A wish and a candle at Celtic Christmas

Steve Sharratt
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This is the first in a six-part series called Christmas at My House.
The series looks at how Christmas Day is celebrated in the homes of Prince Edward Island residents from one tip of the Island to the other. The stories will be carried in the print and e-editions of the newspaper as well as online all week.

Christmas may be knee deep in Rudolph and Frosty, but some rare old traditions are still enjoyed by Islanders steeped in a Celtic lineage.

It could be a fruity pudding, a fiddle tune, a candle, or even a “wish thought”.

For Joyce Kennedy of Belfast it’s food.

“I’m making my plum pudding as we speak and we’ll have mincemeat pies,” said the long-time member of the Belfast Historical Society.

“A tradition we have before any presents are opened Christmas morning is the story of the birth of Christ. Each year I would have someone different read it since it was oft times turned into a speed read.”

Debbie MacDonald of Souris, raised as a Chaisson, couldn’t agree more. Plum pudding and fruit cakes are a must for her Celtic family which is well dipped in both Irish and Scottish background.

“Plum pudding with brown sugar sauce is part of Christmas tradition going back as far as I can remember to my grandmother,’’ she said. “And of course Scotch cakes with red or green cherries and beef and pork pies that you only made for Christmas.”

But some traditions from the “old country” are long gone. In some parts of Ireland, people dress up in a straw costumes and march through the streets on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas). It’s called “wrenning”, much like Newfoundland mummering, and George O’Connor would welcome back such ancient traditions.

“We live in a much more homogenized world today, but that tradition involved people coming into your home to sing or play an instrument or tell a story,” said the long-time director with the Benevolent Irish Society. “But in some ways, many of the current traditions we already follow are part of the Celtic culture.”

A true Celtic Christmas wouldn’t see the tree rise until a day or two before Dec. 25. And it isn’t taken down until Old Christmas on Jan. 6. There’s even a fiddle tune called Christmas Eve.

But possibly the strongest Celtic tradition is the candle in the window.

“It’s a very old tradition and was prominent across the Island before electricity came along,’’ said O’Connor. “Then it became a lighted wreath on the door. It was a welcome to any visitors on the road and an extension of hospitality to come inside.”

And with farms and rural life so dependent on animals, special heed was paid to the livestock.

“My family used to always bless the animals at Christmas,’’ said award winning singer Teresa Doyle of Bellevue.

On the St. Patrick’s Road, and likely elsewhere around the Island, there was a midnight belief.

“The older people believed that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all of the animals in the barns turned and faced east,” offered John Bradley and Sharon Myers.

One of the strongest family traditions sometimes still observed is the lighting of the Christmas candle by the youngest person at the gathering and the story of the wish thought.

“There was a tradition with the travellers to give something to the Christ child,’’ offered O’Connor. “For those who had nothing, they would give a “wish thought”….and this would be for all good things in the world.”

Organizations: Belfast Historical Society, Benevolent Irish Society

Geographic location: Rudolph, Belfast, Iceland Ireland Newfoundland

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