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A Traditional Manx Christmas

Thu, 17 Dec 2020

In the twelfth in our series of articles about Manx music, this piece looks at the Manx Christmas traditions and the central role which music and dance play in them. This was recently published in the Manx Independent:

A Traditional Manx Christmas

"At Christmas play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year." An old saying which still applies to festivities today in the Isle of Man!

In past-times, the Christmas period was known as ‘Yn Kegeesh Ommidjagh’; Manx Gaelic for ‘The Foolish Fortnight’! Beginning on Black Thomas’ Eve (now 21st December) and ending on the old Christmas Day or Shenn Laa Nollick (Twelfth Night, 6th January), Kegeesh Ommidjagh marked a well-earnt rest from the usual hard and relentless routine. Much like today, the foolish fortnight was a time for socialising, eating, music and dancing, as well as practicing some curious customs.

Music, dance and drama played a big part of the festivities. The ancient mummers’ play, The White Boys is currently enjoying another renaissance, and you may stumble across one of the troupes acting out the play on the streets around the Island. It includes an impressive sword dance performed to “Creg Willy Syl” and the rousing “White Boys’ Carol” where the actors “wish you a merry Christmas and a good new year”. If you’re lucky, you might also see the mischievous white mare, the Laair Vane who has recently started making impromptu guest appearances. Thankfully outlawed many years ago, the menacing Mollag Band would also take to the streets at Christmas-time, inviting themselves into houses, making an unholy racket whilst demanding money!

In past-times, the traditional Christmas Eve service was followed by the ‘Oie’ll Verrey’ where male singers performed very long Manx Gaelic carvals (while the women booed and threw parched peas at them!), and then it was off the ale-house for a glass of spiced ale called ‘Jough y Nollick’, before parting company with the traditional song “Arrane Oie Vie”. Bright and early the next day, hired fiddle players would then wake everyone up on Christmas morning, perhaps with a lively jig such as “Three Little Boats… went out to Sea on Christmas Day in the Morning”!

The continuous custom of Hunting the Wren on St. Stephens Day has become very popular in recent years, with lots of families and community groups meeting in the streets to perform the song and circle dance. All are welcome at these events, and don’t worry – no real wrens are harmed! Likewise, the annual game of cammag still takes place during the afternoon on Tynwald Fairfield with giant teams representing the north and the south. If you’re brave, choose a team and take along a stick (or ask John Dog to borrow one of his) to whack the ball!

Wherever you are in the world this month; Nollick Ghennal Erriu as Blein Vie Noa – A Merry Christmas and a Good New Year!

'Three Little Boats' is the latest guitar tutorial film from Culture Vannin.