Thursday 21 December 2017

Saint Columbanus and The First Christmas Tree

Henry van Dyke, The First Christmas Tree (1897)

I was somewhat amused to find the following article from a 1913 Australian newspaper attributing the origins of the Christmas tree to our own Saint Columbanus and his missionary labours among the Germanic peoples of early seventh-century Europe. Now I have certainly heard that the Christmas tree was introduced to these islands from Germany, but in the nineteenth century by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The writer below, however, confidently asserts that 'careful research' disproves a Germanic origin for the Christmas tree and that its origin is traced to an Irishman - Saint Columbanus. That may come as news to the English who claim that their own great missionary saint among the Germanic tribes, Saint Boniface, holds the honours. I have to admit that it comes as news to me too,  I doubt very much that any individual can claim to be the originator of the Christmas tree or that its origins can be traced in an unbroken line back to pre-Christian practices. I suspect Saint Columbanus might just say 'Bah, humbug!'.



Familiar us is the Christmas tree to us, and as dearly-beloved as it is to the people of the civilised world, it is surprising how very few there are who know of its origin, or its introduction into the celebration of the most beautiful and impressive festival of the year, legends there are in plenty, but few of them seem founded upon a basis of fact. Most of them, have been handed down - with the customary "warping from the original story"- from generation to generation. The use of the fir tree in the celebration of Christmas is usually believed to have originated in Germany. Careful research proves this to have been a fallacy. As are so many of the ancient customs and institutions, its origin as a Christmas adjunct is traced to an Irishman.

It was Saint Columbanus, who engaged in converting the pagans of Germany and Switzerland to Christianity, found them so firmly impressed with the sacredness of trees -especially the fir- that he conceived the idea of endowing them with an illustrative Christian meaning. To these people, the tree was an object of worship from which no amount of reasoning would convert them, and because of this, Saint Columbanus and his fellow missionaries found it an especially favourable symbol for their use.

As far back as the seventh century the fir tree, because of its evergreen verdure, was known in Christmas [Christian?] writings and pictures as a symbol of eternal life, while a legend, dating from the same period, represents an old man bearing a lighted tree, who entered every home at Christmas time and granted a single wish to each of the inmates.  The evolution of this beneficent old personage with his beautiful fir into our own Santa Claus and his gift-laden tree is easily traced.

THE CHRISTMAS TREE. (1913, December 24). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 10. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from

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Monday 18 December 2017

Saint Adamnan of Iona and the Genealogy of Christ

St Matthew from the Book of Durrow
J.O. Westwood (1868)

As we approach the feast of Christmas we will be hearing the genealogy of Christ among the readings for the season. This is an aspect of the scriptures which scholar Thomas O'Loughlin has discussed in his book 'Journeys on the Edges - The Celtic Tradition' (part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series). In the excerpt below, he examines how the great abbot of Iona and biographer of St Colum Cille, Adomnan, would, unlike people today, have found this type of information compelling and of genuine interest:

'Today when we hear scriptural passages in the liturgy, either about the tribal wars in Kings or any of the descriptions of tombs in which a patriarch was buried - or worse when we hear any of the genealogical passages - we may become exasperated that 'such stuff' is greeted as the Word of God. But to Adomnan these were among the parts of the Scriptures that spoke most directly to him and his people. He knew tribal warfare at first hand - it was endemic in his society and he expended much effort in trying to mitigate its suffering. And, just as the scriptural writers assumed that God took sides in this so that 'his people' either triumphed or were punished for their sins by defeat, he assumed that God could take sides and manifest his will in these matters. Conscious that he was Irish and a member of a family that could be related to a common ancestor, all the genealogical material in Scripture was inherently interesting to Adomnan. He knew himself as a member of the Cenel Conaill - the ruling family in the northern part of Ireland - which was also the family of Columba and the five other abbots before him, and we can still construct his family tree! His own culture shared many of the values of those who originally compiled that material, and just as biblical writers created genealogies to forge alliances between groups, so Adomnan looked to those lists of ancestors to find his people's relationships to the rest of humanity. By tracing an ancestry back to the Flood the Irish became part of the whole history of God's providence, and then it was simply a matter of location that they were among the last peoples to hear the gospel.'

(Thomas O'Loughlin, Journeys on the Edges (London, 2000), 52-53.

