White Walls & Bright Candles for Christmas

Much of the tradition and preparation for Christmas in Ireland centers on preparing for visitors and making order.  Two holiday practices show this quite well- whitewashing & window candles.  Both traditions go back far beyond the early histories of the Irish people.

No spring cleaning for the Irish.  They are very busy in the weeks leading up to the Christmas season kick-off on cleaning inside and outside every area of their home and farm.  Even the outhouses!  The houses were cleaned inside with soap and water and all the linens cleaned or replaced.  The whitewash was prepped from combining lime and chalk with other ingredients to create calcimine.  This was used to cover the exterior of all buildings.  It took a few days to harden and create the classic look of the old Irish cottage.  This tradition is not followed in the modern cities of steel and other construction, but the more rural areas still whitewash annually.  The cleaning and whitewashing is also a symbolic ritual showing the clean heart (home) in readiness for receiving the Christ Child.  The relation between a clean home and preparation for God goes back to 4,000 B.C. to ancient Mesopotamia- early man cleaned the homes in and out to assist God in the battle against Chaos.  (I am sure many of us practice an almost ritual cleaning of our homes prior to setting-up our holiday decorations and displays!)

Even in the USA you can see homes decorated with candles in the windows, even if they are fancy automatic sensor battery operated and energy-efficient.  The Irish have stayed true to the custom of placing a lit candle in the windows of the home for hundreds of years.  The candle is said to light the way of the stranger after dark.  It is a welcome to all who pass and to the Holy Family.  In times of Catholic persecution in Ireland the candles served another purpose- to act as a sign to priests that the home was a safe shelter and a place Mass could be held.  Some claim that the Irish acquired the practice from the Romans.  The Romans ritually lit candles in December to signify the return of sunlight following the winter solstice.  Many families follow a ceremony to light the candles including prayers for the departed and the candle then lit by the youngest.  Strict tradition holds that the youngest member of the family would light the candle and that only a family member named Mary could extinguish the flame.  Nearly all families in Ireland display the candles.  No light would cause you to be guilty like the inn keeper in Bethlehem that turned Mary and her family away.  (I try to keep my candles lit until the first day of spring!)