Times past – local Christmas customs

Christmas is upon us, and it’s a perfect chance to look at some local Christmas customs of times past. A wonderful source of information is the ‘Schools’ Collection’, which was overseen by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s. Schoolchildren were given the task of collecting folklore from friends, relations and neighbours. The result is a treasure trove of stories, customs, knowledge and information. Today it forms part of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin, and is freely available to view online at www.duchas.ie

Let’s start with Con O’Herlihy, a student at Berrings school in neighbouring Inniscarra parish. The year is 1938, as he speaks about Christmas Eve:

Long ago the people used to have their dinner about four or five o’clock in the afternoon on Xmas Eve and then they used to eat their supper about ten o’clock at night. All homes are decorated with holly and ivy and mistletoe, and decorations are often used on Xmas Eve. The old people believe that there is an angel in every leaf of holly.

Holly is still used today … ivy and mistletoe perhaps less so. The Christmas Eve eating habits, described by Con, have since changed. Most of us are now too busy making last minute preparations or socialising, to be bothered with eating supper at such a late hour!

The Christmas custom of using Holly exists to this day

Food was equally an important part of Christmas festivities in the parish of Aghabullogue, as we learn from the pupils of Rylane school (1934-1938). Eileen Mahony of Mountrivers tells us that people baked every day and a treacle cake was made at Christmas. Michael Moynihan of Rylane adds at Christmas there are special cakes made, called sweet cake. These were times when people had less access to shops, or to money to purchase items. They had to make do for themselves. The children of Aghabullogue school confirm this by adding people rarely had meat except at Xmas, and then fresh meat as a rule. It’s in stark contrast to our modern world of convenience, when we can easily pick up Christmas treats from Centra, Dunnes, SuperValu or even Aldi.

Con O’Herlihy goes on to describe another local custom of the 1930s:

On St Stephen’s Day the youngsters of this parish get a holly bush and they decorate it with ribbons. They also put a bit of moss on the bush and they pretend they have their wren in [a] nest of moss. They go from house to house collecting money and at the same time singing the song The wren, the wren the king of all birds, St Stephen’s Day he was caught in the furze, from bush to bush, from tree to tree, at Carrigaline he broke his knee.”

The ‘wren boys’, as they were known, are another custom no longer widely practiced, except perhaps in pockets of the country, such as Kerry.

Christmas was, and still is, a time for visiting neighbours, friends and relations. We learn from Dan Horgan of Knocknagoun, Rylane that the custom was widely practised during the 1930s. Dan tells us:

When a person would come to a house on Christmas Eve he would say ‘I wish you a happy Christmas and a bright New Year’. When he would be leaving the house he would say ‘I hope we will be all alive this time twelve months.’

We travel south to Clontead (Coachford) School, where pupil Madge Murphy of Coolacullig has details of local customs, collected from her mother:

An old custom in connection with New Year’s Eve is to put the darkest member of the household outside the door just before the midnight hour, and this person usually gets sweet cake and wine while outside the door. Then he or she returns in again just as the New Year is dawning, this is supposed to bring luck to the house for the year. Another custom … is to bake a large cake and put it to the door three times, this is done to prevent the hunger of the year.

We end our seasonal trip by heading north-west into the neighbouring parish of Aghinagh, to arrive at Carrigagulla School, Ballinagree. Again, the year is 1938, and the local schoolchildren tell us:

It is said if a person eats enough on New Year’s Eve they wouldn’t be short of food that year. Long ago people went to bed very early on that night, because [cailleachs] were supposed to visit every house … now everybody remains up till late at night and they play music and bands to welcome the New Year.

The cailleach (old woman, or hag) was a figure of Gaelic mythology, associated with winter months, and she was both feared and respected in earlier times. It’s interesting to read how things were changing, even by the 1930s, when the cailleach seemed well and truly dispatched, to be replaced by ‘late night revelry’.

Christmas is ideally a time for taking stock, and for relaxing and reminiscing. Hopefully you’ve managed to avail of the opportunity, and enjoyed taking the time to read, or remember, these local Christmas customs of a bygone era. It remains but for us all at ACR Heritage to wish you and yours a very happy Christmas, and the very best for the coming New Year.

Schools’ Collection material is reproduced with the permission of dúchas.ie and National Folklore Collection.