I have always loved this time of year. The evenings are getting longer, and the weather a little cooler. It was during this time of year, as a young lad growing up in Ireland, we would be sitting around the turf fire, listening to the music, songs, and stories from an ancient past. As the Christmas season approached, excitement could be felt in the air as we prepared for the celebrations by gathering boughs of holly and whitewashing the house.
The roots of the Christmas traditions that we recognize today can be traced back to pre-Christian celebrations of the Winter Solstice. To the ancient Celts, the Winter Solstice was their Christmas. It was a time for clansmen and women to gather together with their families to celebrate the shortest day of the year and the rebirth of the sun. As Christianity spread across the western world and mixed with pagan customs, the festivities of the winter solstice became linked with the advent of the nativity. Back in 1990, myself and Robin James-Jones wanted to produce an annual Christmas concert that would honor the old customs, stories and songs from each of the Seven Celtic Nations. We spent untold hours researching the project, and in December 1990, Robin and I performed our very first Celtic Christmas program. In 1993 a half hour version of the show premiered on the PBS affiliate WLAE-TV in New Orleans and was soon picked up by other PBS affiliates around the country. In 2004, Celtic Christmas was televised by Louisiana Public Broadcasting at McNeese University in Lake Charles.
We wanted the program to show that, while all of the Celtic nations shared many of the same Christmas customs, each of them also developed their own distinct traditions, pageantry, music and feasting, many of which continue to be celebrated to this very day. For instance, the Scots celebrated “Oidche Choinnle” (Night of Candles). Candles were placed in every window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas. In Ireland, the day after Christmas Day, December 26, was called Lá Fhéile Stiofán (Day of the Wren). This goes back to ancient times when a real wren was killed and carried around in a holly bush. Some processions still take place, but no wren is hunted or used.
For many of us, Christmas traditions are such an important part of the Holidays. As a young boy growing up in Ireland, the Holidays were filled with many wonderful traditions. We would decorate our thatched cottage with holly berries which my brothers and sisters and I gathered from the yard. My mom would place them around our home and candles would be lit to protect the house and bring good fortune throughout the coming year. There was always music and song filling the air and, of course, plum pudding!! Every year, as the season approaches, I recall these and so many more wonderful memories spent with family in the west coast of Ireland. It is my hope that Celtic Christmas brings you back in time to capture the essence of those wonderful Celtic custom.
I hope this season is filled with love, peace and joy for each and every one of you. The next few weeks will be busy as the general hustle and bustle of the Season is upon us. But Christmas is an ideal time to reflect on the many blessings in our lives and to be grateful for the many gifts in our lives. The true spirit of Christmas is about love, children, good health, friendships, and so much more. From my family to yours, I wish you a very merry Christmas, and a happy and healthy new year!
Nollaig Shona Duit! Merry Christmas!