Wednesday 21 December 2022

The Mother Night


Whether you grew up in Arizona or Australia, Florida or Johannesburg, you probably celebrated Christmas by displaying plants from Northern Europe – hanging holly, ivy and mistletoe in the house, and decorating an evergreen tree – whether they are appropriate for your climate or not. I used to wonder why these plants, and why Christmas was this time of year when we don’t actually know when Christ was born. Once I moved to rural Ireland, though, these things began to make sense.

You see, I’ve mentioned that we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, the same latitude as part of Alaska. We don’t think of Ireland as being so far north; it rarely snows or freezes here, because it’s an island surrounded by a current from the Caribbean, which keeps the temperature from getting too cold. But it never gets that warm either, and the seasonal light changes are extreme.

At Midsummer – the longest day of the year – you can walk around in twilight after 11 pm and before 4 am. Until we moved here, I never understood the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play in which lovers change their allegiances several times in a night. The longest day is the shortest night, so the title emphasizes how quickly love can turn – in a “Midsummer Night,” the equivalent of a “New York Minute.” 

Winter brings the opposite, with nights that can last for seventeen hours at a stretch, punctuated by several hours of sunset; the sun crouches low in the bushes, casting long shadows across agrey landscape. And those are the few hours of daylight before the long night comes again.

Where I live there are no streetlights, and until a few decades ago, no electricity at all, no light but candles and flames. As one Irish writer put it, “the nights were treacle-black, they haunted little children and big men alike. Outdoors was for spectres and hooved creatures with strange powers. Children of the long-legged day would look out petrified at the wild sea.”

In most of the Western world generations now have grown up with streetlights outside and houselights a flick away, and can little comprehend the unsettling power of long and absolute darkness.

No wonder people here used to spend the winters going from house to house, lantern or torch in hand, spending time with neighbours and singing songs, sharing dishes and telling stories. Even further back people here built some of the oldest monuments by humans – Newgrange just north of us, five thousand years old, and Stonehenge in England, built around the same time, and both aligned to mark the solstice of maximum darkness, what the Saxons would later call the Mother Night.

No wonder, then, that people here devoted the longest night to celebration, reminding each other that this too would pass. No wonder people brought indoors the plants that remained green and cheerful – holly, ivy, evergreens -- a reminder that the green world around us would return as the world was remade. No wonder it became the celebration day for the birth of Christ.

Christian holidays, like the faith itself, came to Europe from a very different culture and landscape, the desert lands to the far south and east. Once adopted by peoples of the long darkness, though, they were transformed. 

Whenever Christ was actually born, the obvious time to celebrate his birth was when -- after a long and harrowing plunge into the abyss -- the world seems to exhale, the days are born and grow again, and another year of life, with all its possibilities, appears before us.


Tuesday 20 December 2022

Irish village in winter


"Santa only gave us perhaps an orange, a few little books, crayons and sweets, but the important thing was that Santa had come." -- Aine Aherne

"Christmas used to be very different than it is now; if my parents had what we spend on toys they would have been rich indeed. A few days before the grocery boy arrived with the dray (cart) and a Christmas box, the ingredients for cake and pudding with a large candle in the middle." -- Annie Dunne. Both from No Shoes in Summer.

Sunday 18 December 2022

The Sleep Fairy

When my daughter was four, she had trouble getting to sleep, and padded downstairs for more reading before finally succumbing. I often persuaded her to return peacefully by telling her about the Sleep Fairy, who sprinkles fairy dust on children's eyelids and makes them heavy.

It didn't always work, though -- one night she came down annoyed and gravely announced, "The Sleep Fairy has disappointed me."

Sunday 11 December 2022

St. Necklace Day

Myself and my daughter, some years ago.


One morning years ago, as I tried to sleep in, a metre-high blond person jumped up and down on me shouting, "Look what St. Necklace brought us!" I liked the "us" - she was as happy for me as for herself.

The sixth of December is St. Nicholas Day, when many families would leave presents in children’s shoes. That year my daughter got chocolate coins and a few other goodies. In my family -- and this part seems to be unique to us – St. Nicholas leaves tins of sardines and octopus. The Girl was calling him "St. Necklace" -- she got a necklace on this day a year or two ago, and the name stuck. In the Irish countryside our every Christmas was small and somewhat isolated, but these moments make them meaningful.

Meaning is something we often lack in modern Christmas celebrations, where we feel pressured to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much, listen to the same terrible rock songs, watch certain television specials, put up enough lights to make our house visible from space and pretend to be cheerful when we are not. There’s nothing sacred about these pop-culture traditions, though; Santa Claus and many of the carols we sing are of surprisingly recent invention, often less than a hundred years old, and often created as advertising campaigns.

I’m not trying to be a Grinch about this – by all means, enjoy the holiday. I simply don’t feel obliged to hear all the songs, over and over, for a few months. What’s more, the new ones are squeezing out many local and truly traditional family rituals that date back longer than we can measure.

Take Wren Day, when local families gathered in the nearby woods for a ritual called the Hunting of the Wren. Men dressed in straw – “straw boys” – stole a statue of a wren, and its defenders – “wren boys” – gave chase with all the local children. After all the children had been nicely exhausted – while their parents sat back sipping tea around the fire – the Wren Boys and children came back holding the Wren in triumph. The Wren Boys and Straw Boys shook hands, made peace, and the Wren served as King of Birds for another year.

I brought my daughter to this ceremony, but it is one of the last times it would be celebrated. A ritual that might date back to Druid times, two thousand years ago or more, will soon be another casualty of the Great Forgetting of our era; my daughter might be one of the last people who will remember it.

Take wassailing as another example: neighbours walked from house to house carolling and being invited inside, giving everyone a chance to meet their neighbours. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen anyone do this in a long time, nor do many people these days feel comfortable introducing themselves to their neighbours.

Many families do use Christmas to see loved ones, share meals, sing songs together, and tell old stories, and that’s wonderful. But here’s the thing: people used to do these things every day. Here in Ireland, for example, wassailing wasn’t just once a year, but all through the winter; neighbours gathered at each others’ homes, brought instruments, played music, sang songs, and told stories that broke up the long darkness. It allowed each family to share what they had, making deposits in a community favour bank. It strengthened the feeling of community, so that burdens were lessened because they were shared, and joys were heightened because they were shared. Every day used to be more like the best parts of Christmas today.

This year, when many of us are strapped for cash or will have an unusually quiet and empty Christmas, you have permission to ignore the usual spending, eating and drinking extravaganzas. Perhaps you can turn off the television, put away the phones, go for walks, read A Christmas Carol to your children, make gifts with them, and perhaps go carolling at the doors of your elderly neighbours. You’re not here for the holiday; it’s here for you, and you decide how to enjoy it.

When I was raising my daughter in the countryside, every Christmas became sacred. Those moments, with her climbing into bed with me and sharing her contagious awe, were my comfort and joy, and when I prayed, they were the engine of my gratitude.