Irish Christmas traditionsFindmypast

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These days we talk about how Christmas has become too commercialized. The Santa hats go on sale before Halloween now, and, in Ireland, once the Late Late Toy Show has come and gone, the preparations begin in earnest.

But even as the bags and boxes of Christmas shopping grow under the stairs or under the bed in the spare room there is still the traditional side to Christmas, the little rituals that we have done since childhood that we teach to our children, that our grandparents taught to our parents.

Present buying has always been a big part of the season. The traditional day for the big Christmas shop in Dublin has always been December 8th. This is the day when the whole of Ireland heads to the capital. Packed trains arrive in Connolly Station in the morning and buses from all over the country pull into Bus Aras full of people up to visit Father Christmas and hit the shops. Numbers might have been dropping in recent years but the association is still there.

But why the 8th? December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Traditionally Catholic schools closed on that day so it was a good opportunity to make a start on the preparations.

A far older and simpler tradition is one that still lights dark country roads on Christmas Eve. The sight of the light in the window is so resonant that it's become a potent symbol for far more than Christmas. From the Irish President keeping a light shining in Áras an Uachtaráin to remember Ireland's diaspora, to the candle sent, to every household in Ireland to mark the Millennium, it's a wordless sign of something bigger.

But the custom of lighting a candle in the window at Christmas time has been going on far longer than light-up reindeer and colored lights. It's traditionally there to light the Christ child home, but driving through the country on Christmas week those little lights shine a welcome to any traveler.

Hunting the wren is a tradition with a far darker heart. On December 26th, St Stephen's Day, groups of men gather to hunt this little brown bird. Legend has it that the wren was a small feathered traitor, but whether it gained its reputation by betraying a saint's hiding place or being a fairy seductress depends on who you talk to.

One version of the story tells that St Stephen was hiding in a bush from his enemies, only for his hiding to be revealed by the chattering of a wren. Or perhaps it wasn't St Stephen in a bush, it could equally have been Irish warriors in the 700s hiding from the Vikings. As they crept up on the Danes to attack, a little wren, picking crumbs from the drum held by a sleeping Viking, beat out a warning tattoo.

Another legend has it that a fairy woman called Cliona was in the habit of luring local men to a watery grave. She had the power to turn herself into, you've guessed it, a wren.

Whatever revenge tale you pick they all mean curtains for the poor wren. In times gone by it would be stuck onto a stick or holly bush decorated with ribbons and paraded around the town. The hunters would dress in straw costumes with faces blackened by cork and demand money, food and drink. The tradition is similar to ones that appear across Europe and Britain but the Wren Boys and their song are a proudly Irish tradition.

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,

Although he was little his honor was great,

Jump up me lads and give us a treat.

As I was going to Killenaule,

I met a wren upon the wall.

Up with me wattle and knocked him down,

And brought him in to Carrick Town.

Drooolin, Droolin, where's your nest?

Tis in the bush that I love best

In the tree, the holly tree,

Where all the boys do follow me.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the wren.

I followed the wren three miles or more,

Three miles or more, three miles or more.

I followed the wren three miles or more,

At six o'clock in the morning.

I have a little box under me arm,

Under me arm, under me arm.

I have a little box under me arm,

A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.

Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,

a very good woman, a very good woman,

Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,

She give us a penny to bury the wren. “

Do you remember traveling up to Dublin on December 8th? Or lighting a candle to show the way for weary travelers? We'd love to hear your Irish Christmas memories in the comments.

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