Ho, Ho, Ho! Father Christmas

Diarmuid Breatnach

We now approach the festival called Christmas. A Christian festival, apparently, celebrating the birth of Christ, the baby Jesus.

Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head

The stars in the sky
Look down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

Such a sweet, holy image.

But actually, when we look around us, it seems more like a festival of the pagan gods: Bacchus, the god of alcohol and of Mammon, the god of wealth. Bacchus, because in non-Moslem countries, drinking of alcohol will be for most a big component of the festival. Whiskey, brandy, wine and beer will be bought to stock up the house. Alcohol will be drunk at Christmas parties (including office parties, where for months afterwards some people will regret what they did or said – or even what they didn’t do or say).

Alcohol will be not just drunk but also put into some of the traditional food and even poured over it.

Then Mammon. Well, you can see the retail businesses stocking up for weeks or even months ahead of the festival which, after all, was only supposed to be a one or at most a two-day event. Giving and receiving gifts has now become part of the festival and in most cases, gifts have to be bought. Which is a really big gift to the retail businesses and thence, really a sacrifice to Mammon.

In the Christian gospels of both Matthew and Luke, it is written that one “cannot serve both Mammon and God” — which goes to show how little they understood capitalism, where Mammon IS God. A theologian of the Fourth Century saw Mammon as a personification of Beelzebub, which in his time was another name for Satan or the Devil.

Interestingly, Protestant Christianity, which some credit as having invented capitalism, at the same time regarded Mammon, or said they did, as “one of the Seven Princes of Hell”.

Cartoon depiction of Mammon, God of Wealth
(Image sourced: Internet)
Sculpture representation of Bacchus, God of Alcohol, in California winery, USA
(Image sourced: Internet)

SANTA

          Now, Santa Claus is also a big part of the Christmas festival, especially in western countries, a much more acceptable face than that of greedy Mammon and alcoholic Bacchus, right?

But originally, the Christians saw him a representation of St. Nicholas, 4th Century Bishop of the Greek city of Myra, a location now in Turkey. He was he patron saint of archers, repentant thieves, sailors and prostitutes. The prostitutes probably had to be repentant ones, of course! The sailors, who probably had at least as much recourse to prostitutes as had any other calling, were apparently not required to be repentant – to be in danger on the sea was enough.

But St. Nicholas was also the patron saint of children, pawnbrokers and brewers, so we can see how close he was getting there to the modern spirit of Christmas.

GERMAN TRAPPINGS

          Now, the Christmas Tree, der tannenbaum, so much a part of the symbolism of modern western Christmas, came to us from Germany, as did the sled and the reindeer. The reindeer are not autochthonous or endemic in historic times to Germany, so they must have been brought in their myths from Scandinavia from where originally, the Germanic tribes came from. In turn, the Christmas Tree, Yule Log, reindeer and sled were exported from Germany to England in the reign of Queen Victoria, by her consort Prince Albert, who was German. And since the English ruled all of us in Victoria and Albert’s time, the Christmas Tree came to us too, to the cities first and then slowly spreading through the rural areas.

A representation of St. Nicholas (before he got the red suit makeover) looking more like a pagan god of the woods.
(Image sourced: Internet)

***

When you think about it, this German-English worship of the tree was a bit ironic, since the English had wiped out most of our forests already and were still cutting down our remaining trees in Queen Victoria’s time.

***

And Victoria, through Albert, gave us the Santa Clause we know and love today. A jolly man, well fed, white beard, twinkly eyes, dressed all in red with white trim ….

IN RED?

          Now, wait a minute! It turns out he wasn’t always dressed in red. Originally, he was dressed in a brown, or green cloak. He was, originally among the Germanic people, a god of the forests – hence the evergreen Christmas tree. And like any sensible woodsman, he dressed in appropriate colours, brown or green. Neither Albert nor Victoria ever represented him as dressed in red. So how did it become so that we are incapable of seeing him today in any other colour than red? Well, it turns out that Coca Cola is the responsible party.

Yes, although it was the cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1870s United States who first portrayed Santa in a red suit with a belt but it was Coca Cola, in their advertising campaign of 1931 and onwards who made his clothes red world-wide. Coca Cola is a drink served cold and almost undrinkable when warm and who needs a cold drink in cold weather? I guess Coca Cola needed a warm image to make it still attractive in winter. So therefore the warm, jolly man dressed in red, with a bottle of Coca Cola in his hand.

