The Irish get more than their share of love every St. Patrick’s Day but they feel a little left out when it comes to Christmas. That is unfortunate because many of the ancient elements of Christmas have Irish roots.
The most Irish of Christmas songs, Christmas in Killarney, briefly references some of the ancient Irish tie-ins to Christmas:
The holly green, the ivy green
The prettiest picture you’ve ever seen
The holly and the ivy – long sung at Christmas and long associated with the color green – is both highly symbolic and meaningful to the Irish. Ever green plants are symbols of survival and the Irish for centuries have looked to them for defense against demons, witches and evil spirits. The Irish anciently knew that evil spirits were afraid of the color green.
It’s nice, you know, to kiss your beau
While cuddling under the mistletoe
Mistletoe is not only green and carries the same protection against evil as the other greens of Ireland it is also known throughout Europe as a bestower of life and fertility. It is a protection against poison and an aphrodisiac as well. What’s not to love about that?
And Santa Claus you know, of course
Is one of the boys from home
Well, wait a minute. Everyone from the North Pole to Norway to Turkey lays claim to Santa Claus. He wears red, not green, right? Actually, there is some validity of the ties between St. Nicholas and Ireland. The Irish are mostly Catholic. Their ties to St. Nicholas are thus natural enough. But some historians want to make the leap from mythical Celtic figures such as The Holly King to Santa Claus, but that’s too big of a leap.
Historians are more capable of proving that Nicholas, the very real and beloved bishop of ancient Myra, in modern day Turkey, died and was originally buried there. Some claim Nicholas’ body was later moved to an abbey in Ireland near Kilkenny. A French family called the de Frainets moved the saint’s remains from Myra to Italy in 1169. A relative called Nicholas de Frainet then took the remains to Ireland when his family relocated there and built a dedicated Cistercian abbey to the saint at Jerpoint. St. Nicholas Church is still standing and there is a slab on the ground which marks St Nicholas’s grave there.
The door is always open
The neighbors pay a call
Christmas is and always has been the biggest event of the year in Ireland. Ancient traditions of wassailing will take neighbors door to door in both celebration and well wishing. Lights and candles as well are symbolic of the sociality of the season. A candle in the window is said to have placed as a sign of welcome for Mary and Joseph. It was also somewhat of a signal to clandestine priests who could then identify the home of a believer during times of Christian religious persecution.
And Father John before he’s gone
Will bless the house and all
Anciently the traditions of the winter solstice were a time of looking forward, of petitioning the gods for good luck and good fortune for the growing seasons ahead. Those traditions have always been a part of Christmas in neighbors expressing glad tidings and priests providing a blessing of good fortune on a home.
In modern times the more western traditions of Christmas have stabilized holiday observances in Ireland but the Irish, as is their way, have found ways to make it all their own and proudly cling to unique celebrations of the season. One of the most unique is the date of December 8th as their “official start” to the Christmas shopping season. Once better known as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception the day is now better known for masses of crowds gathering in large shopping centers in larger cities such as Dublin or Galway. These events are marked with food, music and large spectacular light displays.
The song Christmas in Killarney gives a tip ‘o the hat to Christmas in Ireland but it is not an old song. Written in 1950 by John Redmond, James Cavanaugh and Frank Weldon – all Irish Americans – the song is a nostalgic nod to the old country. Percy Faith Orchestra with the Shillelagh Singers first recorded it but the song was not made famous until recorded by Father O’Malley himself – Bing Crosby: