Caught in the Furze
'Guest Post' by Copernicus
It's the most wonderful time of the year…for some.
While Stephen's Day is now upon us, it is still not too late to impart to fústarers something of the sinister side of the holidays. Depending on where in Europe a child awoke in the wee hours of Christmas morn, it may have found the hideous devil Krampus had popped down the chimney, the gargantuan Yule Cat may have tried to eat it; it could have been kidnapped and beaten by six to eight black slaves in the company of a Turkish bishop, forced to endure the grotesque pantomime that is the deranged dance of the madmen, or have had to hide between cock-crow and daybreak from evil trolls.
Perhaps Santa was accompanied by Pére Fouettard, the child butcher. Worst of all, mum and dad may have missed those fell words "batteries not included" which portend the ultimate yuletide disaster.
As the above demonstrate, there are many Christmas traditions which smack not a little of less than bonhomous sentiment during this season of goodwill. In his introduction to A Celtic Christmas (New York: Sterling, 1996), Mairtín Ó Griofa describes the following charming ritual:
In times past in some parts of Cork and Kerry it was customary for the "vanitee" [bean-an-tí or woman of the house] on Twelfth Day to take out a round cake of hastable [sic] bread and throw it against the house door crying "I wish hunger or starvation to the Sasanach [English]", or some other province, county or parish in Ireland.
This expression of Christian fellowship was expected to secure plenty and prosperity to the woman's own district for the year. While the Irish Christmas cake could be expected to produce the bounty baked into it of a ring to foretell marriage, a coin to foretell wealth and a pea or bean to ordain luck, it also contained a desiccated stick which doomed its discoverer to a life of barren singlehood. Nice pressie, and guaranteed to give the rest of the family that much-needed Christmas laugh.
Ó Griofa also tells us that formerly bits of rag were put in the mix, which rather reminds one of the Father Ted episode in which Mrs Doyle appallingly bakes a Christmas-style jumper into a cake for Eoin McLove.
It is, of course, the wheel of the year, the yuletide, and it can be no surprise to find libidinous and goatish beasts like Krampus abroad as the holly king is vanquished by the oak. Slowly, the days will grow long, and what is young and vigorous assert itself.
The Romans celebrated this time of year as 'Saturnalia', a festival of libertine excess and even violence which took place over 12 days around 1st of January and involved men disguised with beards or as women or animals. Their wild orgies went as far as human sacrifice, which is where it all went wrong for Timothy, first Bishop of Epheseus, and a correspondent of St. Paul's. After that, the Church was less than enthusiastic about encouraging people to mark the seasonal contest of sun and moon, light and dark, vigour and contemplation in the traditional manner.
According to Stephen McDonagh, who refers to such rites in Green and Gold: The Wren Boys of Dingle (Brandon, 1983), "particular condemnation was reserved by the Church for the custom of wearing animal masks which were seen as representing demons released from the underworld". You don't have to be Dr. Freud to raise an eyebrow at that interpretation. You do have to be Freud to identify "demons" as representations of carnal riot, and "underworld" as the dark, limbic sexuality at the heart of the human condition.
Despite repeated ecclesiastical attempts to knock vernacular celebrations on the head, mumming survives, not least in Ireland, where the Dingle 'wran' continues to be the enthusiastic indulgence of the townsfolk each 26th of December. An important animal guise, as fans of The Wicker Man will know, is the hobby horse, also associated with Halloween and Bealtaine, and it is no stranger to the narrow streets and lanes which twist and meander from the hill above 'An Daingean' down to the harbour. The origins of the Láir Bhán (white mare) may well relate to the following testimony of Gerald of Wales, a 12th century monk and, er, travel writer, who detailed his time in Ireland in Topographia Hibernica:
There is in the northern part of Ulster, namely in Kenelcunell [Tyrconnell] a certain people which is accustomed to consecrate its king in a rite altogether outlandish and abominable.
Strong words. Whatever can he mean?