1931, Santa Clause first appears in red, in Coca Cola advertisement, USA.
(Image source: Internet)

Coca Cola brand is worth about $74 billion dollars today, far ahead of any other cold drinks product. Which I guess brings us back to …. yes, Mammon.

You can mix the drink with a number of alcoholic beverages too, so tipping a nod – and a glass – to Bacchus.

Now, the German Santa Claus, this originally woodland god, is also thought to have been something like Thor, a god of fire and lightning. So can it be any coincidence that two of his reindeer are called Donner and Blitzen, i.e “Thunder” and “Lightning”? Of course not!

A starry night over desert hills, like the Nativity scene but without the Guiding Star.
(Photo source: Internet)

INVISIBLE

          Although we see the image of Santa Claus everywhere and even pretend Santa Clauses all over our city streets, everyone knows that nobody sees the real Santa Claus. Children have to be asleep when he arrives to distribute his presents and somehow adults don’t see him either.

Which I suppose is a good thing …. I mean if you found an intruder in your house at night, not to mention near your children, you’d be liable to whack him with a hurley (that’s an Irish cultural reference) …. or a baseball bat (that’s a U S cultural reference) …. or stab him with a sharp kitchen knife (that’s an international cultural reference).

It was bad enough when somehow that portly – not to say fat – man could somehow come down your chimney and go up again, without waking anyone … but now he can get in your house or flat even when you don’t have a chimney.

Which is at least creepy, if not downright scary.

Let’s lighten the mood and sing together:

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why

Santa Claus is comin’ to town
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out
Who’s naughty or nice

Santa Claus is comin’ to town
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Yes, lovely, lovely.

You better be good, you better be nice, I’m not telling you twice” — Is it just me, or is that not downright threatening? And he knows when we’re sleeping or awake? He has our children under surveillance? In some kind of list?

HO! HO! HO! IN MORALITY PLAYS

          Morality Plays were a genre of theatrical performances of the medieval and Tudor eras in which a character was tempted by a personification of Vice. Now Vice (not unlike a lot of police Vice Squads), was often seen as the epitome of evil, corruption and greed – in other words, the Devil. The playwrights tended to portray the Devil as somewhat of a comical character, perhaps to keep their audiences entertained (or to disarm them). So the character who played the Devil would announce his arrival with a stage laugh: “Ho, Ho, Ho!”

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Nowadays, we tend to see the Devil portrayed in black but in earlier times, he was more often seen as coloured in red. The colour in which Coca Cola just happens to have dressed Santa too.

The German or Nordic Santa was originally a god of fire also, while even the modern Santa drives a magical chariot pulled by horned beasts and he is portrayed all in red. Traditionally, the Devil is seen as residing in Hell, a supposed place of eternal flames below ground. What does Santa Claus give to children who have not been good? A lump of coal! In other words, a mineral from underground that can burn to make fire.

NICHOLAS

          Santa Claus is supposed to be modeled on St. Nicholas …. and what is the popular abbreviated version of Nicholas, i.e the nickname? Yes, Nick.

And the common name for the Devil, Mammon, Beelzebub, Satan ….. Old Nick!

We need to wake up!

HO, HO, HO!

End.

AN SEAMRÓG — THE THREE-LEAVED PLANT

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

The Shamrock, contrary to expectations, cannot be said to be a specific plant. It is of course a kind of clover but which one? People writing about it frequently state that it is generally accepted that the most likely candidates are the species Trifolium dubium (variously called Lesser Trefoil, Suckling Clover, Little Hop Clover and Lesser Hop Trefoil; Irish: Seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán).  But which one?  Well, excuse the pun but take your pick.

Trifolium dubium, the lesser clover, an seamair bhuí, top of the candidate list for the “shamrock” title.
(Photo: Internet)

 

Generally accepted by whom? One supposes by botanists and Irish folklorists but those sites rarely supply a reference. However, amateur botanist and zoologist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) asked people from around Ireland send him specimens of what they believed to be an Irish shamrock and identified the five most common plant species, of which the two most common were the yellow clover followed by the white. A hundred years later, Dr Charles Nelson repeated the experiment in 1988 and found that yellow clover was still the most commonly chosen. According to Wikipeida, yellow clover is also the species cultivated for sale in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and is the one nominated by the Department of Agriculture as the “official” shamrock of Ireland.

