The Twelve Days of Christmas is a popular Christmas song, but how many people were aware that they signified actual days and specific occurrences? No, I am not talking about the eight maids of milking or the seven swans a swimming etc., but instead about the actual days that correlate to the twelve days of Christmas.
In most places the twelve days of Christmas starts on Christmas Day with the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus and they last for twelve days after that. In Ireland, there are typically fourteen days spent honoring Christmas and in their own Irish way.
Unlike most other places, the twelve days of Christmas starts on Christmas Eve, not Christmas in Ireland. On this day, once the sun goes down and it becomes dark outside, there are candles lit in a household; one for each member of the family. These candles are then put into windows in order to guide the Holy Family to safety upon Christmas Day and technically to ensure a safe birth had it been the actual day Christ was born. There is also a larger candle which would be called coinneal mor na Nollag which means “the great Christmas candle.”
Many families would then retreat to church on Christmas Eve or visit with friends on that first night of the twelve nights. On Christmas Day, the time comes for all to be with their families and friends. Businesses are closed and virtually everyone has the day off in honor of the holiday. This is the day where we open our gifts from under the tree, even though the Christmas tree has not been a long standing Irish tradition.
The day after Christmas is called Wren Day or also known as St. Stephen’s Day. The wren was historically gathered by wrenboys. The thought is that the wren depicted the year that was past and the ceremony which would occur after finding the bird would be a form of sacrifice. Nowadays, the live wren has been replaced by a fake one and it is generally tied up to a pole that is decorated and then paraded through the town as onlookers give donations to contribute towards the town’s betterment. This tradition is not as heavy as it once was, but in certain areas it is still possible to see it in all it’s glory for those who are interested in the Wren Day tradition.
This only covers the first few days of the twelve days of Christmas in Ireland. It will continue next week.