It’s over thirty years since I helped write letters to Santa Claus, dispatched them to The North Pole and took the letter-writers on trips to visit the Great Man on his pre-Christmas stopovers in Dublin. As Christmas approached, extra culinary chores were as welcome as a blizzard in June, and the tree and the minimal house decorations were installed within hours of the Big Day. The hassle was always offset by the delight in the children’s eyes and the hours of fun that followed.
With the passing of the years, I am free to enjoy the muddle of traditions that make up the ‘festive’ proceedings – from a safe distance. At the same time I notice that beneath the fairy lights, the jingling bells, the glittering window displays and the ‘nostalgic’ Christmas music – to get us in the mood – that there is a stealthy return to the old ways of our ancient past.
In her book, ‘Old Ways, Old Secrets’, Jo Kerrigan says, “Nature follows the guidance of the skies. Good gardeners do this anyway.” Gardeners know that “growth starts slowly beneath the ground, so that when the sun returns, everything will be ready to burst forth.” As a child, I was familiar with the old ways of the ‘old people’, who ‘followed the guidance of the skies’ and lived by the seasons. They had to; they were country folk whose very existence was governed by the weather. The evenings closing in, what a red sunset, or a red sunrise, heralded and what the abundance – or scarcity – of fruits of the trees and hedgerows meant, was routine conversation. When the harvests were saved and there was nothing left to be done in the fields, people chopped firewood, repaired tools, attended to necessary chores like milking, and fed livestock.
The depths of winter brought a slower pace and the warmth of fires. Revelry was confined to the local bars. Celebration at home was nothing more than a combination of relief at having made it through another year and a tipple of sherry or ‘a drop’ of whiskey now and then, as an antidote to plummeting temperatures and the gloom of ‘the dark days’ of the dying year. Amid neighbouring parklands, distant lights twinkled beyond the spindly branches of denuded deciduous forests and the faint strains of music from the big houses filtered occasionally through the night air. But that was another world.
In our household, presents were opened in quiet delight but religious practices took precedent. Random sprigs of holly adorned statues and side-altars in the church and the last two rows of pews were rearranged to accommodate the crib. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, we had twice-weekly choir practice: almost two hours in which, through a fog of freezing breath, we belted out the carols to the accompaniment of the ancient, wheezy organ, heroically thumped by the resident organist, in the choir-loft at the back of a church, devoid of heating. Mass (in Latin) was at midnight, preceded by a procession from the altar by the priest, carrying the effigy of the baby Jesus, and followed by a phalanx of candle-bearing acolytes to place the ‘baby’ alongside his parents, the three kings, shepherds and assorted farm animals, in the crib. From our perch, we sang to the back of a sea of women’s hats and headscarves on one side of the aisle and an assortment of tight haircuts and balding heads on the other, some drooping lower and lower as sleep took over.
Outside, in the darkness, snow, crisped by frost, clung to the trees and turned the thinly-gravelled ascent to the hilltop church into a skating rink. Another year, snow could be replaced by a deluge of rain, or a white frost could whiten the landscape, glistening under a silent, star-spangled sky. Whatever the weather, we walked the two miles from home. After Mass, Christmas greetings were exchanged with neighbours, amid glowing cigarettes and the smell of loose tobacco as the pipe-smokers ‘reddened’ their pipes, the congregation thinning out as people retrieved bicycles, revved up car engines or set out for home on foot. The services of the choir and altar-servers would again be required for the 11.30 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day: another four-mile walking commute. These days, a Christmas tree, a 17th-century German invention that stems from the Pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter, is added to church decorations. Rituals and traditions change, but two things remain constant – weather and the Winter Solstice.
The “sun standing still” – “grian-stad” in Irish – results in the least number of daylight hours and the longest night of the year. This time of year, in which the sun stands still for three days, signals nature’s re-birth and renewal, a time of embracing the natural wisdom of living in accord with each other and the world around us and the expectation of revitalised energies, both for humans and for nature.
This year, swamped by incessant rain in recent winter storms, many people in Ireland are dealing with flood damage and displacement, much of it also due to the subversion of the wisdom of the old ways in favour of intensive farming and short-sighted industrial and private development.
But crisis often brings out the best in human nature, exemplified, in this instance, by the support and comfort of friends, neighbours and those at the front line of public services who are struggling to contain further flooding from the Midland Basin to the west coast, and in helping their fellow humans through stress and trauma. Hopefully, warm fires, a few tipples and a bit of music, in the company of family and friends, will bring welcome respite. For many of them, a battle with the elements will prioritise endurance over Christmas celebrations.
Today, with a renewal of interest in our ancient past, many people are also choosing to dispense with Christmas, in favour of events to mark the subtler, naturally-occurring phenomenon that is the Winter Solstice. Every year, visitors flock to places like Newgrange to celebrate the turn of the year and to experience the wonder of the structure that allows the sun’s first rays to penetrate the mysterious depths of the megalithic chamber. Structures like Newgrange have withstood thousands of years of wars and climate change and reflect the natural cycles of the earth and its cosmic support system with mind-bending precision.
The cloud has not broken in days. At around four p.m. twilight gathers and twinkling Christmas trees and the lights decorating the village shops, restaurants, hotels and public houses, are a reminder of the collective desire to dispel the early afternoon gloom. Up on the hill, the centrally-heated church is being decorated for the Christmas ceremonies and in the evenings, the current choir members assemble for practice. Rivers and woodland streams rumble over moss-mottled boulders, seeping into adjoining forest floors, and sheep and cattle huddle close to farmyard sheds and sheltered corners on high ground.
On my return home, I spot a red squirrel rushing about the garden, gathering windfalls; stocking up on last-minute Christmas shopping to sustain him for whatever lies in the months ahead. I have been gathering creative ideas that will germinate slowly in the darkness. Hopefully, ‘when the sun returns, they will be ready to burst forth’.