The word “shamrock” is an Anglic corruption of the Irish seamróg, itself a contraction of seamair óg, meaning a sprig of young clover. The Irish shamrock is usually the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover; Irish: seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (white clover; Irish: seamair bhán).

A trawl through the internet looking for images of shamrock plants throws up a bewildering multiplicity of images of trefoil plants, the only thing they have in common being that they are (mostly) green. It soon becomes apparent that many of the images are taken from a different genus, that of oxalis, usually the one named wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) in English-speaking Europe1.

People today should know better. Edmund Spenser, an anti-Irish colonist and commentator on Irish culture, also poet and ancestor of the late Princess Diana, reported the Irish eating shamrock and so have some other colonial observers but almost certainly what they observed was the Irish eating the wood-sorrel – in Ireland it has some common names associated with eating. Spenser and other colonists can be blamed for many things but not that confusion – they were not botanists and did not have access to the Internet. Also, seamsóg, the Irish name for wood-sorrel, does sound a bit like seamróg, especially if one is not listening carefully. The confusion can be continued in English, where the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a completely different plant and a common enough culinary one.

Many species of the genus oxalis close their leave sand flowers at night – a handy trick which the trifolii do not have; indeed, try as they may, trifolii could not possibly close their flowers since each one is in the form of a cluster, while those of oxalis tend to be trumpet-shaped.

Wood Sorrel — defintely not the shamrock, despite numerous claims since Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet.
(Photo: Internet)

The wood-sorrel grows typically in woods which are shady but not too dark and is characterised, as with many other oxalis, by an acidic taste in the stems. As children in the area in which I grew up in south Co. Dublin we chewed the stems of a cultivated species with large green leaves and pink flowers, commonly grown in window-boxes and gardens and known to us by the name of “Sour Sallies”.

The shamrock (both varieties of trifulium) grows best in meadows receiving a fair amount of sunlight, in among grasses. It belongs to the clovers, a different family completely from oxalis, belonging in turn to a very large group of plants as different in appearance from one another as peas and beans on the one hand and furze (also known as gorse) on the other (but many bearing fruit pods). They are the legume group, plants that concentrate nitrogen in nodules around their roots, making many of them good crops with which to precede plants that require a lot of nitrogen, such as the cabbage family or cereals.

The expression “in the clover” as an idiom for being successful or having a good time alludes to the alleged fondness of grazing animals for the plants but this is much more likely to be the white clover, Trifolium repens (Irish: seamair bhán) than dubium, as the former grows bigger and thicker. Clovers are important plants not only for grazing animals and nitrogen-fixing but also for bee-keepers, being rich in nectar and pollen.

End

 

FURTHER READING

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifolium_repens

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifolium_dubium

http://slowfoodireland.com/food/foraging/wild-sorrels/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxalis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Colgan

 

FOOTNOTES

1 In North America, Oxalis montana is also called “common wood sorrel”.

LÁ FHÉILE STIOFÁIN/ ST. STEPHENS’ DAY

Diarmuid  Breatnach
(Traducido al castellano al fondo)

(Reading time: 5 minutes)
Singing Wren 46 (Michael Finn)

 

  ” We made it!  We made it!  Safe for another year!”

Wren on rock

“Shut up, you idiot!  The day’s not over yet!”

Meanwhile, not far away ….

Wren Boys SligoMummers Sligo maybe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WREN-BOY TRADITION IN IRELAND

In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”.  Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.

It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren.  The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys.  The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.

The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces.  In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups.  The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song.  In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.

The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren.  The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former.  There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.

By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts.  Nowadays fake wrens are used.  Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours.  It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German.  St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.

The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”.  It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre).  There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one.  In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish.  Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.

ends.

LA TRADICIÓN DE “CHICOS DEL REYEZUELO” EN IRLANDA

Diarmuid Breatnach


En Inglaterra se llama “Boxing Day”, pero en Irlanda el 26 de diciembre es “
la fiesta de San Esteban“. A pesar de la designación cristiana, ha sido durante mucho tiempo la ocasión en Irlanda de costumbres mucho más cercanas al paganismo.

