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!)
A major feast is upon us. This Thursday Christians around the world will pause to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Many know this feast as Candlemas, a term used due to the connection of candles with the day- more on that later. This feast is one of the oldest in Christendom, recordings of its celebration can be found as early as 312. The feast marks the end of the 40 day period begun with the birth of Jesus on December 25th. In the time of Mary, the Laws of Moses dictated that all firstborn children must be brought to temple for the ritual of the first-born. This was to purify the mother after childbirth. Mary and Joseph made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Practice held that a lamb would be brought to sacrifice by the young couple. Not having the funds for a lamb, Mary and Joseph most likely took the secondary option as outlined in Leviticus. If no lamb, then two turtle doves, young pigeons. [Another connection to the 12 Days of Christmas!!] At the Temple they encounter Simeon, who through his prophecy proclaims the baby as the Christ, a “light for revelation”. By the 6th century the date of the feast had been set as February 2nd, then known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary.
February 2nd! An important day for so many. It is 40 days since the birth of the Christ child. But it also lines up with some other key seasonal dates of importance. The second marks the half-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Many consider it the unofficial beginning of Spring, a time to plant and to focus on new birth or growth. It is the point of the return of light, signified with the lighting of large fires and candles (told you we’d get back to those). In Ireland the time aligned with the Gaelic celebration of Imbolc. This was a festival for the pagan goddess Brigid, later transformed to honor St. Brigid. St. Brigid was a nun who established the first Irish convent in Kildare. Traditional celebrations in Ireland include placing a loaf of bread on the window for the saint and an ear of corn for her cow. One other, more curious, connection to the date deals with witches! Covens often chose to initiate new members on this day because of the connections to renewal and birth. [Yes- there is another connection on the 2nd- we’ll tackle the groundhog tomorrow]
Back to the candles though. Candlemas includes a mass celebration with the blessing of beeswax candles. These candles are used to bring light into the world for the new year. Families and churches often have lovely displays of candles. It is a time to renew religious vows in the light of the newly blessed candles. Candlemas is another option to take down your holiday decorations, especially those of live greenery or plants. If you didn’t dispose of these items on Twelfth Night, Candlemas is the day to remove them, and then safely burn them. Superstition holds that to keep these items past the second will bring a death within the congregation before another year ends. Take time to clean out your fireplace and light a new fire too. New fire for the new purity! In addition to the candles and fire there are traditions involving food and more. Come back tomorrow to read more about the fun you can have on February 2nd!