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Tuesday 12 December 2017

The Scholars of Clonard: A poem of Sedulius Scottus

Below is the translation of a poem on the Scholars of Clonard attributed to the prolific ninth-century Irish poet, Sedulius Scottus. Sedulius made his career abroad in the courts of continental Europe, but like all good Irishmen, he never forgot where he came from. In this poem he pays tribute to the tradition of learning established at the monastic school of Clonard and to three of its scholars in particular - Vinnau/Finnian the sixth-century founder, Ailerán the Wise, a seventh-century scholar and Fergus, a scholar of the ninth century who also features in some of the author's other poems.

Look on the marble columns surpassing the stars,
which the sand of the saint-bearing land supports here
happy, famous Ailerán, Vinnau, Fergus,
shining lights made by gift-carrying God.
O He sent a great present of Scotia [i.e.Ireland],
rich relics which Pictonia [i.e. Poitiers] wishes to be its own,
whence comes Titan and where night established the stars
and where midday is hot with blazing hours
[i.e. the east and the west and the south].

David Howlett, ed. and trans., The Celtic Latin Tradition of Biblical Style (Dublin, 1995), 129.

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Friday 8 December 2017

The Hymn of Saint Cuchumneus in Praise of the Blessed Virgin

Below is a hymn in honour of the Mother of God attributed to Saint Cuchumneus (Cú Chuimne), whose death is recorded in the Irish Annals in the 740s. Hymns like this gave a certain measure of discomfort to the 19th-century Protestant scholars who translated the Irish Liber Hymnorum, as they were convinced that the 'Celtic Church' shared their own 'reformed' outlook. It was to counter such views that Catholic writers of the period presented the early Irish church as entirely Catholic, a viewpoint with no more doughty a champion than the then Vice-Rector of the Irish College at Rome and future Cardinal,  Patrick Francis Moran (1830-1911). In an 1864 essay on Devotion to the Blessed Virgin he published the text of this hymn and a translation by Father Thomas Potter (1828-1873,) an English hymn writer and convert to Catholicism who taught at All Hallows' College in Dublin. There have been more literal translations of the hymn in recent years, but below is both the Latin original and Father Potter's translation of the hymn Cantemus in omni die:
St. Cuchumneus, a contemporary of Adamnan, towards the close of the sixth century, composed a Latin hymn in honour of the Mother of God, which soon became celebrated, and had a place assigned to it amongst the liturgical hymns of our Church. The German hymnologist, Mone, discovered three MSS. of this hymn, one belonging to the ninth, the others to the eighth century. Colgan, too, had an ancient copy of it in his possession, and it is also contained in the celebrated Liber Hymnorum, from which we now present it to the reader:

Hymnus S. Cuchumnei in laudem B. Virginis.

1. "Cantemus in omni die concinentes varie,
Conclamantes Deo dignum hymnum sanctae Mariae.

2. “Bis per chorum hinc et inde collaudamus Mariam,
Ut vox pulset omnem aurem per laudem vicariam.

3. "Maria de tribu Juda, summi mater Domini,
Opportunam dedit curam aegrotanti homini.

4. "Gabriel advexit verbum sinu Patris paterno,
Quod conceptum et susceptum in utero materno.

5. "Haec est summa, haec est sancta, virgo venerabilis,
Quae ex fide non lecessit sed extitit stabilis.

6. "Huic matri nec inventa ante nec post similis
Nec de prole fuit plane humanae originis.

7. "Per mulierem et lignum mundus prius periit,
Per mulieris virtutem, ad salutem rediit.

8. "Maria mater miranda patrem suum edidit,
Per quem aqua late lotus totus mundus credidit.

9. "Haec concepit margaritam, non sunt vana somnia, 
Pro qua sane Christiani vendunt sua omnia.

10. "Tunicam per totum textam Christo mater fecerat,
Quae peracta Christi morte, sorte statim steterat.

11. "Induamus arma lucis loricam et galeam,
Ut simus Deo perfecti, suscepti per Mariana.

12. "Amen, amen, adjuramus merita puerperae,
Ut non possit flamma pyrae nos dirae decerpere.

13. "Christi nomen invocemus angelis sub testibus,
Ut fruamur et scribamur litteris coelestibus.

"Cantemus in omni", etc.


Hymn of Saint Cuchumneus
1. "In alternate measure chanting, daily sing we Mary's praise,
And, in strains of glad rejoicing, to the Lord our voices raise.

2. "With a two-fold choir repeating Mary's never dying fame,
Let each ear the praises gather, which our grateful tongues proclaim.