          Para eso era común que un grupo de niños (generalmente) o chavales se reuniera y cazara a un reyezuelo. Ese pájaro es capaz de volar pero tiende a hacerlo en ráfagas cortas de arbusto a arbusto y, por lo tanto, puede ser cazado por niños determinados. El pájaro podía ser asesinado o mantenido vivo, atado a un bastón o en una glorieta en miniatura construida para la ocasión.

Los “Wren Boys” (Chicos del Reyezuelo) lo desfilarían de casa en casa mientras ellos mismos aparecían vestidos con disfraces y / o con caras pintadas. En algunas áreas, solo pueden llevar bastos o varitas decoradas con cintas de colores y papel metálico, mientras que en otras áreas pueden vestirse con trajes elaborados, algunos de ellos hechos de paja (Straw Boys/ Buachaillí TuI = Chicos de la Paja) y a veces también se los conoce como Mummers, aunque se debe hacer una distinción entre estos dos grupos. Los Mummers en particular tenían repertorios involucrados de actuación con roles y disfraces de personajes tradicionales, música y rutinas de baile, mientras que los Wren Boys más simples podrían contribuir con un baile corto, una pieza musical o una canción. En todos los casos se usaron frases tradicionales a la llegada, los Mummers tenían el mayor repertorio porque de hecho estaban produciendo una especie de pequeño teatro. Se les daba dinero , pastel o caramelos.

Los orígenes de las costumbres son objeto de debate, pero una serie de cuentos populares irlandeses rodean al reyezuelo. En una historia se dice que el pájaro traicionó a los Gaels a los Vikingos, lo que llevó a la derrota de los primeros. Hay una tradición de los Travellers (gente étnica nómada de Irlanda) que acusa al reyezuelo de traicionar a Jesucristo a los soldados, mientras que otra tradición dice que el pájaro suministra los tornillos (sus garras) para la crucifixión de Jesucristo. Sin embargo, otra tradición le tiene al reyezuelo como el Rey de los Pájaros, después de haber usado su astucia en una competencia para determinar quién sería el Rey de las aves, escondiéndose bajo el viento del Águila y volando por encima del pájaro agotado cuando parecía haber ganado, todos los demás detrás y no poder volar más alto.

En la década de 1960, la costumbre de Wren Boy comenzaba a desaparecer incluso en áreas donde se había mantenido firme, pero algunos entusiastas comenzaron a revivirla lentamente. Hoy en día se usan reyezuelos falsos. El día de Navidad en Irlanda era tradicionalmente un día para ir al servicio religioso y para pasarlo en casa con la familia o para visitar a los vecinos. No fue un día de regalos ni de luces ni de árboles de Navidad, costumbres traídas por los colonizadores ingleses en particular del alemán Príncipe Alberto, el consorte real de la Reina Victoria británica. El día de San Esteban puede haber celebrado el solsticio de invierno (el reyezuelo es un pájaro que en ocasiones canta incluso en invierno) pero se mudó a una fiesta cristiana; en cualquier caso, produjo color y emoción en un momento que no tenía la temporada de Navidad religiosa ni entonces la comercial a la que, en décadas, nos hemos acostumbrado.

La encantadora canción The Boys of Barr na Sráide (mezcla del inglés con el gaélico: “Los Chicos de la Altura de la Calle” [toponómico de puebo en el Condado de Kerry]) de un poema por Sigerson Clifford toma como hilo conductor a los chicos de su infancia con quienes Sigurson fue “cazando al reyezuelo”. Aquí lo canta Muhammed Al-Hussaini (actualmente residente en Londres y parte del círculo de canto de Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, reunido en el Centro Irlandés de Camden). Hay grabaciones de otros interpretando bien esta canción, pero el origen inusual de esta, así como su calidad, me convenció para elegir esta. Además, tuve el placer de participar en un círculo de canto con este encantador y modesto cantante en Londres en octubre de este año (ver The London Visit en el blog), que me recibió en irlandés. Muhammed también toca el violín en esto, acompañado por Mark Patterson con mandolina y Paul Sims con guitarra.

Fin.