Lighting a candle in the window is a Christmas Eve memory I cherish from my Irish childhood.
Every Christmas Eve we placed a single red candle in the window. My mother always told me we were lighting the way for Mary and Joseph on their way to find the stable in Bethlehem.
Our family candle lighting ritual signaled Christmas had finally arrived.
And now as I grow older I light a candle in the window with my children every Christmas Eve in the hope this wonderful Irish tradition will continue for generations to come.
A candle in the window is a wonderful symbol of hospitality, a trait for which the Irish are renowned the world over.
But these Irish candles burning in the windows were not simply a beacon of hope for the Holy Family. They were also a sign of welcome for anyone, friend or stranger, who might be passing by on Christmas Eve.
All were welcome to stay and share whatever an Irish family may have had for Christmas. The Irish believed nobody should go without, especially at Christmas time.
This tradition was most widely practiced in the south of Ireland, especially in Munster. Since my family hail from County Cork, we continued the ancient rural tradition of lighting a candle in the window at Christmas time.
The candle was traditionally lit by a daughter called “Mary” or the youngest girl in the house. “Mary” was also called upon to extinguish the candle.
Now this practice is predominantly part of an Irish Catholic heritage. Many people from Ulster have never heard of this tradition.
The origins of lighting a candle in the window trace back to the 17th Century at the time of the Penal Laws in Ireland when the Catholic religion was suppressed.
Catholic churches were outlawed and priests hid in fear of their lives. They secretly said mass at secluded venues known as Mass Rocks. Priests often visited homes in secrecy to bless a family and to say Mass.
Irish Catholic families hoped that at some time in their lifetime a priest might visit on Christmas Eve to celebrate Mass with them.
By lighting a candle in the window they signaled to any passing priest that this was a Catholic home. The doors were unlocked allowing a priest to enter silently to join the family in prayer for Christmas.
Now all these lighted candles dotted across the countryside not only alerted priests in the vicinity, but also drew the attention of English soldiers.
The Irish needed to explain to the English authorities why they were lighting so many candles on Christmas Eve.
The rational that they were welcoming Mary and Joseph into their homes was a perfect solution. This Irish tradition or superstition was viewed as harmless by the English and created no undue alarm.
This tradition was born at a time of great upheaval for Irish Catholics. The need to signal a priest to our homes to say Mass may no longer exist, but I’m happy that we continue to light candles in the window to this very day, welcoming Mary and Joseph with open hearts.
One reader’s brother is a priest in Illinois, Msgr. Eric R. Barr, STL. He wrote a beautiful homily in 2010 called Candle Burning Warm, Candle Burning Bright, which tells the story of an Irish priest in Penal Times, and how this Irish candle lighting tradition began. You can read his Christmas story here – scroll down about half way in the page to find it.
And when I see lighted candles in the windows of American homes at Christmas, I know this Irish tradition crossed the Atlantic with our ancestors when they sought a welcome in a new land.
And so, whether you light a candle in the window this Christmas Eve, or simply light up your Christmas tree, I hope God’s spirit will reside within you as you pause and reflect upon the sacredness of this holiday.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas. May the peace of the season surround you, as you celebrate with those you love.
In Irish (or the Irish form of Gaelic) we say ….
Nollaig Shona Duit
This is pronounced “null-ig hun-ah gwitch” and is the singular form of the greeting.
If you are addressing more than one person you would say …
Nollaig Shona Daoibh
Prononciation is “null-ig hun-ah jeeve”.
And so, I wish you all joy and peace this Christmas season.
Beannachtaí an tSéasúir
Irish American Mom
(Pronunciation for “Beannachtaí an tSéasúir” is “ban-uck-thee on thay-shure)
The season for singing is upon us once again. I love Christmas carols and holiday tunes at this time of year.
Today most of you are probably dashing around in the midst of pre-holiday preparations. With just one more weekend left before the big day, this Sunday may be far from a day of rest for you.
But, if by some chance you get a moment to sit down and relax this December Sunday, here’s a lovely Christmas song you might enjoy.
Last year I shared my lack of singing talent with you in a blog post, so you will fully understand how ecstatic I am when I hear my husband’s family’s tuneful voices.
In this video my husband’s cousin is the vocalist. Together with three of his friends from Donegal, he created this video to help spread awareness of some local Donegal charities.
I hope you enjoy Pete’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as much as I do.
Nollaig Shona Daoibh!
(Happy Christmas To All)
Irish American Mom
Christmas is coming and kids everywhere are on their best behavior to ensure they make it onto the good list before Christmas arrives.
