Toledo Irish: Christmas is Coming, the Goose is Getting Fat!
By Molly McHugh
“Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do; if you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God Bless You!”
Ah, I can hear the rounds of that classic nursery rhyme dancing through my head now. Not only are the lyrics contagious, but there is also a nice Christmas message woven into the rhyme; specifically, Christmas is a time for giving, and if you haven’t anything to give, a blessing will work just fine. A ha’penny is also known as a halfpenny, but more on that another time.
An Irish Christmas
The origin of the nursery rhyme doesn’t just share a message of a giving spirit, but it alludes to the fact that a Christmas Feast was on its way! In Ireland in times past, goose was central to any feast, but especially at Christmas because the goose was considered such a delicacy. I often remember my dad talking about the Christmas Goose as the “piece de resistance.” The goose would be caught and cooked over a turf fire in a big black pot. Parsnips, carrots, and, of course, the potatoes accompanied the feast.
Another Irish Christmas tradition that my dad often talked about was the candle in the window. Ah, that special candle in the window.
What was so special about the candle you may ask? In Ireland back in the 1700s, the Penal Laws suppressed the Catholic faith, so Mass had to be celebrated in secrecy.
When it came time for Christmas, Catholic homes would place a candle in the window to signify their faith, and families prayed that a local priest would come into their home to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in person. Doors would be left unlocked throughout the night in hopes of receiving that special visit, and if you were lucky enough for that to happen, well, that would have been the ultimate Christmas gift.
As the nursery rhyme says, Christmas is about giving; but even with nothing to give, a Christmas blessing would mean even more than a ha’penny. Certainly, a visit by the local priest to celebrate mass on the Holy Night would be most magical.
A Children’s Prayer
The children’s prayer to receive the visit went like this:
“Candle burning warm, Candle burning bright, Guide the Holy Family to this home tonight.
Wandering the world, Looking for a bed, Anywhere to lay the tiny Baby’s head.
On this Christmas Eve, May their travels cease, Jesus, Mary, Joseph–stay and be at peace.”
As time went on, the candle in the window tradition continued, but not exactly for the same reasons, since there are no Penal Laws in place today, or even when my dad was growing up. While the candle still proclaims a welcoming message for the Holy Family, in true Irish spirit, it’s also a welcoming signal for friends and family to “call in” and gather into the home during the Christmas season–hopefully just in time for the goose!
While it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the moment of laughter and good cheer at the time of the holidays, sometimes it’s nice to just take a step back and remind ourselves of a short little nursey rhyme or child’s prayer to capture the true meaning of the season. One of my personal favorite little anecdotes is, “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store, maybe perhaps, Christmas means a little bit more.”
Wishing all iIrish readers a happy, healthy and safe Christmas season. Now go enjoy the goose! Nollaig Shona Duit!