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Dec 2013

Nuallairean, a Gaelic Christmas tradition

Posted by / in Featured Posts, News /

by Joyce MacDonald, Gaelic Coordinator

There’s been a lot of talk at Colaisde na Gàidhlig about how we’ll get through the cold, dark months of the year without sessions at the Red Shoe, square dances every day of the week and our students who keep us hopping all summer long. We’re determined to make our own fun here in the country, so that means getting together with friends for music, outdoor activities and good times.

Of course we always like to look to what the ancestors were up to, since the Gaels of old were well practiced in making life enjoyable with very little in the way of outside resources. They made their own fun for sure!

According to the Carmina Gaedelica, a collection of Gaelic folk customs, chants and incantations gathered in the second half of the 19th century, the Gaels in Scotland had a Christmas tradition that involved singing and going from house to house.

“Christmas chants were numerous and their recital common throughout Scotland,” wrote Alexander Carmichael in 1899. “They are now disappearing with the customs they accompanied. Where they still linger their recital is relegated to boys. Formerly on Christmas Eve bands of young men went about from house to house and from townland to townland chanting Christmas songs. The band was called goisearan, guisers, fir-duan, song-men, gillean Nollaig, Christmas lads, nuallairean, rejoicers, and other names. The rejoicers wore long white shirts for surplices, and very tall white hats for mitres, in which they made a picturesque appearance as they moved about singing their loudest. Sometimes they went about as one band, sometimes in sections of twos and threes. When they entered a dwelling they took possession of a child, if there was one in the house.  In the absence of a child, a lay figure was improvised. The child was called Crist, Cristean, – Christ, Little Christ. The assumed Christ was placed on a skin and carried three times round the fire, sunwise, by the ceannsnaodh – head of the band, the song men singing the Christmas Hail. The skin on which the symbolic Christ was carried was that of a white male lamb without spot or blemish and consecrated to this service. The skin was called uilim. Homage and offerings and much rejoicings were made to the symbolic Christ. The people of the house gave the guisers bread, butter, crowdie, and other eatables, on which they afterwards feasted.”

There are words for several Christmas Hails in the Carmina Gaedelica, of which the original handwritten notes for can be found at http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/cwatson/en.

Singing, dressing up in silly costumes, visiting the neighbours and delicious snacks? Sounds like a good time! You just might spot some nuallairean near you this Christmas!

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