It seems that each year, one more holiday tradition fades into memory in my family. My father's generation is now gone, depriving me of cherished holiday visits with the aunts. As my mother and her siblings age, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner has been replaced with more easily prepared dishes. My scores of cousins have shown very little interest in keeping the visiting and cooking traditions alive. I fear I am fighting a losing battle to pass on our family Christmas customs to new generations.
So, this melancholy mood of mine got me thinking--what traditions did my ancestors in Ireland keep? What traditions are still kept in the areas of Ireland where they lived?
For all things Christmas and Irish, visit Russ Heggerty's website Irish Culture and Customs. See the link below for articles on the website describing Irish Christmas customs.
Many of the general Christmas customs that we keep in the United States today had their roots in Ireland and England, some dating back to medieval times. Holly (and sometimes ivy) is still a favorite Christmas plant. Many of us place a candle (albeit electric, nowadays) in the window as they have done from times past in Ireland. I know a few Irish American families that, on Christmas Eve, still simmer a pot of stew while the family attends Mass, although now the stew is in the slow cooker and the Mass is at 5 p.m. instead of Midnight.
But to find lesser known, local Irish customs, I turned to some of my favorite Rootsweb mailing lists. If you are not a subscriber to one of the many local and county genealogy mailing lists, consider joining one soon. The lists vary in tone and activity, but most are full of members who are generous sharing their time, knowledge, and expertise.
Jack Langton, my favorite "go-to" man on the Castlecomer list (northeast region of Co. Kilkenny), alerted me to a peculiar custom--The Castlecomer Wellie Race. According to the official race web page, the Wellie Race began in 1978, when some of the local men decided to "run off the Christmas excess" on St. Stephen's Day (26th December). Their footwear of choice? Why, their favorite Wellingtons! Although my ancestors left Castlecomer long before the running of the wellies, one day I hope to attend the race in their memory.
The Castlecomer people do keep the memory of their ancestors in more serious ways. Jack said that a Mass is celebrated in the cemetery each year. He noted that besides bringing everyone together to honor those who have passed on, the annual rite serves to keep the cemetery tended and in good condition. Any readers who are active in cemetery upkeep and preservation might want to take note of this idea.
Rachel on the Co. Tyrone list shared with me a local west Tyrone practice from the 1800's. On the Ogilby estate, the tenants would celebrate festivals and holidays by lighting barrels of tar. I wonder if perhaps my ancestors in Tyrone gazed at the winter stars by the light of bonfires and tar barrels?
Rachel also reminded me of a long ago tradition in Tyrone, one that has been adopted in different form in Philadelphia--the mummers. In Philly, we hold a costume parade, with strutting and string bands, that lasts from sun up to sun down on New Years Day. The history of costumed performers going house to house with music and dance may go as far back as the Celts in Ireland. I would like to think, as I watch the Philadelphia Mummers each year, that the essence of the mummers' tradition ties my own Christmas memories to those of my Ireland-to-Philadelphia ancestors.
I would love to hear from my readers--please post comments about your own Irish and Irish American Chirstmas, solstice, and New Year traditions.
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IRISH CULTURE AND CUSTOMS WEBSITE
BRIDGET HAGGERTY'S ARTICLE ON IRISH MUMMERS
WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE ON THE HISTORY OF MUMMERS
PHILADELPHIA MUMMERS PARADE
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