Noigh na Nollaig
1. You should try to finish work by midday and get home before night-fall. Try to return to the homeplace on Christmas Eve.
2. During medieval times, the decorated log was ceremoniously carried into the home on Christmas Eve in a remembrance of the pine logs used in the sacred fires, and placed in the fireplace. Traditionally this was lit with the saved stump of last year's log, and then it was burnt over the twelve days of the winter celebration, and its ashes were kept until the following year to sprinkle on the new log, so that the fortune would be passed on from year to year.
3. Some observe Christmas Eve as a fast day. (Three Lents were kept – from Ash Wednesday to Easter, after Easter for 60 days up to Pentecost or Whitsun, and from Martinmas in November to Christmas, in remembrance of the fasts of Christ, Moses, and Elijah.) If you do eat, perhaps it should be fish with white sauce and potatoes. End your fast after candles are lit at 6 o’clock and the Angelus Bell is rung, although the holiday has usually began with the appearance of the first star of Christmas Eve.
4. Start last preparations for the most elaborate dinner of the year, Christmas Dinner. Traditionally stuffed Goose was the most common dish. Oysters were also very popular. Boiled Ox head was the favourite dish in Armagh, Tyrone, Monaghan and other places in the north.
5. In Leinster and Munster the wealthy prepared many dishes, chicken or goose, also bacon and mutton, cakes, puddings, and pies in preparation.
6. Some puddings were made on Christmas Eve for final cooking on Christmas Day. In County Wexford they made Cutlin pudding – a porridge of wheaten meal, sugar, dried fruits and spices, made into a ball as big as a football and wrapped up in muslin for boiling.
7. In Donegal they make a Christmas pie in the shape of a manger decorated with strips of pastry.
8. Place large candles into sconces made from a turnip or ‘piggin’ filled with bran or flour. One for each of the adults in the house. Little coloured candles should be set up for the children of the house.
9. Holly, ivy and mistletoe are an important part of decorating the Irish house at Christmas. Holly wreaths and bunches of mistletoe hanging from the doorway are ancient traditions. Mistletoe is such a powerful symbol that two enemies meeting under a branch must call a truce until the Christmas period. Decorate all candles with holly and ivy. One big candle, the Coinneal Mór na Nollaig, is prominently displayed, usually in a window.
10. Light all Christmas candles with a prayer. The candle in the window also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as, during Penal Times, this was illegal and the penalties severe.
11. Light three candles or a three branched candle in honour of the Holy Family.
12. Have the youngest person light the principal candle because an old Irish tradition is ‘they will live the longest and send the custom furthest’. Have a candle in every window. Leave a candle for each of the family who has died since last Christmas to welcome them in. Candles are lighted to show the way to Joseph and Mary. Take the children to a high place to show them all the candles in the surrounding houses.
13. If the principal candle goes out for some reason it is a bad omen, possibly of the death of the head of the household during the coming year.
14. In some parts of Connacht a big ceremonial dinner is prepared for this evening. Pork or bacon from the pig slaughtered at Martinmas or Mutton with potatoes and turnips.
15. After dinner gather the family around the fire. Cut the Christmas cake and make tea, brandy punch and other festive drinks. Give sweets and apples to the children, an apple as part of the evening meal would give protection against bad health during the coming year.
16. Sing carols. Saint Francis of Assisi is again credited with bringing in a Christmas tradition by introducing carols into the formal worship of the church during a Christmas Midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio, in the province of Umbria in 1223. The Wexford or Enniscorthy Carol is the oldest in Europe.
17. Leave doors unlocked on Christmas Eve for travellers returning late or those lost with no place to go. Leave the table set for three people; the Holy Family.
18. Put on a good fire before going to bed and let candles burn all night, extinguishing them just before the first mass. This could now be the lights on the tree?
19. Put bread made with caraway seeds and raisins on the table, along with some milk, in preparation for Christmas visitors. Possibly the origin of leaving sherry and mince pies out for Santa?
20. Cold weather with frost or snow will indicate a mild spring with absence of illness. There is an old Irish saying, ‘A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard’.
21. When it snowed on Christmas Eve, it was thought geese were being plucked in heaven.
22 No prayer will be unanswered on Christmas Eve and if you die on Christmas Eve you will go right into heaven.
23. At midnight leave the cows and other animals alone to kneel in adoration of the Christ Child. Animals are given the power of speech at this time but will not often use it in front of humans; if you do hear them speak it is often a bad prediction for your future that you hear… Feed the animals a Christmas treat.
24. A new moon on Christmas Eve is thought to be very lucky as was a starry sky, this would bring a good summer harvest.
25. The cock will crow on unusual times -to hear him crow at midnight will be a good omen.
26. There is a belief that Bees woke from their hibernation at Christmas to hum a psalm 100 to the new born babe. As with the animals talking, the bees do not like to let humans hear them.
27. There are other superstitions associated with Christmas Eve, pairs of shoes should not be separated in order to keep the peace and more seriously, death could be foretold by the shape of a shadow at the fireside; a headless shadow was a portent of death.
Compiled by B. D'Alton