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.

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Tags: Christmas, Faith, Penal Laws, Tradition

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on December 3, 2014 at 3:53am

Lovely piece, Mike.

When will oppressors learn that bans on things like language and faith only increase the resolve of the oppressed?

Comment by Fran Reddy on December 3, 2014 at 6:13pm

Great article Mike! It's nice to understand where some of the customs come from and also the great resolve that the Irish carried to keep their faith under any condition!

Comment by Patricia Magiollo on December 4, 2014 at 6:05pm
What a nice article Mike! I had heard of something similar from my grandmother, now I have it clear at all. Thanks for sharing it.
Comment by Peter P. Durkee on December 9, 2014 at 1:06pm


I love all the articles and have learn so much, keep up the good work

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 11, 2014 at 11:32pm

My Pagan ancestors were lighting candles and draping holly, ivy and mistletoe for a thousand years or  more before the Christians came and suppressed the old religion, superimposing their own and even  stealing our customs and our winter and spring festivals. Like most civilisations around the world, we Irish had a festival of lights to chase away the winter darkness. We lit beacons and burned a yule log. However, today very few of us still keep the old faith. St Patrick and the Romans have a lot to answer for.

Comment by Mike McCormack on December 12, 2014 at 7:07am

Dear DJ Kelly, I believe I mentioned that the ringing of doors and windows with holly and Ivy were ancient Celtic customs and were practiced long before the Christians came.  However, in 50+ years of research on Irish history and tradition, I never found that candles were used that far back being that fire was such a dangerous element in earlier times.  However, if you can direct me to your source for that information, I would be eternally grateful.  However, it does not preclude the possibility of the candle being cleverly used as a signal in Christian times, now does it?

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 13, 2014 at 2:29am

The monks who wrote the book of Kells wouldn't have knocked off at 4pm. Candle making is an ancient practice. And I hear it was a caveman who discovered fire - dangerous yes, but essential in Ireland's cold and dark climate. Maybe Ireland isn't as primitive as you think.

Comment by Mike McCormack on December 16, 2014 at 9:48am

DJ  check my previous blog on LIGHTS FROM CHRISTMAS PAST to see how primitive I think the remarkable Celts were or you may want to get my book "The Coming of the Celts".  When I asked for your source of information, I thought that you might know a little more than I do about the tradition of adding a candle to the ancient Celtic practice of winter decoration.  I guess I was mistaken.  However, with regard to the monks knocking off at 4 PM, you should know that they worked well into the Irish twilight giving them up to 15 hours of daylight (depending on the season) and that is a long enough day - especially since candles were time-consuming to make and therefore relatively expensive in time and material.  The key to learning is to continue seeking corroborating or conflicting information from reliable sources, is it not? 

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 17, 2014 at 1:27am

You guess? Surely there's no place for guesswork in historical research? It sounds as though you are your own source Mike, since you do not quote any other sources yourself. I already have some of the best books about the Celts on my book shelves, thanks, though I look forward to reading the reviews on your own book. All across Europe, from the earliest times, monasteries kept bees for producing honey, mead and beeswax candles to sell.

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 17, 2014 at 1:33am

I can't find your book on Amazon and it's not coming up on a Google search, Mike. Where is it published?



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