The true tradition of Christmas
Fiann Ó Nualláin espouses a low-key Christmas with pre-christian traditions that shun commercialism
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.