At Christmastime, we often hear protests about the “real meaning” of the season from people eager to emphasize the Christian elements of Christmas. Others point out that America’s favorite winter holiday owes much to its pagan predecessors. In reality, this blending of Christian and pagan traditions is nothing new, nor is it unique to America.
In the late 1800’s, while Ireland was still struggling against British rule and recovering from the Great Famine, an American ethnographer named James Mooney published a study on the culture of the people of Ireland. What he found was a series of holidays that blended the Catholic faith with ancient Celtic tradition and mythology. Many of the traditions Mooney documented are still practiced in some regions of Ireland today.
St. Bridget’s Day, for instance, is a fire festival that is linked to the pagan Candelmas celebration. It is also associated with the Celtic diety Brigid or Breej, who may have originally been the protectress of cattle and dairy. Celebrations of this day varied, but a procession that traveled from house to house gathering treats was one commonality.
Possibly the most famous Irish holiday is St. Patrick’s Day. In the United States, this holiday is often associated with drinking, but in 1800’s Ireland it was more closely associated with farming. St. Patrick’s Day was considered a good time to begin planting a garden, or as in Connemara, the date by which you should already have done half of your planting. Still, the day was not all work, in the evenings on St. Patrick’s Day many locals would celebrate by “drowning the shamrock” or dipping a clover in a glass of whiskey and making a toast to the community’s continued prosperity.
Another, more familiar, pagan holiday that continues to be celebrated both in Ireland and abroad is Samhen, Hallow E’en (Halloween), or All Souls’ Day. Originally a harvest festival that celebrated the collection of seeds and the final fall crops, this holiday was so popular in ancient Ireland that the Catholic church decided to change its name to All Souls day and keep it, rather than try to convince people to give it up. Because this holiday was said to occur during a time when the veil between the living and the dead was thin, it was also a popular time for divination, a practice the Catholic church was strongly against.
The end of the year brings Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Twelfth Night. Interestingly, the holiday most strongly associated with Catholicism in Ireland also has strong ties to the country’s indigenous traditions. The use of evergreen decorations and collecting of mistletoe, was initially associated with the pagan holiday Yule. This winter festival, a celebration of the rebirth of the sun, was often celebrated with feasting and general merriment, a sentiment that still holds true for this holiday season. Evergreen decorations, including the tree, were seen as a symbol of the return of spring and the natural abundance that comes with it. The mummers, fantastically dressed young men who parade through town (sometimes in costumes made of straw) performing traditional songs and dances, are also associated with this holiday. These customs remain to this day, both in Ireland and the world over, and prove how intertwined our various traditions have become.
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 26, No. 130 (Jul. - Dec., 1889), pp. 377-427
American Philosophical Society