All through December the mere suggestion one of Santa’s elves might be on the lookout is enough to bring about a dramatic change in my kids’ bad behavior.
But alack and alas for the other eleven months of the year, when I don’t have any help from spying elves, my motherly warnings are usually drawn directly from the maternal lingo I listened to as a child in Ireland.
I frequently utter a litany of my own mother’s, ever-so-Irish reprimands and instructions.
I only have a few more years before my kids will be teenagers, and then the threat of Santa’s naughty list will have absolutely zero positive effect. By that time, I will have revived the whole repertoire of motherly words of caution I heard in my formative years.
Irish mothers employ a turn-of-phrase that is quite unique, and probably only found where the Irish speak fluent Hiberno-English. I call this maternal language, the Irish Mother Tongue.
And so today, I thought it might be entertaining to take a look at how Irish mothers warn their children to behave, since we’re right in the midst of the season for being good.
Don’t Be Bold For Boldness Sake:
We all know Santa Claus is coming to town very, very soon and in one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time, we are well warned to be “good for goodness sake.”
I was listening to my own kids singing these ever so famous words the other day, and I couldn’t help but think how different the words might be if they reflected the true behavioral warnings of a typical Irish mammy. Let’s face it! An Irish mammy would have worded the last line:
“Don’t be bold for boldness sake.”
And in some parts of Ireland’s fair isle, this would be….
“Don’t be bould, for bouldness sake.”
pronounced bow-ld – like a bow taken on stage.
When I was a little girl we were never advised against being ‘naughty’. Our warnings all centered around boldness. You see, in Ireland, being bold has absolutely nothing to do with bravery.
Irish people use the word ‘bold’ frequently and with a very different meaning to the rest of the world’s utilization of the term.
The Irish have embraced the fourth and final meaning for the word ‘bold’ found in the Chambers English dictionary. There, to be bold is explained as “not being shy, especially in a way that shows no respect.”
When an Irish mammy issues the warning words “Don’t be bold,” I’m quite sure Santa would agree, and his Irish counter part Santee would definitely concur.
The Plethora Of Phrases Irish Mothers Use To Encourage Good Behavior:
The Dublin mammies of my childhood utilized many, many phrases to warn us children to be good. “Don’t be bold” was merely the phrase of choice when an Irish mom was warming up.
One of my favorite cautions was ….
“No acting the maggot.”
How poor old maggots ever got dragged into the intimidating world of good behavior is a complete mystery to me, but trust me, this phrase is used quite a bit in Ireland.
Perhaps some wise old Irish woman saw her child twisting and twitching around, grew irritated, and thought these playful movements were just like the wriggling and jiggling of maggots.
And ever since Irish children have known the cautionary words, “stop acting the maggot,” mean no boisterous behavior.
Well, that’s my Geary Theory on the whole maggot affair.
Here’s another good one, uttered in every corner of the Emerald Isle.
“No messing now.”
This edict has nothing to do with making a mess. In this preferred Irish phrase the word “mess” has been transformed from a noun to a verb.
When an Irish mom states there is to be no messing she usually means ….
Officially the Chambers English dictionary explains the term playacting as “being theatrical and over-dramatic, or acting in an artificial manner.”
But when your Irish mother told you not to be playacting, it had nothing to do with the stage or acting. You knew you had to be on your very best behavior.
And if you chose to disregard her advice, then you would definitely need an Oscar-winning performance to justify why you did not heed her warnings about ….
There was plenty “divilment” and trick-acting when I was a little girl in Dublin.
Words Of Advice For Visiting:
And then of course, there were the motherly words of advice reserved especially for times when visiting neighbors or relatives.
You could be a house devil, and be up to all of your old “divilment”, but you always had to be a street angel.
Here’s one of my favorites ….
“No making a show of yourself.”
And then if your were going somewhere extra special, you were warned …
“Don’t make a holy show of yourself.”
‘Twas a thin line indeed between being “a show” and “a holy show.”
On Staying Calm And Sitting Quietly:
There were other phrases solely dedicated for the purposes of advising energetic kiddos to sit still, and not “be tearing around the place”. Here’s one I often heard on the way to bed….
“There’s to be no high jinx!”
In our house this meant there was to be no jumping on the beds, or else we’d “burst all the springs in the mattress.”
Perhaps, you heard a few of these classic warnings when your were a little one …
“None of your tomfoolery!”
There was an endless supply of terms to describe our childish shenanigans….
“No bedlam while I’m gone!”
And then goats got dragged into the whole good behavior affair, just like the poor, old innocent maggots….
“No acting like giddy goats!”
Even horses weren’t safe from the Irish Mother Tongue ….
