparents would have celebrated it?
When I was growing up, I would hear my grandparents and people of their generation saying ‘sure its Christmas every day now’ as if to say that people had it good all the time. Christmas was a time for a bit of indulgence for people who had otherwise frugal lives. Decent food, sweet cake, a bottle or two of porter, a respite from work and a chance to wear the good clothes were all welcome diversions of a festival celebrated at a dark and cold time of the year. Today we can do these things any evening of the week. To people of my grandparent’s generation, luxuries, even small ones, were a huge novelty and you can imagine that Christmas was keenly anticipated. And they had a much humbler Christmas than we do today.
Nollaig na mBan or women’s Christmas is a very Irish tradition that has been embraced by Irish women in recent years, can you tell me us more about this tradition?
Occurring on 6th January (the Epiphany), there is an old tradition in certain parts of the country (mainly Munster) that it’s a day off for women. Roles are meant to be reversed, so the men have to do the housework while the women get a chance to socialise with their female friends, usually to have tea and cake. Death divination customs were practised on this day, where candles are lit and named for family members – the idea is that the candles burning out indicated the order in which death will occur.
Many people in modern Ireland will travel to ancient sites aligned with the winter sun for the solstice such as Knockroe and Newgrange passage tombs. Have you come across any customs relating to the winter solstice in the course of your research?
Not specifically. As most Irish calendar customs were appropriated by the Christian religion (a good example is Imbolc which became St Brigid’s day) one can imagine that whatever midwinter celebrations on 21st that occurred migrated across to December 25th. What’s interesting is that there are older non Christian (perhaps even ancient) customs surviving in there, the celebrations starting on the eve before, the spring clean, the death divination rituals, the appearance of wren boys on Stephen’s Day, the remembrance of the dead.
Marion this is a wonderful read and would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in Irish folklore and traditions.
Delighted you liked it Louise, it would make a great birthday gift too! The e-book is coming out soon which will make it even more accessible for readers and researchers.
Both The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design and The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design can both be purchased from Orpen Press and Irish bookshops