The modern Christmas wreath demonstrates the spirit of the season, but to some it is also a reminder of another spirit – a spirit that demonstrated courage and fortitude dating back to 17th century Ireland, when the Penal Laws forbade the practice of the Catholic religion. Not only was their religion outlawed, but Irish clergy were on the run with a price on their heads. The Irish people kept the faith though, and secretly met their outlawed clergy to celebrate Mass in the woods, glens and mountains whenever they could.
Because of the oppression, Mass might be celebrated only once a month or even less, but one time they rarely missed was Christmas. In spite of the terrible times, Christmas still brought a sense of hope. A foreign power may have controlled the land, but they could not control the hearts of the Irish; they still had their customs, their faith, and their pride, and, by God, they would have their Mass. One example can be found in a glen south of Drogheda where stands a Mass Rock which drew people who walked barefoot in a freezing stream so that they would not leave footprints in the snow to betray their destination. Christmas Mass was one custom they were not about to surrender.
Some of the other Christmas customs that were practiced, by the way, were older than the race that ruled them. Some had originated back at the dawn of time, in pre-Christian days, like the ringing of doors and windows with holly and ivy. That custom came from the ancient Celtic custom of ringing one's dwelling with those magical leaves. Since holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, they were deemed immune to the killing force of winter and were therefore strung to form a protective barrier at all openings. Although the custom carried into the Christian era, its function was now purely decorative. Nevertheless, the British marveled at the hope that still burned in hearts they had tried so hard to subvert.
The source of that hope was their faith and in each community, courageous families would risk fine and imprisonment to attend a Mass in the dark of night, celebrated by one of the outlawed priests. On occasion an especially brave household would offer to host the celebration indoors away from the biting winter wind. Naturally, the house to be used was kept secret until just before the Mass was to begin, at which time a lighted candle was placed in the window to signal the faithful. Once the signal was given, candles were lit in every house window to confuse any who might try to interfere with the celebration. To the Irish, the meaning of the candle was clear, but to the stranger, it was merely an extension of the pagan custom of holiday decoration.
The candle, eventually became part of the custom, and remained long after its need as a signal disappeared. It also acquired new meanings, such as a light to guide the way for the holy family on their journey to Bethlehem (although such a need would indicate the family had gone astray more than a few miles on their journey). However, for those who know the original purpose of the Irish Christmas Candle, today’s Christmas Wreath with a candle in the center is a reminder of the courage and the sacrifices made by our ancestors who placed a candle in a holly-encircled window to send out the message: The Lord is in this house tonight.