The Manx Christmas of yesteryear

TRADITION: Carol singing in the midst of the community, as done in Colby by the Meadowside Choir, was also a common sound and sight in nineteenth century Mann.

TRADITION: Carol singing in the midst of the community, as done in Colby by the Meadowside Choir, was also a common sound and sight in nineteenth century Mann.

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We’d still be looking forward to big day in the past

So, the dust settles on the Christmas festivities of 2011. In a rapidly-changing modern digital world it can sometimes feel like each generation (in terms of lifestyle, mindset and opportunities) is more and more detached from the last.

Christmas time however remains a haven of tradition, as countless customs and institutions reappear year on year, from carol and nativity performances to turkey dinners and watching Home Alone.

But how does the 21st century Christmas we’ve just enjoyed compare with the festive experiences of the people of the Isle of Man in years gone by?

The first stark contrast is the date. Sophia Morrison wrote in Manx Fairy Tales in 1911 that ‘in the days of our grandmothers, Old Christmas Day, the fifth of January, was believed to be the true Christmas.’

January 5?

This is still observed with a handful of events in the island: the House of Manannan museum has hosted many Old Christmas Day exhibitions and this year dancers Ny Fennee and musicians Mactullagh Vannin are holding a Shenn Laa Nollick (Old Christmas Day) ceili in Ramsey on January 6.

The calendar system in the Isle of Man changed in 1753 to fall in line with neighbouring nations, since which time Christmas has fallen on December 25, a date which Arthur William Moore had something to say about in Folklore of the Isle of Man in 1891: ‘It is interesting to note that the church festival of Christmas was placed at the same time as the Pagan feast of the winter solstice, which was called the Saturnalia by the Romans, and Yule by the Scandinavian nations, with whom the Isle of Man was closely connected.

‘The Church attempted to change the heathen ceremonies into the solemnities of the Christian festivals, of which it put as many as possible at this season.

‘The result was, the strange medley of Christian and Pagan rites, especially with regard to the mistletoe and the Yule log, which contribute to the festivities of the modern Christmas.’

So then, as today, traditions are absorbed from a range of origins.

Sources indicate Christmas in the Isle of Man was for the most part celebrated in a similar way as in the rest of the British Isles, though there are a few examples of practices that were distinctly Manx.

Christmas Eve, in Manx Oie’l Verrey, a corruption of Oie feaill Voirrey (Eve of Mary’s Feast) was the date of a carol-singing gathering that brought together most of the community, that would erupt into something of a food fight.

In ‘Mona Miscellany’ from 1869, William Harrison sets the scene of a Manx Christmas Eve:

‘A singular and interesting custom is observed, which attracts large numbers to the parish church for the purpose of singing carols, in Manx called Carval, and which appears to be peculiar to the Isle of Man. On this evening, the church having been decked with holly, ever greens, and flowers, after prayers the congregation commence singing their carols, which they keep up with a spirit of great rivalry until a late hour. On this occasion the church assumes a brilliancy seen at no other time, for each bring their own light, some of the candles being of large size, many of them formed into branches for the occasion, and adorned with gay ribbons. During the interval of the carols, peas are flung from all directions, the female portion of the singers having previously provided themselves with an ample stock to pelt their bachelor friends.’

The coming together of the whole community is a theme that is present throughout the whole of the festive period, as following Christmas Eve it appears the island would descend into the Victorian equivalent of a 12 day rave – as described in 1845 by Joseph Train: ‘There is not a barn unoccupied for the whole twelve days — every parish hiring fiddlers at the public charge, and all the youths, nay, sometimes people up in years, make no scruple to be among these nocturnal dancers.’

Communal nocturnal dancing- albeit in a different guise- is no alien concept in the 21st century, though the Christmas dinner described by Train of ‘potatoes, and fish, pounded together, and mixed with butter’ probably did not make it on to any tables this year.

Arthur William Moore also noted that ‘To the superstitious Manx, one pleasant feature of this sacred season generally, and of Christmas-eve and Christmas-day in particular, was that they were able to pass any haunted glen or road in perfect safety, as, owing to the beneficent influence of Christ, no Phynnodderee, buggane, witch, or evil creature of any kind could harm them.’

This at least is something we have in common with our ancestors; most folks in 2011 probably felt they were free to stroll the roads and paths without being ambushed by a mischievous buggane.

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