Diarmaid Ferriter: A candle at Christmas is part of what we are
The proliferation of candles in the pre-electricity age created memorable images born of a beautiful simplicity
The Irish tradition of Christmas candles is deep and textured. Much information on the custom can be gleaned from the National Folklore Collection, housed in UCD. Image: iStock
The youngest child asked me what I wanted for Christmas. “All I want,” I replied, “is some peace and quiet.” Shortly afterwards, the middle child asked the same question. “All I want,” I sighed, “is a bit of respect.” Clearly, I am turning into my father.
The eldest child didn’t bother with the question: “We’ll just get you a candle,” she said. “We know you’re obsessed with candles.”
I suppose I am. The house is covered in them. Maybe it goes back to my chorister childhood in the Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough Street where I sang at midnight Mass with the Palestrina boys, or the house I was reared in, where Christmas candles were always prominent, as they remain.
The Irish tradition of Christmas candles is deep and textured. Much information on the custom can be gleaned from the National Folklore Collection, housed in UCD. Between its establishment in 1935 and 1970, the Irish Folklore Commission, “underfunded and at great personal cost to its staff”, according to its historian Micheál Briody, assembled one of the world’s largest folklore collections and maintained contact with scholars on five continents; what it amounted to was “a great salvage operation”.
The commission had a close association with the Irish rural population – closer than “any other cultural institute” observes Briody – and though starved of adequate resources, it endured and its unique value was recently honoured when it was inscribed into the Unesco Memory of the World Register in recognition of its “world significance” and “outstanding universal value to culture”. One of its major projects at the outset resulted in the assembly of the Schools Collection, after school children were encouraged to interview their elderly neighbours and relatives about customs and traditions.
The children discovered no shortage of memories of Christmas candles “to show the weary traveller light”, who, as recorded by one child, “wandered homeless on the first Christmas night”. The candle was usually placed in a hole “scooped out of a turnip”, with the turnip often covered with white or coloured paper. It was also seen as “a pledge of welcome for the infant Christ”. The task of lighting the candle was often entrusted to the youngest child in the house.
The proliferation of such candles in the pre-electricity age created memorable images born of a beautiful simplicity. As folklorist Kevin Danaher recalled in 1954 about his childhood in Athea, Limerick: “On Christmas Eve, we children were taken by the hand to the top of the hill to see the lights. In every house in the parish … the long thick candles were being lit.”
Eugene Daly, who was reared on Heir Island, southwest of Cork, remembered “the islanders rose at 6am in darkness. Each family carried a lantern and the moving pin points of light, as they walked through the island on their way to the slip to cross over to the mainland for Mass, was a beautiful sight.”
At the burial this month 50 years ago of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, the young Seamus Heaney read Kavanagh’s poem A Christmas Childhood, first published in 1940. One of the best-known and loved of Kavanagh’s poems, it recalls his experience of Christmas as a six year old, nicking the door with his new penknife and linking his native place with the nativity:
“My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music”.
The power of the poem lies in its lyricism, the child’s sense of belonging to a family and close-knit community and the simple, seasonal rituals. But the year before that poem was first published, Kavanagh wrote a prose piece in which he lamented the seeming decline of the candle at Christmas:
“On Christmas morning I noticed that the old country church was lighted with electricity. Three barefaced, glaring bulbs took the place of the three 40-candler chandelier that hung from the ceiling. One hundred and twenty candles stood there unlighted. They looked sorrowful as skilled workers whose work had been taken over by machinery. Only kept there for show – a glorified pauperism. And those candles could be gay as well as solemn. There was that candle which, on a couple of Christmases, made a business of dropping hot grease on the bald, shining head of the village grocer, until he looked like a man with a large wen on his skull.”
Thankfully, the Christmas candle tradition was not quite snuffed out and it retains an important symbolism. It is about the warmth and security of the homestead that has, despite all the noise, consumerism, headphones and screens, remained an essential part of an Irish Christmas, as well as reminding us not just of those who are “weary travellers” but the far too many who are homeless this Christmas in a land of plenty. As Kavanagh recognised, in the flickering Christmas candle flame, there is both gaiety and solemnity.