I used to think we got Christmas all wrong in Ireland. Now I am beginning to think we get it very right (from the perspective of my rural parish, at least). I must be mellowing.
Mind you, Christmas does seem to start earlier and earlier. A friend in the trade assures me that the reason is practical: it takes Christmas trading to put most businesses in the black. That’s why they’re tempted to start earlier and earlier; ‘Black Friday’ apparently gets its name from the same reality. But I can avoid being offended by keeping away from the places where Christmas decorations appear in September or earlier.
Generally speaking, the full-throated Christmas celebration doesn’t begin till December (‘Mí na Nollag’ or ‘the month of Christmas’ in Ireland). And from the start of the month till Christmas Eve we have all our public expressions of festive cheer. Concerts are arranged, office parties, Christmas dinners for the elderly, fund-raising; we do all our public partying in the month of Christmas before the day itself.
On Christmas Day then, we honour Christ and relax with those we love. It must be one of the few days without funeral Masses, removals etc: the ultimate day of rest.
Then, from St Stephen’s Day on, Ireland comes into its own, as we do all our under-the-radar celebrating. Visits are made all over the place, and those who really want to spend time together do just that.
On St Stephen’s Day, we have hunts and mummers and people keen to give the poor ‘wren’ a decent send-off.
In communities around the country we have ‘poc fadas’ and other locally-organised events that bring us together with the people we really prefer to spend time with, far away from work colleagues who are presumably doing the same in their own places. During those days between December 27 and December 31, all the fuss has gone out of Christmas.
No longer do we hear 24-hour Christmas music everywhere, as the focus shifts from Christmas to New Year; sighs of relief are breathed all round.
And it doesn’t all end on New Year’s Day. Most go back to work on January 2, but in Ireland, the Epiphany contines to hold a special place, both as a holyday and a proper bookend to complete the ‘12 days of Christmas’.
In Cork, the 12th night is women’s night out (‘women’s little Christmas’, or sometimes, hilariously, the ‘little women’s Christmas’!) The day thus has two titles. It’s ‘Little Christmas’; January 6 might be the main Christmas across continental Europe, when the gift-bearing Magi are like orginal Santa Clauses, but here it ranks second to the feast of the Nativity (it’s the day the decorations finally come down too).
The other title of the day, ‘Nollaig na mBan’, gave those who traditionally prepared and served the turkey on December 25 a day to be served, as an overdue ‘Thank you’.
That’s another thing we get right. Thanks are always overdue.
Enjoy your 12 days of Christmas.
The best homily I ever heard at Christmas was a story of an atheist who refused to go to Midnight Mass. Out in the barn he discovered a bird trapped and found it hard to help the bird to safety. He shooed, he cajoled, he tried every way to show the bird how to get back out into the night. It struck him that the only way would be if he could become a bird.
It was then the bells rang out for midnight Mass, and the penny dropped: Christ had to become one of us to show us the way out also!
When no light shines brighter than God
My favourite seasonal poem is attributed to Minnie Louise Haskin and was used in a broadcast by George VI when Britain was overshadowed by World War II. It’s my greeting to you as we stand on the verge of 2019, an equally uncertain time…
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way…”