Christmas in Mayo, one hundred years ago

This is it, the last Friday before Christmas. Just two days to go, and no doubt you are busy completing Christmas time chores like whitewashing your house or making a three branched tallow candle. The way we celebrate, observe or mark Christmas has changed and will continue to change. That is not a criticism of modern life, that is life. Traditions and customs evolve, they always have done, they always will. How did you mark St Martin’s Day on November 11 last? Did you kill a rooster and sprinkle the four corners of your house with its blood to keep all danger and trouble away? Rightly considered bizarre today, but that was a custom in Mayo some 100 years ago. Recognising that those long established traditions were in danger of being forgotten to an albeit slowly modernising Ireland, the Irish Folklore Commission developed a recording scheme that ran between 1937 and 1938 and which invited Irish Free State primary schoolchildren to compile and submit folklore from their local area. The children responded in their tens of thousands with folktales, customs and crafts, gleaned from their extended families and written down by their own hands. Thankfully, schoolchildren from across Mayo participated and their returns document our county’s not too distant Christmas beliefs and practices. 

Young Nellie Caulfield from Tulrohaun, close to Mayo’s borders with Roscommon and Galway, paints a picture in her recordings of a time when everyone celebrated the Nativity. Nellie’s research added that in some places it was a mortal sin to bear enmity for past offences. At Christmas, she continued, every door is thrown open and everything in the house is shared willingly with whoever enters to ask for shelter or refreshment. There was an observance of forming a three branched tallow candle to commemorate the Trinity. Each of the branches was lit at dusk on Christmas Eve, but all three were extinguished at midnight. The remains of the triple candle were, however, carefully preserved until the following year as a protection against the visits of all evil spirits except whiskey. The practice of leaving one’s door open was not just to welcome mortal travellers. After interviewing his 40-year-old father Patrick, schoolboy James McDonnell wrote that the people of his village, Belcarra near Castlebar, left their door open on Christmas night so that the Blessed Virgin would have shelter. They would light a candle on that night to direct the Blessed Virgin so that she may leave her blessing on the house. In James’ village, the old people used to give bread to all the animals and at twelve o'clock on Christmas night all the dumb animals would begin to talk and each of them would go down on their knees.

In Glencalry Lower near Belderrig, every house was whitewashed and all the furniture and doors were painted in anticipation of the busy season when visitors would be expected. The refreshed homes were then decorated with holly and ivy. In this northern part of the county at least, everybody had a great dinner on Christmas Day. The poorest of the community had bacon for the dinner, while the more fortunate had a stuffed goose.

Much less common today than even a few decades ago is the St Stephen’s Day tradition of the wren boys, mummers or straw boys. A child living in Coogue Middle, Aghamore, reported to the Irish Folklore Commission that on St Stephen's most of the boys, of between the ages of seven and sixteen years, go about from house to house in pairs playing music, mainly the flute, and dancing. In Glencalry Lower again, the all-male wren boys, dressed in girls clothes with straw hats on their heads, would visit each house in the locality. They would carry an image of the wren bird while a musician played the fiddle or other instrument and four of their party danced the half set. As the mummer’s verse reminds us, “Christmas comes but once a year”, so please enjoy it and stay safe.

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