Mayo is a county rich in folklore and heritage; customs are being passed on to the present generation and for this reason Christmas still preserves the old echo of bygone days and a good range of old customs still exist.
In Castlebar, the old tradition of “The Waits” still goes on. The origin of this custom can be traced through eight centuries and it throws many insights into the manners and customs of the past.
In Connaught the tradition was carried out in Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis, Carrick-on-Shannon, Westport and Swinford, but nowadays the only town in Ireland to retain this custom is Castlebar. The continuation of the tradition in Castlebar is definitely influenced by the fact that the town was a British Garrison town with several Scottish Regiments residing there until the foundation of the Free State.
Residents of old Castlebar have continued the custom: “The Auld Stock” – in recent years from McHale Road and previously Lucan Street, New Antrim Street, Tucker Street also known as “The Lower End” - to the south west of the town river. The Waits playing their instruments wake the people to the sounds of music and greetings in the early hours of the morning in the days prior to Christmas. Generations of Castlebar children have waited anxiously to be called by their parents to see and hear the Waits on their rounds in the early hours of the morning.
The old people remember the tradition of the 'Big Christmas Market' or "Margadh Mor Nollaig" as a very strong custom in many Mayo's towns and villages. All people enjoyed the cheerful atmosphere buying turkeys, geese, ducks and bunches of red berried holly, exchanging “Happy Christmas” greetings and meeting in the pubs.
“Buying the Christmas” was another special day. On this day families used to travel to the nearest town or village by cart, side-car or on foot and order their supplies for the Christmas season to the local shop. Usually the list included bottles of Whiskey and Port Wine. Children were very excited to go to the shop because they were given the “Christmas Box” by the shopkeeper. In the box they could find little gifts such as a bottle of wine, a fruit cake or a pinch of tobacco.
Christmas season was a very busy, but happy time for all the family. Adults painted their cottages inside and outside and placed the decorations, made from holly and laurel, in the kitchen and parlour or “the best room” (brought to life only on special days). The children were in charge to collect the red-berries holly and the fresh green laurel, they had spotted the best bushes since a long time. Candles were essential and candlesticks were made from thick slices of turnip with a hole in the middle.
In North Mayo the Christmas candle (coinneal mòr) was lighted at 6 o’clock pm on Christmas Eve and then families sat down to dinner, known “ The Christmas Supper”. This special supper included home made cakes, pastries, scones, breads and no meats. Goose or turkey was consumed by the family on Christmas, New Year and “Little Christmas”, 6th January, better known as "Epiphany" or "Nollag na Mban”.
Prayers were always recited to celebrate the birth of Christ-child.
Along the coast candles were lit on every cottage window on the eve of these three days. The small twinkling seaside villages looked like a fairyland.
Children hung their stockings near the chimney fireplace or at the end of the bed on Christmas Eve. Usually they got an orange, a whistle or a bugle, some mechanical toys or, more often, toys made from wood and rushes by their parents.
St. Stephen's Day, 26th December, is also known as Boxing Day or Wren Day. Groups of boys and children, aged between seven years to sixteen years old, calling themselves Wren Boys or Straw Boys and carrying a pole decorated with a dead wren, celebrated the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful clothing. Mothers were delighted to dress their children up and send them out to “follow the wren”. They paraded through the village and called into country houses to dance, sing and make music playing instruments such as flute, fiddle and melodion.
They recited the following poem as they went:
The wren, the wren,
The king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettle, and down with the pan,
Give me a penny to bury the wren.
If you haven’t a penny, halfpenny will do,
If you haven’t a halfpenny, God bless you.
I follow the wren from rock to rock
I followed him into a public shop
I dipped his head into a barrel of beer
And I wish you all a happy New Year.
They got money, drinks and Christmas fare.
The origin of this custom is very ancient: the wren was cursed for giving away the hiding place of Saint Stephen while being chased by the Romans and as a reprise to Saint Stephen it is believed that one should be killed every year.