When the people of that land had been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the midst of the assembly and he who is to be inaugurated, not as chief but as beast, not as king but as an outlaw, embraces the animal before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces and boiled in water. A bath is then prepared afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all the people and all, they and he, eat of the meat which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup or using his hand but just dipping his mouth into it round about. When the unrighteous rite has been carried out his kingship and dominion has been conferred.
Yikes. Any resemblance to constituency selection by Fianna Fáil Cumann is purely coincidental, I'm sure. St. Augustine set out the Church's stall in this regard when he said, "If you ever hear of anyone carrying on in that most filthy habit of dressing as a horse or a stag, punish him most severely".
The Dingle mummers who follow the wren on Stephen's Day are famous for their 'strawboy', guises which McDonagh tells us offer opportunities to grab women and girls in ways which would not be attempted on any other day of the year. This notion of 'licence' is nothing if not Saturnalian, and it finds its echoes across the water in the ceremonies associated with the crowning of the Lord of Misrule. Anyone interested in the farmer-spanking which this entails should head over to the wikipedia now.
The wren is, of course, a fascinating and mutable symbol, not least of kingship and betrayal, and his hunting and killing once formed part of the Dingle and other 'wrans'. In a curious rite of aristocratic sympathy with regicide, Lord Ventry would give more money to a Wren (mumming group) with a dead bird nailed to a stick than to one without the requisite sacrifice.
Stephen McDonagh quotes Margaret Dean Smith's introduction to Violet Alford's The Hobby Horse and Other Animal Masks which avers that:
…such festivals and such disguising…pursued with a purpose and with a regard to propriety of seasons which, however vaguely understood or formulated by the participants, removes them from mere boisterous and uninhibited jollification or 'play' in the sense of voluntary activity. They are compulsive, purposive acts, and their purpose, however manifested in buffoonery, is the increase of virility in men and fertility in cattle and crops.
This rather condescending and snotty-nosed view of the plain people as puppets of the past is convincingly disdained by Henry Glassie in his seminal study of Antrim's Ballymone mummers, All Silver and No Brass (Brandon, 1983). While Glassie acknowledges the custom in former times of regicide and replacement with a younger, more vigorous leader "to encourage the new year to spring up potently green", he writes approvingly of the approach of the Squire of Thoor Ballylee:
Yeats, while connecting Irish rural beliefs with those of ancient and mediaeval people, did not formulate this interest into a theory and was amusingly critical of folklorists who, in an effort to be scientific, ignored the voice and pulse of the people during their search for the "primitive religion of mankind".
The subjects of Glassie's study inhabit a fragmented Northern Irish community in 1974 – a banner year for the Troubles – and their mumming serves not only to connect them to the past but to bind them to their neighbours on the other side of the sectarian divide. Dr. Freud might also be interested to note that as well as being accompanied by the hobby, the Ballymone mummers are led by Beelzebub who carries a large club and dripping pan.
The yuletide season ends with the feast of the Epiphany; the 'Women's Christmas' so charmingly observed in Cork and Kerry. It is marked in Northern Greece with the following tableau, conveyed to fústarers via Glassie from the journal of AJB Wace. It is an irresistible tale of rosy-cheeked children and the timeless Christmas innocence which annually brings us Krampus, Pére Fouettard, the Strawboys and the rest.
Our story involves groups of small boys who make the rounds of their neighbours' homes and seek admittance. If they are denied, they commit the usual delinquent pranks, but if they are permitted entry, they do something a whole lot worse. A semi-circle is formed in the middle of the house and a chorus sings charming songs of well-wishing to the audience. So far, so lovely.
As the darling little sopranos chant, a boy dressed as an Arab breaks from the group and makes untoward advances to a boy dressed as "the Bride". Another boy, "the Groom", is outraged and starts to quarrel with the Arab, who kills him. The anguished bride weeps and calls for "the Doctor" and a boy with a black hat and coat steps forward and administers to the deceased. The Groom rises from the dead and joins in a dance with his fellows. This occult play ends with a sexual pantomime by the Bride and Groom and they exit the house to the accompaniment of money, food, wine and, one presumes, slack jaws all round.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.
December 26, 2005