Christmas in the Late 19th/ Early 20th Cen. Blackstairs

Wishing everyone a Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

As you settle into the rhythm of the Christmas customs, here are some that were carried out in the Blackstairs region around 100 years ago. Some you might recognise while others you may not.

The following information was submitted to the National Folklore Commission in February 1945 by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair of Rathnure. She notes how some of the customs were still in use at that time but others were not and she got her information on these from Mr. Myles Doyle (85), Ballygibbon, Rathnure and Mrs. Elizabeth (Eliza) Forrestal (87), Grange, Rathnure. It is interesting that some of the traditions she notes as having died out (decorating the outside of the house, Christmas candle in the windows) have been revived today.

Dates and Days

The days leading up to and following Christmas were given titles to mark their importance: “Christmas Eve”, “Christmas Eve Night”, “Christmas Day”, “Christmas Night”, “St. Stephen’s Day”, “The Children’s Christmas” (28th December), “Women’s Christmas/ Little Christmas” (06th January), “Twelve Days of Christmas” (26th Dec-06th Jan).

Most of these are self explanatory and still in use today but Children’s Christmas is not a term in common usage anymore. This day was so called as it was believed that this was the date on which the “Holy Innocents” were massacred by Herod and so they were celebrated, remembered and prayed for. Little Christmas was so called as the feasting ended that day.

Superstitions on Sickness and Death at this time

It was believed that sickness and disease waned on the approach to Christmas due to the power of the feast and the weather. There was an old saying: “A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard. A white Christmas makes a lean churchyard”. It was also believed that anyone who died around Christmas went straight to heaven as it was open to all souls from noon on Christmas Eve to New Years Day.

Decorating the House

People worked until midday on the 24th of December. The remainder of the day was then spent decorating the house both inside and out. The custom of decorating the outside had died out by 1945 beyond whitewashing and cleaning the yards. Inside was cleaned, whitewashed and all the surfaces were scrubbed down. Pictures were cleaned and replaced and then decorated. Holly with berries was put around the pictures and on dresser tops. Ivy was wound around a piece of cord and holly was pushed through this and tied with ribbons. The cord was then fastened to a nail and hung from one corning of the ceiling diagonally to the other. The same was done in the opposite direction making the shape of the cross on the ceiling. Mistletoe was formerly used but its use had died out by 1945. Boys procured the plants and girls made them into decorations. Everything was taken down the day after Little Christmas. Plants were burned and the ribbons were kept for the following year.

Christmas Shopping

People visited the local towns for their Christmas shopping where they bought currants, raisins, flour, apples, beef, ham, tea, sugar, whiskey, wine, biscuits and always asked for their “Christmas Box”. This contained sweet cake and a bottle of either whiskey or wine. Toys were also bought for the children of the household.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve was a fast day at this time when people abstained from meat. In its place butter and eggs were eaten or ling fish.

The man of the house went out and procured a Yule Log on Christmas Eve and put it behind the fire. This was a thick branch or a piece of the trunk of a small tree (no tree in particular was favoured). This was then lit on Christmas Day (see below).

Local men and boys gathered in the pubs on Christmas Eve Night and “got merry”. There was drinking and singing throughout the night and their shouts and laughs could be heard across the countryside as they made their way home.

The women of the house would spend the night at home by the fireside staying up until well past midnight. Men always returned to their own homes rather than neighbours houses as Christmas was a night for home. There was no tradition of a midnight mass in this district as there was in many other areas at this time.

Christmas Candle

Cáit notes that the tradition of lighting a Christmas candle had died out in the Rathnure area by the time of her recordings but that it had been practiced up until 80 years previous (c. 1865). People would make their own candles from mutton fat. They were around 2 foot long and yellow in colour and one was placed in every window of the house. They were then lit by the woman of the house at 11PM on Christmas Eve Night. They were left burning until 3AM Christmas morning Their purpose was to honour the birth of Christ at that time. (I wonder were they also useful to guide the merry boys and men home!)

Animal Traditions

A lamp was formerly lit in stables and cow houses on Christmas Eve Night but this tradition had died out by 1945. The purpose of this lamp was to light the stable for the Holy Family in case they decided to stay for the night. Donkeys were believed to kneel at midnight in honour of the birth of Christ. (It was not in Cáit’s account but we were told as children that cattle speak to one another at midnight and praise the birth). It was lucky to hear a cricket chirping on this night. It was also said that cock’s crow before midnight on Christmas Eve Night. Cáit notes how she herself heard cock’s crow at 8, 9, 10, 11 & 12PM on this night and at other unusual times during the day before 6PM. (check the post on St. Martin’s Day traditions to see the fate of cock’s crowing at unusual hours).

Cards, Presents and Santa Claus

Gifts were given to neighbours on Christmas Eve. These would include butter, eggs, fowl, toys in Christmas stockings and books. Children would hang a stocking at the foot of their beds in the hope that Father Christmas or Santa Clause would pay them a visit.Thankfully he did seem to visit without fail as he still does today bringing sweets, cakes and toys. At that time he came in through the window and left through the chimney.

People used to send cards on Christmas Eve s that they would arrive on Christmas morning but changes in the postage rules brought a stop to this. Instead they began to be sent in the days and weeks before.

Religious Observances

The first mass Christmas morning was at 6AM and then at different times during the day from district to district. In the Rathnure area, people went to first mass which was immediately followed by second mass and then third a few hours later. Each was slightly different. Adeste Fideles and other songs were sung at first mass. The Benediction of the Blessed Sacrements was held after third mass. The sounds and conversations outside churches on this day would not be unfamiliar to us today. Before and after mass, people would greet one another with “Happy Christmas” which was responded to with “And many happy returns”.

Food and Christmas Dinner

Breakfast was eaten after mass and as it was a special time of year it consisted of sweet cakes and tea.

Pig’s head was formerly eaten for Christmas dinner followed by a  bowl of tea for dessert. By 1945 turkey, goose or chicken and plum pudding had become the main menu. Biscuits were eaten as an evening meal during the entertainments (see below).

A cake was made in the days before by the woman of the house with currants and raisins. In some houses a ring was put into the cake and the person who found it would be the first to be married. Poitín was extensively made in the region and every house was sure to have a bottle for Christmas but by 1945 this was replaced by whiskey or wine.

The Yule Log

The Yule Log which had been procured and placed behind the fire on Christmas Eve was taken out and put in the fireplace Christmas morning. Lots of turf was placed around it and a big warm fire was built. It was not allowed to burn away entirely as a piece was kept to light the Christmas log the following year. Cáit notes this as being a very old custom by 1945 and that the log was always lit with a piece from the previous years log. Burning the log was believed to keep evil spirits away from the house for the year. The ashes from a yule log fir were very lucky and they protected the house from lightning or fire. If they were put on crops they would not decay or rot. They were also seen to have curative properties and were rubbed on swollen glands and chilblains.

Entertainments

In a time before televisions and the widespread availability of board games, people had to look to other forms of entertainment to brign their families and neighbours together. Football and hurling were played during the day especially by boys. Games of cards were then played in the evening along with music, singing and dancing in rooms lit by fire and candlelight.

It appears that Christmas Eve was a time for family only while Christmas day was spent with neighbours and friends.

Bibliography

National Folklore Collection, Main Manuscript Collection MS1085, Pages 357-364. Information collected and compiled by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure for the National Folklore Collections Questionnaire on Christmas traditions 1944-45. Based on customs still being carried out at that time. Accounts of earlier traditions were provided by Mr. Myles Doyle (85), Ballygibbon, Rathnure and Mrs. Elizabeth (Eliza) Forrestal (87), Grange, Rathnure.

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