Christmas Day, the outstanding Christian Festival of the year possibly replaced the pagan celebrations which took place at this time of the year to welcome the lengthening days. Our Christmas customs and traditions are a mixture of Christian and Pagan Rites. Christmas decorations, especially holly, ivy and mistletoe figured in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice as evergreen symbols of life. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes to us from the time of the Druids for whom the mistletoe held magical and sexual significance.
The use and decoration of Christmas trees is of German origin and came into use in Ireland following its popularisation by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. Carols from the French Carole, meaning a dance with a song, originated on the European mainland. First associated with the Christmas festival in the 14th century, most of todays popular carols are of 19th century origin. Thomas Kelly, founder of the Kellyites and a native of Ballintubbert, just outside Athy, wrote a number of carols which are included in his "Hymns on Various Passages of Sacred Scripture" published in seven editions in the last century.
The lighting of a candle on Christmas Eve and placing it in a window facing the roadway is a Christian custom with a strong underlay of Irish tradition. It is a symbolic linking of the Irish welcome for strangers with the Bible story of Mary and Joseph's efforts to find shelter before the infant Jesus was born. The lighted candle in the window is a light welcoming all while at the same time acting as a beacon for those loved ones far from home.
The exchange of gifts on Christmas morning again brings together two different traditions. The tradition of wealthy Romans giving money or clothing to their poorer neighbours during the seven day celebrations of the Saturnalia was seized upon by the early Christians and redefined as a symbolic reenactment of the of the gifts brought by the three Kings to the infant Jesus.
Father Christmas and the modern equivalent Santa Claus was an American import into our Christmas traditions. Amongst the early Dutch settlers in America there developed the Father Christmas concept based on St. Nicholas bringing gifts and presents to children who were good during the year. The inevitable commercialisation of this idea has resulted in the splurge of Christmas gift buying which is now such a large part of the Christmas festivities.
The Christmas card which for many people is their only link with old friends and acquaintances was invented in 1843 by an Englishman Sir Henry Cole who commissioned a design from an artist. The introduction of the penny post popularised the idea of sending a card at Christmas to friends, which by now has become yet another important tradition of the festive season.
It is the second day of Christmas which gives us one of the most enduring of the Irish traditions. St. Stephen's Day is the day for "hunting the wren". In earlier days the "sport" consisted of young boys searching for and chasing a wren until it was captured and killed. It was then put on a holly bush and carried from house to house accompanied by the Wren Boys singing the traditional Wren Song.
"The Wran the Wran the King of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
Put your hand in your pocket and give us a treat.
Sing holly, sing ivy - sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy,
And if you draw it over the best,
I hope in Heaven your soul will rest.
But if you draw it over the small,
It won't agree with the Wren Boys at all."
Another version popular in Athy in the 1950's had for the second and third lines the following:-
"Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Gives us a penny to bury the Wran."
Nowadays Wren Boys are comparatively scarce on the streets of Athy, while the custom has undergone substantial changes over the years. The holly bush with the dead wren has disappeared to be replaced by a mixture of young and old Wren Boys and Girls dressed in all sorts of odd dress singing modern songs instead of the traditional Wren Song.
Christmas Day is the first of the traditional twelve days of Christmas which ends with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. It comes at the height of the winter season when spirits can be low so that the traditional festivities associated with Christmas can be seen as re-energising our spirits to face the rest of the winter and the promise of the Summer to come.