Christmas in 17th Century Ireland

(Reblogged from my guest post on Mary Anne Yarde's Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots)

Could it be possible that anyone would actually cancel Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year? Considering the tumultuous nature of the 17th century, perhaps it’s no surprise that the celebration of Christmas would also have its ups and downs—so much so that at one point Christmas truly was banned.

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In Ireland, Christmas first began as a pagan celebration around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year and the beginning of a new cycle. From these ancient times came the custom of decorating homes with holly, with its evergreen leaves suggesting the magical power to protect against the winter.

Another pre-Christian ritual that survives is the Wren Boys Procession. You can perhaps still see this event on the Dingle Peninsula and other towns on Ireland’s west coast. Taking place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, obviously it has taken on some Christian significance. Boys and young men dress, perhaps birdlike, in full suits and conical hats specifically made of oat straw. Historically, it was a day to hunt the wren, a bird of omen to the Druids, and blamed as well for the betrayal of Christian martyr St. Stephen. The killed birds were bound to the end of sticks and carried from house to house, where the carriers demanded money with the chant, “Give us a penny to bury the ‘wran’”. The money was then used for the celebration. (Read more about the wren and its mythology here.)

 King Henry II

King Henry II

The English king, Henry II, is credited with bringing the first Christian Christmas to Ireland in 1171. He hosted celebrations in a palace built specifically for him the year after Dermot MacMurrough and Strongbow(Richard de Burgo) took control of Leinster and most of Ireland’s east coast. Here Henry entertained Ireland’s leaders in high royal fashion:

“The feast of Christmas was drawing near, very many of the princes of the land repaired to Dublin to visit the King’s court, and were much astonished at the sumptuousness of his entertainments and the splendour of his household; and having places assigned to them at the tables in the hall, by the King’s command, they learnt to eat cranes which were served up, a food they before loathed.”
~ Giraldus Cambrensis, Welsh Chronicler

The Christmas season would have followed the Catholic liturgical calendar starting with the 40 days of Advent, then Christmas Eve on December 24, and ending January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. Some believe the December 25th date for Christmas came from the Romans who used that date for the solstice festival. The date also falls nine months from the Annunciation, the Christian celebration of the day the angels told Mary she would conceive and give birth to Jesus. It is a topic of great controversy with many other dates suggested as being more likely.

 king henry vi

king henry vi

King Henry VI proclaimed Christmas a public holiday in 1448, and the feasting, festivals, nativity plays, caroling and gift giving became solid traditions in both England and Ireland. But some thought Ireland took the feasting to an extraordinary level. Fynes Moryson was a propagandist traveling in Ireland during the early 17th century when it was useful for refined English nobles to think of the Irish as no better than savages. His description, to be taken with a healthy dose of salt, feeds that notion:

Yea, the wild Irish in time of greatest peace impute covetousness and base birth to him that hath any corn after Christmas, as it were a point of nobility to consume all within those festival days. They willingly eat the herb shamrock, being of a sharp taste, which, as they run and are chased to and fro, they snatch like beasts out of the ditches.”

Times and traditions were soon to change.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Ireland was predominantly of Catholic faith, but the plantation of Munster and Ulster under Queen Elizabeth and James I, new Protestant settlers, Protestant government officials, and the implementation of anti-Catholic laws altered that demographic.

The king of England was also the king of Ireland and supreme head of the Church of England, after all. Anyone who did not attend Protestant church services was fined as a recusant. In extreme cases, to celebrate Catholic Mass was an act of treason for which people could be arrested, fined, and imprisoned or executed. To devout Catholics in Ireland, it seemed equally risky to denounce their faith and face excommunication and damnation.

 king charles I

king charles I

Meanwhile, Puritanism was marching to a powerful majority. King Charles I began to press his own form of Protestantism, leading to the Bishops Wars with Scotland. Then came the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, and the English Civil War of 1642. Finding the lavish celebrations for Christmas and other holidays vulgar and imprudent, in 1644 the Puritans made sure that Christmas was banned entirely. By 1650, soldiers were sent from house to house to enforce this ban and arrest any revelers.

And yet, people would not give up their beloved religious celebrations. Catholic households willing to host secret Mass would place a candle in their window just before it was to start, as a signal and call to other Catholics. To people not in the know, the candles seemed like nothing more than a modest decoration.

 Oliver cromwell, protector of the commonwealth

Oliver cromwell, protector of the commonwealth

Ultimately, the English Parliament executed King Charles. Oliver Cromwell crushed the Irish rebellion with excessive cruelty. Protestants took possession of properties confiscated from Irish Catholics, and the religious majority shifted. Cromwell ascended as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, the uncrowned Puritan king of England. By the time he died in 1658, English subjects were eager to restore the monarchy.

 king charles ii

king charles ii

King Charles II did indeed bring back Christmas celebrations in 1660 as part of the Restoration, and he became known as “the merry monarch.”

Today, Christmas celebrations in Ireland are similar to those of the U.S. and other countries, with decorated trees, shopping and gifting, caroling, dancing and feasting. You may still see the holly wreaths on doors and windows, and the welcoming candles in the windows. Each symbol has its history.

Irish Christmas traditions

In closing, here are some continuing Irish Christmas traditions to adopt for your own:

  • Put up your Christmas tree after December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And go shopping on this day, with all the family along.
  • Place candles in your windows, a sign of welcome and safety.
  • Make Christmas pudding the traditional way, a rich fruit mixture with animal fat, wrapped in muslin and steamed.
  • Celebrate “First Footing” on New Years Day, when visitors to the homes of friends and family bring a bag holding a lump of coal, a piece of cake and a coin, with the wish that the family may never be cold, never be hungry, and always be prosperous.
  • And on Twelfth Night, January 6, celebrate Mother’s Day Off, traditionally the only day of the year when mothers were freed of their responsibilities. Thank goodness that has changed!
(all images are wikimedia commons public domain)

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Buy someone a PRINCE for Christmas this year!

The Prince of Glencurragh is a four-time award winner, set in 1634 prior to the great rebellion of 1641. Purchase now or on Amazon, B&N or your favorite online bookseller.

Have a great holiday season!