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Irish Winter Traditions

Sep 5, 2008
The journey of winter is upon us; and travelling through the celtic countries, where Yule, New Year, Hogmagog, Christmas and the Winter Solstice have uniquely interlaced over time; each finding its own way to stand on the edge of nature while she sleeps. And so, over the coldest of seasons, her peoples have sought to connect the old and the new through song and dance, the death and rebirth of a new year!

Winter Solstice
While the Solstices were not as important to the ancient Irish as the major fire festivals; Lughnasadh (August 1); Beltane (May Day, May 1); Imbolc (February 1- Bridgit); and Samhain (November 1, Halloween), they were none the less celebrated. Of the Solstices and Equinoxes, the Winter Solstice was the most important, since it marked the rebirth of the sun after the shortest day. Many cultures celebrated this time to commemorate the birth of various gods. The Winter Solstice falls between two major fire festivals Samhain (sow-an) or Halloween and Imbolc.

In Newgrange, County Meath, there is an ancient tomb covered with beautiful artwork, which remains in darkness for much of the year. The double spiral on this site is one of the symbols which can be seen at the Newgrange site. Once a year, on the Winter Solstice, the tomb fills with light to reveal the beautiful artwork on the walls. While it seems best to leave its origins to the historians, there is no doubt that the ancient Irish considered this day important.

It also marked "The Shortest Day" or "The Darkest Midnight" and was cause for celebration, since - once the shortest day has passed, it meant the journey toward Spring could begin.

Going Door to Door
While the tradition of "caroling" and going door to door to sing for ones neighbors is only done during the Holiday Season in recent years. In times gone by, it was common to carol from door to door for many of the major festivals. It is thought that certain tunes were found particularly useful for this tradition.

The album "To Warm the Winters Night" celebrates this tradition. A dance entitled "The Horn Dance" was performed from All Souls to the Twelfth Night in hopes of bringing in the luck for the New Year! In many of the Celtic cultures, the tradition of going door to door and caroling or the idea of procession was common. All Souls Night or Samhain (sow- an) has come down to us as Halloween, when going door to door is still part of our culture.

"The Horn Dance" comes from Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. Eight men danced through the village with antler horns on their heads in order to "bring in the luck" for the New Year. The tradition still continues in Abbots Bromley. This dance is thought to have its origins in Pre-Christian Fertility Rites.

The Kylemore Carols
The Kylemore carols are a beautiful collection of Christmas carols from the village of Kylemore. In the depths of harsh winter, a reminder of sacred celebration invests these haunting old melodies, many of which are sung to this day in Kylemore and elsewhere. For a sample of "The Darkest Midnight," arguably the most well-known and loved Kylemore Carol, see track number six on the album To Warm the Winter's Night.

Yule & the Yule Log
Yule marks the rebirth of the suns power. It is yet another symbol of death and rebirth - going from the darkness into the light. For many, Yule runs from before the Solstice until New Year's Day. Many people associate Yule with the "Yule Log," a piece of wood decorated with evergreens, mostly holly and candles. Holly was another ancient symbol for the Irish; it was thought to hold special properties, since it was "neither tree 'nor bush".

Little Christmas
Traditionally Yule ended on January 6th. The Christian Calendar celebrates "Little Christmas" on January 6th also. During my childhood, this was the day that the decorations were taken down and yet another turkey was cooked to mark the end of the season.

December and the Sun Gods
December marks the celebration of many solar "saviors" and Gods, usually on December 25th. Many of them have the word "Light" in their titles. They include, Baal, Dionysus and of course, Jesus Christ.

The Mummers
While the origin of the mummers remains unclear, they were still a vital part of Irish tradition up to the present century. The "Straw Boys" or "Mummers" dressed in disguise, often using straw to cover their faces, and went from door to door. They usually requested and received food or money or some token of gratitude for their "performance." This tradition was particularly strong in the North of Ireland. County Armagh has long been associated with mummers.

Hunting the Wren
The tradition of Hunting the Wren was originally associated with pagan ritual. Historically, a wren was captured and was though to bring luck for the new year. In modern times, the tradition of "hunting the wren" involves musicians who go from gathering to gathering playing music on "St. Steven's Day" (December 26th), and "passing the hat."
About the Author
As traditional Irish music and dance continue to enjoy phenomenal success, Aine Minogue is an artist who has long explored its themes and who captures its very essence. At www.minogue.com Aine's albums, sheet music as well as numerous resources around Irish and Celtic culture are available for download.
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