The true tra­di­tion of Christ­mas

Fiann Ó Nual­láin es­pouses a low-key Christ­mas with pre-chris­tian tra­di­tions that shun com­mer­cial­ism

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - In The Garden -

This is the week­end tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with putting up the tree and dec­o­rat­ing the house for Christ­mas. Now I know some of you hea­thens have it on the go since Novem­ber and some ‘un­di­ag­nosed’ since Oc­to­ber.

God bless your com­mit­ment, but be­yond un­coil­ing the flashy lights and the rush­ing around the shops snap­ping up Fiann Ó Nual­láin books for your loved ones — what else needs to be done in the com­ing days?

Well, there are a cou­ple of tra­di­tions on the wane or just about hang­ing on (but with lost sig­nif­i­cance), that we might want to res­ur­rect. So dec­o­rat­ing the house is all well and good but what with? Is it all Ikea love-heart lights, golden arches (Mc­don­alds sign) re­plac­ing the na­tiv­ity star atop the tree and a star wars fig­ure in the crib?

I’m not re­li­gious most of the time but it is CHRIST­mas and these ‘hol­i­days are com­ing’ ads make me al­most­want­top­uta­don­keyin the gar­den and hire a preg­nant wo­man for the week.

I’m not quite the holy Joe or Joseph so I don’t. How­ever, I do pre­fer to get ex­cited about cel­e­bra­tion rather than con­sumerism. So I make my own dec­o­ra­tions.

I guess it’s thrifty if you like that sort of thing. I guess it’s a bit eco-chic if you like that sort of thing. I guess it’s also trend­ing if you like that sort of thing. For me, it’s in the foot­steps of my an­ces­tors. I like that sort of thing.

How­ever, be­fore we get ahead of our­selves and start lash­ing up the door wreaths and win­ter boughs, have you done the Christ­mas clean? I don’t mean a whizz around with the hoover, I mean the Ad­vent pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­ual.

Tra­di­tion­ally and still up­held in some house­holds, Ad­vent be­gan with a bucket of white­wash or a tub of Weather­shield to brighten up and re­fresh the cow sheds, out­houses, perime­ter walls and even the rocks in the drive­way.

It’s one that’s older than Christ­mas and goes back to prepa­ra­tions for ‘grian-stad’ or win­ter sol­stice cel­e­bra­tions (De­cem­ber 21), and the great in­tent of bring­ing some ex­tra bright­ness into play at a time of less day­light.

It eas­ily trans­fers to a lick of paint on the gar­den bench or hav­ing fun with the off­spring or grand­kids and paint­ing some ter­ra­cotta pots to plant.

Or do­ing stuff with oases and some win­ter branch or putting baubles on the ever­green up the drive­way — or in the porch or even, as ta­ble set­tings.

We have been bring­ing ever­green in­side at win­ter since well be­fore Fa­ther Christ­mas was even a gleam in Coca-cola’s green eye. Even be­fore there was a Christ­mas. It’s great to keep that up and ev­ery year at this time I look for­ward to a stroll with a se­ca­teurs.

The for­age rule is not to cut more than you need and be it the gar­den or the hedgerow, do think about how you are prun­ing it rather than just hack­ing some off. You need to be able to come back next year for more. I’m of­ten out of Dublin for Christ­mas and have the hedgerow bounty to ex­cite me, but even through Dublin city and other conur­ba­tions, there is bounty to be had in the wind-felled cones, the neigh­bours’ un­cut hedge and the waste ground and canal walk, win­ter stems.

Although, caveat, I was nearly ar­rested one year for clip­ping a sprig of Trin­ity Col­lege holly that was hang­ing over the wall — doesn’t help ask­ing the ‘whatcha at there’ garda if he wants the chip pruned off his shoul­der.

It’s so sim­ple to coil a wire hanger or some gar­den wire into a circle and tie in all your for­aged sprigs for a beautiful nat­u­ral door wreath. Tie in some cin­na­mon sticks, star anise or clove-stuck clemen­tines and the aroma greets your fes­tive guests with some Christ­mas spici­ness.

