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
Visiting our departed loved ones at Christmas is an age old Irish tradition. My childhood memories of Christmas Day include a trip to the local cemetery to say a prayer at the gravesides of our deceased relatives and friends.
To many this may seem a very grave matter for Christmas time, but if like me your heritage is Irish, connecting Christmas with death is a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.
Honoring our ancestors and those who have gone before us is very important to Irish families. Christmas is a family holiday which we not only celebrate with the living, but also the dead. When a close relative is unable to visit a grave, a cousin or a friend will often complete the traditional task.
I have heard that Finnish people also observe this tradition of Christmas visits to graveyards. There however, the visit usually happens on Christmas Eve just before dark. Finns usually light a candle in memory of their loved ones. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be as darkness falls. Graveyards must transform into a beautiful sea of candles.
On Christmas Day in Ireland graveside weed pulling is deferred, but old vases and pots of decaying flowers are replaced with wreaths of holly and ivy. We pay our respects in many ways. Some write little notes, and graveside mementos are placed respectfully over the dead.
But these customs are not reserved for the recently departed. Our long lost ancestors are often acknowledged on this holy of holy days.
Cemetery visitors nod to each other, respectfully conveying season’s greetings, yet all the while acknowledging our forebears are now close neighbors.
Like many other Irish people, I find graveyards have long been a source of solitude, comfort and contemplation. Even as a child I never objected to our yuletide cemetery visits, recognizing at a young age that this was part of our heritage – our family duty.
As I have grown older and look back on my Irish childhood I have come to fully appreciate this family ritual, even though many may deem it too somber for this merry season. But I never felt somber as I searched headstones for names I recognized so well.
Our ritual actually felt joyous, as if somehow in my young heart I knew I was bringing the joy of Christmas to our beloved family members who had passed away. Together we honored their lives, aware their lives gave us life, and the ability to celebrate this joyous season.
A silent spiritual music provided rhythm to our Christmas stroll around grave stones and family memorials. Trees seemed silent and indifferent, yet ancient stones comforted us, rooting us to the valleys of our past.
As I now walk amongst the Celtic crosses of my memories, I am reminded that we too are simply passing through. We are only temporary residents on earth, yet duty bound to find joy in the simple things in life, especially family holidays and celebrations.
Slán agus beannacht!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Christmas in Ireland, as I remember, is different from how Christmas was celebrated by our forefathers in the 19th century.
By the time I was born in the 1960’s, Ireland had adopted many English and European customs, such as Christmas trees, plum puddings, and Santa Claus. Ireland’s Christmas traditions evolved and changed over the years, as rural dwellers moved to the larger cities during the 20th century.
On Christmas Eve, I always remember watching Eamon Kelly (1914-2001), the great Irish seanachai (or storyteller) on television. He sat in his rocking chair by a blazing fire, recounting stories of Christmas times past. I sat with my parents and sisters, mesmerized by his lilting, Kerry accent, and his magical tales of times, long gone. His stories usually began…. “In my father’s time…..”
And so, I dedicate this post to the ancient Christmas traditions of rural Ireland, to recreate the festive celebration …” of our grand-fathers’ and great-grandfathers’ time.”
Preparation for Christmas began during Advent. Men and women shared the rituals of Christmas cleaning. Women folk concentrated on the interior of the house, while the men applied a fresh coat of white wash to the exterior of their little, thatch cottages.
Decorating the house required holly and lots of it. Children scoured the hills for the red-berried bushes which grow wild in Ireland. Sprigs of holly were placed over pictures, on mantles, on window sills, and wherever the woman of the house got the notion to display it.
The American tradition of hanging a holly wreath on the door at Christmas time, can be traced back to 19th century Irish settlers.
The man of the house usually headed to the nearest big town, to “bring home the Christmas.” Extra provisions, and special treats such as tea and sugar might be purchased. Those wealthy enough to hold an account with a shop-keeper, might return with a gift from the merchant. This was called the “Christmas box.”
Those with relatives who had emigrated to America, might be lucky enough to receive a Christmas letter from across the ocean with news of their loved ones, or maybe even a few dollars to spread some Christmas cheer.
Many Americans believe the Irish only settled in America after the start of the Great Famine in 1845. This catastrophe opened the flood gates of immigrants to America, but prior to the Famine, a steady trickle of Irish left their native home in search of a better future. The “American letter” was the highlight of Christmas for many poor, Irish families.
Christmas Eve was a special day in rural Ireland. All work finished by midday. After the evening meal, the table was re-set for three with a large raisin and caraway seed bread loaf, a pitcher of milk and a candle to light the meal for the Holy Family.
The door latch was left open, and a grand fire was set before retiring to bed. Keeping holy visitors warm was a must.
A candle was placed in every window of the house. A girl named Mary was chosen to light the first candle of Christmas. If there was no Mary in the house, which would have been a very rare case, the honor was bestowed upon the youngest child.
Candles burned in the windows of country cottages, lighting the way for Mary and Joseph should they pass on this holiest of holy nights. Tiny pinpoints of light scattered across the darkened countryside.
In this age of electric and neon lights, it is difficult to imagine the utter darkness of the Irish countryside in the 19th century. Few people lit candles on a regular evening, to save money. Most sat by the light of a turf fire, only lighting a tallow candle intermittently to guide their way in the darkness. On the holiest night of the year, flickering flames beckoned in every window, lighting the way for the Christ Child.
In the morning a cow horn echoed through the stillness, calling the faithful to early mass. After the final blessing, everyone took turns to visit the crib in the church. After praying devoutly, a wisp of straw was usually “borrowed” from Jesus’ crib, and retained for luck throughout the coming year.
Christmas was a family day centering around a large meal. For those that could afford the luxury of meat, spiced beef or goose was the highlight of the Christmas menu. Stories were told, and a quiet drink was enjoyed in the company of family.
St. Stephen’s Day:
Once Christmas Day passed, the revelry began. The day after Christmas is called St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland. Children and adults dressed up in straw costumes, visiting neighbors to perform and ask for money and treats. These mummers were, and still are, called “The Wren Boys.”
Story telling, dancing and parties in the homes of neighbors and relatives, kept everyone busy and entertained for the full twelve days of Christmas.
Women’s Little Christmas:
Finally, on the 6th of January, the last day of Christmas, the women of Ireland were treated like royalty. This day was, and still is, known as “Women’s Little Christmas.” The men folk dutifully prepared a fine meal for their wives, mothers and daughters to show their gratitude for their tireless work throughout the busy Christmas season.
And so, there you have it – a short synopsis of an old Irish Christmas. I love how Christmas Eve centered on the birth of Jesus. Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.
Nollaig Shona Duit
Irish American Mom