3. "Judah's ever-glorious daughter chosen mother of the Lord-
Who, to weak and fallen manhood all its ancient worth restored.

4. "From the everlasting Father, Gabriel brought the glad decree,
That, the Word Divine conceiving, she should set poor sinners free.

5. "Of all virgins pure, the purest ever stainless, ever bright
Still from grace to grace advancing fairest daughter of the light.

6. "Wondrous title who shall tell it? whilst the Word divine she bore,
Though in mother's name rejoicing, virgin purer than before!

7. "By a woman's disobedience, eating the forbidden tree,
Was the world betray 'd and ruin'd was by woman's aid set free.

8. "In mysterious mode a mother, Mary did her God conceive,
By whose grace, through saving waters, man did heav'nly truth receive.

9. "By no empty dreams deluded, for the pearl which Mary bore,
Men, all earthly wealth resigning, still are rich for evermore.

10. " For her Son a seamless tunic Mary's careful hand did weave;
O'er that tunic fiercely gambling, sinners Mary's heart did grieve.

11. "Clad in helmet of salvation clad in breast-plate shining bright
May the hand of Mary guide us to the realms of endless light.

12. "Amen, amen, loudly cry we may she, when the fight is won,
O'er avenging fires triumphing, lead us safely to her Son.

13. " Holy angels gathering round us, lo, His saving name we greet,
Writ in books of life eternal, may we still that name repeat!

" In alternate measure chanting", etc.
[We are indebted for this translation to the kindness of Rev. Mr. Potter, All Hallows' College.]
…. Each strophe of the above hymn of St. Cuchumneus proclaims some prerogative of the holy Virgin. She is "the Mother of the great Lord," "the greatest, the holy venerable Virgin;" "none, throughout all time, is found like unto her," … She it is that gives a healing remedy for the wounds of man; and as the world was once ruined by Eve and the forbidden tree, so through the virtue of this new Eve is it restored to the blessings of Heaven. Hers it was to weave the seamless garment of Christ, emblem of the Church's unity;  and hers is it now to present us to God, and protect us from all the attacks of the evil one.
Rev. Dr. P. F. Moran, Essays on the Origin, Doctrines and Discipline of the Early Irish Church, (Dublin, 1864), 225-228.
Note: This post, first published in 2017, was revised in 2023.


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Sunday 3 December 2017

Saint Banbán, December 3

At December 3 both the Martyrology of Gorman and the Martyrology of Donegal record the name of 'Banbán, Bishop'. This is an interesting and ancient Irish name whose most well-known saintly bearer is Banbán, Bishop of Leighlin. This saint has a feast on November 26 which raises the possibility that today's commemoration could be the octave day of the Leighlin bishop rather than the feast of a different individual who happens to share the name. There are two further commemorations of Saint Banbán in the Irish calendars, both in the month of May. This saint is described as 'Banbán the Wise', but in his Dictionary of Irish Saints, Pádraig Ó Riain argues that the May and the November feast days probably all relate to the same saint. Interestingly, the May dates fall on the first and the ninth of the month, which again means that we are dealing with an octave day.  Ó Riain does not discuss the December 3 feast, but is it just a coincidence that it too can be read as an octave day for the feast of the Bishop of Leighlin?

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Saturday 2 December 2017

Saint Nuadha of Clones, December 2

December 2 is the feast of a holy man bearing the ancient name of Nuadha who is associated with the monastery of Clones, County Monaghan. The most famous of the saints of Clones is the founder Saint Tighernach, presumably, Nuadha was one of his successors. The passing of Nuadha is recorded in the Irish Annals at the middle of the eighth century and his feast day noted in some of the Irish calendars. The Annals of Ulster record the year 750 as the date of Nuadha's death, the Annals of the Four Masters give the year 746. The seventeenth-century Martyrology of Donegal records this entry at December 2 :


NUADHA, son of Dubhsleibhe, Abbot, of Cluain-eois. 

The age of Christ when he went to heaven was 750.

The twelfth-century Martyrology of Gorman notes in its appendices:

Nuadu, abb. of Clones, Dec. 2 (acc. Nuadait). Ob. 750 (746, FM.).

Cluain Eoais ('meadow of Eos') Ap. 4, gl. i. Dec. 2, gl. 2, = Cluain Auis, AU. 777, now Clones, co. Monaghan.

The name of Saint Nuadha does not appear in the earlier Martyrology of Oengus.

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