By all means tie on candy canes, rib­bons, bells and whatever you think Christ­massy. I have some wooden fly agaric mushrooms from Fin­land that I at­tach to mine but that’s a whole other story about how in La­p­land rein­deers eat them and think they can fly.

Pe­cu­liar minds aside — why not get the younger mem­bers of the house to make and paint clay fig­ures of antlers, snowflakes, or can­dles to adorn the door wreath.

There is self-hard­en­ing clay in most craft stores. If it’s a ta­ble dec­o­ra­tion then how about some fes­tive­shaped ‘cookie cut­ters’ and a gin­ger bis­cuit mix. Once upon a time the chil­dren of the house went out on the for­age and brought back the re­quired quan­ti­ties of nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als — not sure if there’s an app for the modern gen­er­a­tion.

I love a door wreath, but ta­ble set­tings with win­ter fo­liage and berries are just joy­ful and set the mood even when you think you have had enough al­ready. The big trick with in­door fo­liage ar­range­ments is to cut your fo­liage as close to when you phys­i­cally ar­range it — so it lasts over the Christ­mas.

If you have some flag­ging then you can re­cut the bot­tom of the stems and put them straight into wa­ter con­tain­ing an as­pirin (helps perk up plant) or spray the ar­range­ment with a mis­ter with a tea­spoon of Ep­som salts — well shaken up in­side.

If you want to keep it sim­ple why not just get back to the ear­li­est tra­di­tion and place sprigs of holly over mir­rors and fam­ily photos, tacked over a door­way or strate­gi­cally placed on man­tles and win­dow sills. A peace­ful con­ti­nu­ity.

You could go un­usual and opt for choysia or any ev­er­greeny­ouhave­grow­ing in the gar­den. It is all about bring­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of na­ture, a plant, in­side your home.

For­many,christ­ma­sisn’t Christ­mas with­out hang­ing up a sprig of mistle­toe. Each year it gets harder to get, as the nat­u­ral habi­tats of mistle­toe are rapidly de­clin­ing and no­body wants to cut it by hand for a few pence with a huge profit to su­per­mar­ket chains.

Kiss­ing under the mistle­toe is a Chris­tian­i­sa­tion of the an­cient fer­til­ity rites of the win­ter sol­stice and the old or­gias­tic sat­ur­na­lia. It’s ironic that mistle­toe sprigs picked at this time of year carry im­ma­ture berries not fe­cund or vi­able to prop­a­gate from.

For that, you would need to wait un­til March, when nat­u­ral colonies of mistle­toe are ripe for im­preg­nat­ing new hosts of ap­ple, rowan, pear or even a co­toneaster, pyra­can­tha or old shrub rose.

For me Christ­mas isn’t Christ­mas with­out a coin­neal mór na Nol­lag — the big Christ­mas can­dle; of­ten now just a sim­ple tea light or ar­ti­fi­cial can­dle in the win­dow — once a state­ment of­fer­ing em­pa­thy and wel­come to strangers and poor folk; in re­mem­brance of no room at the inn.

Now it’s more of what in­te­rior de­sign­ers might use to cheery up the win­dow. And I guess most would wilt on the spot if a stranger ac­tu­ally knocked say­ing “seen the can­dle, thanks for the bed for the night”.

I do the can­dle thing, I like it, it ex­presses a bit of sol­i­dar­ity with the un­for­tu­nate and you hope, even if no­body avails of its orig­i­nal in­tent, that its sym­bolic ‘pos­i­tive in­tent’ shines a light into the world. The Ir­ish tra­di­tion was to light it Christ­mas eve and let it light the night into Christ­mas day.

The hon­our of light­ing it fell to the youngest mem­ber of the fam­ily. And yes be care­ful with naked flames..

Christ­mas isn’t Christ­mas with­out a coin­neal mór na Nol­lag — the big Christ­mas can­dle; of­ten now just a sim­ple tea light or ar­ti­fi­cial can­dle in the win­dow — once a state­ment of­fer­ing em­pa­thy and wel­come to strangers.

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