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By CONNOR ASHLOCK
In today’s modern world, many folks shy away from anything that might be considered traditional, viewing traditions as stringent, stuffy or impractical in our fast-paced society. But, traditions can serve wonderful and beneficial purposes.In fact, many of the traditions of the past might be well worth the effort to bring back, as they seemed to provide quite the memory-making experience for our ancestors, who were exposed to far lesser modes of entertainment than we are today.
Here in the tri-county area, originally known as “Illinois Country” by many early settlers, our ancestors brought with them their cultural distinctions, which included such things as food, music, clothing and more. While several hopped off the flatboats and steamers as they traveled up the mighty Mississippi from the Port of New Orleans, others came from the colonies via horseback, schooner or on their own two legs.With them, they brought that which lived on in them from the Old Country, which included the way they celebrated holidays like Christmas. But, before you stop to think about those traditions that may have been practiced around here, first you have to close your eyes and go back in time. It’s eighteen hundred-and something in the tri-county area, and folks are about to celebrate the Christmas season. The winter is cold and the sting of the chill has been felt more than likely since late September, as it used to be much colder in those days. The “Little Ice Age” is said to have made its way out by 1860 or 1870, but the folks who had to brave the Illinois winters would probably disagree with that estimate. One element of the holiday season that you would see would be candlelight, and plenty of it. For millennia, cultures associated winter with darkness and other dismal motifs, and this sentiment was no doubt shared by our early Illinoisan forefathers and foremothers. In fact, no matter what time of year those more secluded settlers could succumb to melancholy, or more aptly put, depression. Couple loneliness with cold and ice and you’re bound to get a recipe for mental disaster. But, the light banished the darkness, painting a room in warmth. If it wasn’t for the light, we’d be in darkness, and even though this is an obvious fact, if we had to experience it like our ancestors had to, we’d probably understand just how much a candle’s light meant on a dreary winter night. Now, candles were lit all year long, not just at Christmastime, but part of what makes candles at Christmas special is the symbolism ascribed to them. Today, many people still place candles on their window sills, but for Irish Catholics, a lit candle held an important meaning. Throughout the 1700s, a series of laws known as the Penal Laws were enacted in Ireland and targeted Roman Catholics. For a priest to give the Roman Catholic Mass was dangerously deadly business. Placing a candle in the window on Christmas Eve signalled to a priest that there was a family in that home that would welcome him and desire for him to say a Mass in secret. Early Irish Catholic residents of the region would have remembered learning about those days and carried on the tradition of keeping the candle lit in their window. Some Irish families might have left their doors unlocked, as was the custom in Ireland, in order to participate in the custom of the laden table. After the evening meal was finished, the table would have been set again should a traveling stranger wander in. To let the traveler know he was welcome, a candle would remain lit in the window. Thus, the lit candle had additional significance in Irish homes. This act of hospitality served to remind practitioners of the journey of Mary and Joseph as they made their way into Bethlehem, only to find that the only available shelter was a stable. In Northern European countries, from which many immigrants traveled and settled in our region, the festival of St. Lucia Day would also harness the motif of light.
St. Lucia, or St. Lucy was an early Christian martyr. Her feast day is commemorated on Dec. 13 and could have very well been a custom observed by some families in the early years of settlement in the region. St. Lucia Day is still widely observed in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, with whole communities joining the celebration with the election of a young woman to represent St. Lucia. Schools will even close early so families can prepare for the celebration. Early in the morning onDec. 13, the oldest daughter of the family will wake up, don a white robe with a red sash, place a special crown upon her head that secures an evergreen wreath and several lit candles and serves her family coffee and pastries such as the traditional Lussekatt. Other families probably even kept the holiday in this region by celebrating St. Nicholas Day. A man of significance in the history of Christianity, Nicholas was a bishop and theologian who lived in the third and fourth centuries and has been celebrated throughout history for his generosity. His legacy lived on in the tradition of keeping your shoes out before you went to bed on Dec. 5. When children woke up on Dec. 6, they might find money, small toys, fruits, nuts and candies in or around their shoes. Even today, St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated, especially in area parochial schools. When students walk into their classrooms, they can expect to find brown paper bags filled with an orange, pencils and chocolates. There are numerous other traditions that our ancestors may have celebrated in centuries past that waits to be explored.