A Tradition or Two and a Greeting

painting of several lit candles by the window on a winters night
Candles in the Window

A common tradition in Ireland, and in many regions around the world, is the placing of a candle in the window.  Some people do this in order to welcome family and friends, and to remember loved ones who are far from home and cannot be with them.  Popular around Christmas time, the warmth and light of the candle represents the warmth and love of a home and the people in it – in a stark contrast to the cold and darkness outside.

An old custom dating from the time of the Penal Laws sees the candle designating a safe place for priests to say mass.  Subject to many other interpretations, the Candle in the Window can represent, amongst other things, a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they travelled looking for shelter.
A further element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name 'Mary'.

The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas Eve is still practised today, although we might not always be aware of its roots…

“The candle in the window bears tidings for us all, It yet reflects with great respect the tale of home and hall.
This light of thine will always shine across the night-dark sea. To welcome, guide, deliver us and bring us home to thee.”

Another Irish Tradition, once common, now not so much, Wren day is celebrated in parts of the country on St Stephens Day, 26th December.  The tradition is based around a ‘hunt’.  The prey in question is a wren which, when caught, is tied to the top of a decorated pole.  Then, groups of people known as Munmmers, Strawboys or Wrenboys, celebrate the kill by dressing up in masks, colourful clothing and straw suits and parade through the towns and villages.

Historically, Wrenboys hunted real living wrens on St. Stephen's Day.  The captured wren, tied to the leaders staff would be kept alive as the Wrenboys paraded and received donations from the townspeople.  This would go towards the hosting of a dance, and the pole, decorated with ribbons, wreaths and flowers as well as the Wren itself, was the centre of the dance.  Over time, the live bird was replaced with a fake one.

An associated story sees the Wren betraying the Irish soldiers fighting the Vikings.  The bird began beating its wings on their shields which revealed the position of the hidden Irish.  The origins of the Wren celebration uncertain, but many believe it is a pagan midwinter sacrifice, as Celtic tradition considered the Wren a symbol of the past year. 

And finally, the Irish language greeting for 'Merry Christmas' is:  'Nollaig Shona Duit' ......which is pronounced as 'null-ig hun-a dich'.