Farm Ireland

Saturday 25 November 2017

December reveals its riches

Sharing gifts and time spent with the family over Christmas will help us to forget what our country has lost and to appreciate what is truly important

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

As the days shorten, most of us will not be sorry to say goodbye to 2010 -- and as for November, it was a month to hurry through as quickly as possible. But December is a good month. It is a time of consolidation and a wrapping up of the affairs of the past year and exchanging gifts with our loved ones. It is also special because it holds, in its 31 days, the winter solstice and the celebration among the Christian churches of the birth of their saviour -- both of them magical events that herald the promise of longer days and better things to come.

Much of November is dreary, with the land sodden and work outdoors a chore. The low sun, late rising and peeping above the hedgerows, throws long shadows across the fields, making us yearn for blossom, bird song and the brightening light of spring.

Even the sky can seem low in November, pressing us down with rain-laden clouds and perfectly in tune with the miserable news we have been forced to listen to about our bankrupt little country.

It is difficult not to envy the migrating birds, such as the swallows and house martens, that are now enjoying the warmth of the African continent. There was a time when many Irish people copied them and flew to Madeira or the Seychelles to escape our winter -- but then that was when we had something called disposable incomes. Well, we certainly disposed of our incomes in some style so now we must do without and relearn how to live with what we have. So roll on December, the solstice, Christmas, New Year's Day and the start of the next 12 months.

This month contains many dates of ancient feasts and celebrations. December 8 is celebrated in Ireland as a holy day of obligation, marking the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It is also the date of the awakening of Buddha, whose birth legend holds marked similarities with that of Jesus.

The solstice occurs late at night this year, on Tuesday, December 21, while Christmas Day shares with the feast of the goddess Isis, who was worshipped in ancient Egypt as the ideal mother, wife and the matron of nature and magic.


The pagans of northern Europe celebrated their own winter solstice, known as Yule -- a word which was symbolic of the birth of the Sun God, Mithras -- on the shortest day or winter solstice. It was also customary to light a candle in midwinter to encourage him to reappear the year after.

Also Read

Our own custom of hanging mistletoe over doorways also has ancient roots. Mistletoe was revered by the druids and considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under it was part of an old fertility ritual.

Holly berries were thought to be a food of the gods and there is no doubt that, into our modern culture, we have absorbed an extraordinary and wonderful mix of customs and festivals from our ancient past.

Browsing through some old literature recently, I came across the following quote: "It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations."

That sounds like any Irish town or city in the week before Christmas but was in fact a reference to the feast of Saturnalia, written by Seneca the younger, a noted Roman philosopher, in or around 50AD.

The poet Catullus described Saturnalia as the best of days. It was a time of celebration, visits to friends, and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles and earthenware figurines.

But the bit that really caught my attention was the fact that Saturnalia was originally introduced around 200BC to raise citizen morale after a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians.

The citizens of Ireland are feeling a bit crushed at present and, if ever we needed some morale boosting it's right now, so let's concentrate on all the things we have rather than what we might have had. If we have enough to eat and heat the home, we are doing OK.

So for the coming festive season, let us remember "it is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more that is poor".

Irish Independent