It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas is a time of great joy. Each country has it’s own Christmas traditions and customs. North Mayo is no different. Some traditions are no longer but some still are practiced to this date.
In North Mayo the preparation for Christmas began after Martinmas (November 11th) when farmers would begin preparing, geese (turkeys were not common in Ireland) or ducks by fattening them before the big day. Pigs were slaughtered (every farmer had a pig ) and the meat was stored for the long winter months.
The festive season began on December 8th on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This was a Holy Day of Obligation. A day when it was compulsory to attend church. December 8th was also a day when families from rural Ireland would head to the ‘big town’ to begin Christmas shopping. It was from the 8th onwards that decorations were put up. In the old days decorations were plain and simple mainly Twigs of holly, paper decorations, tinsel and balloons! Any ornaments were often handed down.
Today it’s common for electric candles to be placed in windows across the Ireland but it is a modern version of an old tradition. In days gone by candles were lit and placed in windowsill. The candles were lit to light a way to guide the Holy Family and The Three Wise Men on their journey. On Christmas Eve it was custom to keep the door to your home unlatched again to allow the Holy Family or any passerby refuge overnight.
“Buying the Christmas” was another special day. On this day the big grocery shop was done. Each household would stock up on essentials and non essentials! No one dared venture to the shop over the Christmas season.
Most houses in Ireland had a crib, a small collection of figures representing each participant in the Nativity. The crib figures were displayed in a small wooden stable with straw or moss. The infant Jesus would not be placed in the crib until Christmas morning.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day churches were full to the brim. It would be an opportunity for members of the family living away from home to attend their home church and catch up with neighbours and friends. On Christmas Eve Mass was/is celebrated at Midnight although in some parishes Mass now takes place at 9pm…so to not clash with festive activities!
St. Stephen’s Day is still celebrated in 26th December or also known as Wren Day. Groups of boys dressed up in masks, straw costumes and carried a fake wren with them. The boys (later on girls) went door to door singing and dancing with the aim of collecting money to ‘bury the wren’ The rhyme “The wren, the wren, the king o the birds, St. Stephen’s Day got caught in the furze, Up with the kettle, down with the pan, give us a penny, to bury the wren. The wren boys would not leave a house until they received payment.
New Year was celebrated at midnight on January 1st. Tradition was that the back door and front door were opened at the same time to send off the od year and welcome the new year. There was great importance placed on who the first visitor of the year was. If a handsome man was first through the door it was meant to be a good omen. However a woman was said to bring bad luck, especially if she were a young woman with red hair. On January first nothing was put out such as the ashes from the fire. If a death occurred during the twelve days of Christmas, no funeral would take place on the first day of the year. It was felt if a funeral took place on this day, another would take place in the year. Funerals were postponed during the year. If a death occurred during the year no decorations would be erected or no Christmas cards were sent. If a death occurred during the festive season decorations were taken down.
January 6th is the last day of the Christmas season. It is the day that the Three Wise Men were said to arrived in Bethlehem. This day is called Nollaig na mBan / Women’s Christmas or ‘Little Christmas’. This was the day when women took the day off after a busy Christmas period and the men of the house took over. Christmas lights were quenched at midnight and decorations were taken down on January 7th. It was considered bad luck to take decorations down early (unless there was a death in the family) and bad luck to have decorations up after January 7th
Whatever your traditions, we would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!