Issue 2, Christmas 2011
by Teresa McCormick and Siobhan Dugan
The Kerry Christmas Carol
Brush the floor and clean the hearth
And set the fire to keep,
For they might visit us tonight
When all the world's asleep.
Don't blow the tall white candle out
But leave it burning bright
So that they'll know they‘re welcome here
This Holy Christmas night.
Leave out the bread and meat for them
And sweet milk for the child,
And they will bless the fire that baked
And, too, the hands that toiled.
Winter is upon us, a time for celebrations with those we love, reflection on the year and thoughts about what is to come. In much of the traditional Celtic lands (in the present day this means Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany) preparations began for these holidays with cleaning the house spotless and then whitewashing it.
Evergreens represent the promise of renewed life in the cold, dead winter. Years ago, country families went out to find other types of evergreens, holly and ivy (not spruce or fir—these come from the Germanic tradition) to decorate the mantelpiece and table. Finding a holly bush with lots of berries was considered a harbinger of good luck in the coming year. Widespread, too, the custom to leave a lighted candle in the window, the door unlatched, a warm fire in the hearth and food on the table – usually a loaf of bread with raisins and caraway seeds and a pitcher of milk. This was to show that the family inside the house welcomed the Holy Family, unlike the innkeepers in old Bethlehem. Christmas morning was the time to go to church with the family for a reverent reflection on the holiday.
Feasting with family and friends is central to Christmas celebrations. Traditionally goose –or boiled ox head in the Irish counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Monaghan ---might be served along with smoked salmon, cheeses, savory snacks and, of course, sweets to make the day special. In Wales, fruitcake is a traditional Christmas dessert, elsewhere it’s a dish called Cutlin porridge (Irish version) or Clootie (Scottish) of wheaten meal and sugar, dried fruits and spices, shaped like a football and wrapped up for boiling. In Scotland you might also enjoy some tasty Crannachan, made with raspberries, whiskey, cream and oats.
St. Stephen’s Day
St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, is an important holiday throughout the Celtic lands, and mighty pagan in flavor, despite the Christian name. In Ireland, a very old tradition saw groups of small boys hunting the Wren. The bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper. The “Wrenboys‟ took this rig on the road. They visited each house in the locality playing music, dancing, singing and reciting poems. The Robin is also symbolic of this time of year, beloved and a symbol of good luck. One explanation (and there are many, many) is that the Robin stood for the New Year, the Wren the old, so the Wren had to die for the New Year to turn.
The Scottish version of this death- rebirth motif was the ceremonial burning of Winter. This isn’t ‘Old Man Winter’ but the Cailleach, a piece of wood that was carved roughly to represent the face of an old woman or hag, who is the Spirit of Winter. This was placed onto a good fire to burn away, and all the family gathered had to watch to the end. The burning symbolized the ending of all the bad luck and enmities and dross of the old year and the beginning of a fresh start.
Of all the Celtic lands, Scotland is the best known for its New Year traditions, called Hogmany. One tradition, "First footing" (that is, the "first foot" in the house after midnight) is still common in Scotland. To ensure good luck for the house, the First Foot should be male, dark-haired (believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble) and should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whiskey. A lot of partying is also common.
A Welsh tradition for the end of the year was (and--common theme here—it’s experiencing a revival) the parading of the Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare). This is a mare’s skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole with a white sheet is fastened to the back of the skull, concealing both the pole and the person carrying the Mari. The lower jaw is sometimes spring-loaded, so that the Mari's 'operator' can snap it at passers-by or householders. Ribbons and bells are attached to the reins by which the Mari is led. Accompanied by a band of merrymakers, the Mari Lwyd would go house to house to challenge the householder to compete in singing and versifying. If the Mari could "subdue the inmates with superior witticisms and extempore humorous rhymes" the party might be invited inside to partake of Christmas cheer, bestowing good luck on the household for the New Year.
Nollaig na mBan
It’s considered bad luck to take down holiday decorations before Nollaig na mBan, “Women's Christmas," on January 6th. This is a traditional day for Irish women to leave their housework behind and go out with each other to have fun. It is probably the only day of the year when the local bar is full of women rather than men. A very old holiday, it’s enjoying a healthy revival in Ireland and has spread to Irish communities abroad as well.
However you chose to celebrate, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
A letter from us...
It is one full year ago today that we suffered the fire that damaged the Junction - - a stunning year as we look back... While we have weathered the rebuild, we have also watched what space we had bursting at the seams with song, dance, music and the rich language that comes with discovery - of new ideas, new tunes, and of new friends you haven't met yet...
Some highlights of our year include the recent CIM youth recitals, the concert with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, the OID lock-in, and the poetry reading with Ethne McKiernan. It saw us rehearse and produce our first play with students from the dance and music schools and inaugurate the Christmas Ball which hosted a myriad of new faces as the floor suffered our dancing of an entirely different kind than it is used to...
We were especially floored by the Halloween Bash - the time and support and encouragement we found in it was staggering - and again, we would like to sincerely thank our volunteers, our donors and our friends for a very special day. Overall -- this has been a good year -- though a few drinks blessed our floor for good measure, the walls soaked in some great times. If you listen carefully, they still reverberate with the rhythm that calls us - in different ways - to a hearth together.
It is here that we humbly acknowledge that The Celtic Junction is still just a bunch of walls... It is you that fills it with the bright spark of life, love and laughter. All our sparks together build the warmth and keep us coming - hopeful and joyous through the dark winter months to where the conversation is good, the music merry, and the company a delight.
Thank you for your support. We hope to see you at our Celtic Junction Ceili celebrations, and most certainly in the new year, where another season of mayhem, merriment and music awaits.
A very Merry Christmas,
Natalie & Cormac O'Shea
Fire and Festivities
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow."
~ Melody Beattie
by FatHead Brennan
A stunningly simple recipe that is within the culinary expertise of the most challenged. Omit/reduce the alcohol if the Christmas spirit is in need of toning down!
Recipe: Irish Tipsy Cake
What you will need:
- 1lb sponge cake
- 3 tablespoons strawberry/raspberry jam
- Large measure Irish whiskey
- Large measure sherry
- 1 pint of custard
- 1/2 pint whipped cream
What to do:
- Spread jam over sponge cake.
- Cut into small pieces and place in serving dish.
- Mix Sherry and Whiskey and pour over cake.
- Pour custard over cake and chill.
- Spoon whipped cream over top and serve.
Slan leat (Health to you)!