Now don’t worry – our Irish mammies didn’t think we were going to take a quick trip to a betting office to have a little flutter on the horses. No! Horse-play was simply a bit of rough play.
Usually boys are more inclined towards a bit of horse-play, loving to push and shove. But trust me, when I was growing up I was a fair hand at a bit of mock wrestling, despite my mother’s warnings.
I remember getting into a little horse-play with my cousin when my folks had gathered in a relative’s house after my grand uncle’s funeral. I broke my arm, but tried not to cry. I sat holding my arm, but finally realized it wasn’t getting any better. I kept thinking of another favorite Irish mothers’ saying ….
“If you fall and break your two legs,
don’t come running to me!”
However, it’s amazing how you’re granted absolution for all kinds of malarkey when you have a broken bone.
Mother Knows Everything:
And just like Santa knows everything about who’s been good or bad, you can never pull the wool over an Irish mother’s eyes.
And how do I know this! Well! I was often told ….
“I have eyes in the back of my head.”
I seem to have developed those same rear-view eyes in the past few years of motherhood.
Now, Santa Claus depends on his elves to inform him who’s been acting out of line. But an Irish mother has her very own spy, and it’s none other than a little birdie. How many times did you hear?????
“A little birdie told me…”
Those Irish birdies told our mothers everything. There was nothing she did not know.
Nowadays, I make sure to keep my bird feeder full, and keep those little birdies happy.
Ah! The edicts of our Irish mothers. Perhaps they didn’t encourage good behavior, but instead discouraged bad behavior with all their warnings.
As I reminisce about the lingo of my childhood I can’t help but think today’s psychologists would probably denounce the negative intonations of these Irish motherly phrases.
But negative or not, I recall these phrases fondly. And even if we are now supposed to approach our corrections with a more positive phrasing, I for one can vouch for the effectiveness of these Irish maternal warnings. And why is this? In all the years of my Irish childhood, I never once got a single wallop from the dreaded wooden spoon.
Irish Terms That Crossed The Atlantic:
I wonder how many Irish American readers of my blog heard some of these phrases in their childhood years. Did Irish immigrants to the United States bring their parenting lingo with them?
Two terms with Irish roots, I have heard frequently in the US, are shenanigans and malarkey. These words have definite Irish origins, but were used less in Dublin, Ireland, than Dublin, Ohio, when I was growing up.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town:
And so, I hope children all over the world are being very good this year. Fingers crossed parents won’t need to resort to the Irish Mother Tongue to ensure their kiddos make it onto the good list.
Slán agus beannacht!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Dublin is magical at Christmas time. Glittering lights festoon the city’s streets bringing festive cheer to all.
This year I’ll be in Ireland for Christmas, and what better way is there to celebrate than by sharing some photos of Dublin’s Fair City, adorned in all her Christmas glory.
Dublin’s Christmas light show may not be as extensive as in other cities around the world, but to my Irish eyes my hometown’s Christmas lighting extravaganza is spectacular.
Christmas lights illuminate the darkest month of the year.
The sun sets around 4.30 pm on Irish Christmas evenings, but Dublin’s Christmas lights bring cheer to these dull and dreary days.
At night Moore Street vendors’ stalls lay vacant, beneath glittering, illuminated garlands.
In the early morning hours they greet Dublin’s long time retail entrepreneurs in style.
A Christmas crib sits in all its splendor in front of the GPO on O’Connell Street. The baby Jesus will take His place of honor amongst the shepherds and Wise Kings on Christmas Eve.
It’s wonderful how Dublin City Council still recognizes the true reason for the season, and continues to include a manger scene as part of the city’s decorations.
A brilliant, glowing Christmas tree sits in the middle of O’Connell Street.
It stands in all its luminous glory between Clerys shop and the GPO, the site of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
And Clery’s clock, the most famous meeting place in Dublin, looks resplendent beneath this lustrous burnished bow.
Red and gold trees perch high above pedestrians along the GPO arcade.
Once our north side light tour was complete we headed to the south side to see Grafton Street’s illuminations.
Bewley’s Oriental Cafe is tastefully decorated in gleaming blues.
And Dublin’s famous Georgian doors require no lighting – a simple holly wreath provides a lovely, festive feel to these amazing architectural gems.
A Christmas market has opened along St. Stephen’s Green. I love how this European tradition is now part and parcel of a Dublin Christmas.
Giant snowflakes are all aglow on a Grafton Street store.
And the St. Stephen’s Green Shopping Center looks magnificent too.
And for all my readers, I hope this post finds you celebrating the peace and joy of the Christmas season.