Dec 31, 2009

Merry Hogmanay or Happy New Year

photo via creative commons by Laurence Arnold
New Years is a major holiday in Scotland called Hogmanay. It's the day gifts are given and on New Year's the house is cleaned in a symbolic whisking out of the old to bring in the new. After the stroke of midnight the first person (called the First Footer) to enter your house should be a tall dark-haired man, usually carrying certain items like a lump of coal and some whiskey (probably because a blond coming to the door--read Viking--meant bad luck.) The origin of the name might be Anglo-Saxon or French one really knows for sure.

But just why do the Scots put more emphasis on the celebration than anyone else? The answer is found (like so many answers are) in history. After the Reformation, the celebration of Christmas (Christ Mass) was associated with the Catholic Church and thus banned (or probably more accurately in more recent years, discouraged) by the Kirk (the Church) in Scotland. One source I read said Christmas was not celebrated until the 1950s in Scotland!

So, New Years was the winter holiday and celebrated with gusto. What song do we all sing at midnight on New Years? Auld Lang Syne, that old Scottish tune!

Right now, in Scotland, the celebration has already begun. In fact, it started two days ago. See what's going on here. Apparently Scottish revelers are in for a cold one this year.

I'm not sure how the Thomson household will celebrate Hogmanay this year, but Tom and I both have Scottish roots. It's certain that our "First Footer" will be a dark haired male. Kyle is the only one using the front the door right now. One thing is for certain, we will not be celebrating with haggis! (Neither on New Years or more traditionally Robert Burns Day.) Yuck! I guess my Scottish roots lose out to American traditions on that one!

Whatever you do to celebrate, enjoy, be safe, and may God bless 2010!

" A guid New Year to ane an' a' and mony may ye see."

Dec 27, 2009

What is a Wren boy?

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;
Though his body is small, his family is great,
So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.

The new year is represented by a robin, and the old year is a wren.

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons - December 26Uploaded by oaktree_b, Public Domain,
I'm talking about an old Celtic tradition involving a procession through the streets with a dead wren. This link explains everything:

Dec 26, 2009

Happy Boxing Day!

photo via creative commons by Stewart Black
While it's not really a Celtic celebration, it is observed in some Celtic countries. It has nothing to do with the sport, just in case you were wondering. Boxing Day is celebrated in Australia, Britain, New Zealand, and Canada.

Boxing Day began, as far as I can tell, in the nineteenth century. It's an extension of the Christmas celebration, which I think it is a pretty good idea. How the tradition started is debatable, just like all good traditions. ;-) On the day after Christmas people with means gave away food and goods to the needy, and bundled it all up in boxes to deliver it, of course. And children boxed up their extra toys and gave them away after receiving new ones for Christmas. Or maybe the term Boxing Day refers to alms boxes set up outside of churches. Either way, it's a day to be generous without expecting a gift in return.

Know something I don't about Boxing Day? Please, leave a comment!

Dec 22, 2009

Winter Solstice- The Tea Party (Cover)

Welcome to the Celtic New Year. This is a video I found of a very talented young guitar player. Enjoy!

Dec 21, 2009

Did Ireland steal Santa Claus?

photo via creative commons by TimmyGUNZ
The real Saint Nicholas is generally believed to be a 4th century bishop from Turkey. Legend says that he was wealthy and gave away most all of his fortune. One tale is about a poor father who had no dowery for his three daughters. They were destined to become slaves without a dowery, but for three nights in a row Saint Nicholas of Myra secretly threw bags of gold in through the man's window, thus saving the girls.

There are other tales of this bishop giving away gifts. He was buried in Turkey around 346AD and was immediately considered a saint because of his generosity.

During the crusades saint relics were often taken into battle for protection--a sort of good luck charm. It's believed that this happened with Saint Nicholas's remains. They were first taken to Italy and then around 800 years ago they were reburied in Ireland by a relative named Nicholas de Frainet near Kilkenny. The spot is now on private farmland, but it once was a medieval abbey. There is a gravestone there that dates from the 13th century bearing an image (believed to be Saint Nicholas) and two heads (believed to be the two Norman crusaders who brought the remains to Ireland.)
Grave of Saint Nicholas at Newtown Jerpoint
photo via creative commons by Jody Halsted

Dec 18, 2009

More Irish Christmas Traditions

Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin
photo via creative commons by Michael Foley
You can find all kinds of Irish Christmas decorations now. I found an Irish Christmas angel ornament at a local department store. But the truth is, America decorates in a much more lavish manner than other countries do. Actually, that might not be a surprise to you if you've noticed, like I have, the explosion of lawn ornaments and lights in your neighborhood.

In Ireland it's traditional to put a lit candle (one) in a window to welcome the holy family. Here are some more traditions from Holidays Kaboose.

In many areas, on Christmas Eve, a lit candle is placed in a window (nowadays it can be an electric light!). This goes back to traditions of hospitality in ancient times. The idea is to help light the way of the Holy Family or any other poor traveller who is out on that night. There can be a White Christmas, but snowfalls are rarely heavy. As in many countries, it is very important for family members to be together for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
People often have Christmas dinner in the afternoon, any time between 1 and 3 p.m.. As a child, I remember being served more than one 'fowl' for Christmas dinner - usually a goose and sometimes chicken, duck or pheasant as well, along with stuffing, roast potatoes and gravy. Now turkey is much more common along with a ham, and sometimes spiced beef. Dessert is Christmas pudding with rum sauce or brandy butter and cream. Sometimes a trifle is served as well! Christmas Crackers are on the table, and everyone pulls one with the person next to them. Whoever ends up with the longer end gets the contents, which include a party hat, a small toy and a riddle.
I think the important thing with traditions is that you have them. You can start new ones that your children and grandchildren will cherish. What is your favorite tradition?

Dec 16, 2009

Irish Christmas Traditions

©Cindy Thomson
Want to partake in an Irish Christmas tradition? Go whitewash an outbuilding.

The four weeks prior to Christmas (Advent) were traditionally times when folks in Ireland cleaned, preparing for the blessed event. Men whitewashed the outhouse while the women scrubbed the floors inside the house. Before the Christian era this tradition was thought to be a kind of spring cleaning, except that it took place in advance of the winter solstice. After Christianity the tradition was in preparation of the coming of the holy family. If Christ came to your house tonight, would you be ready? Apparently lots of folks in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born were not ready because Mary and Joseph were turned away repeatedly.

I suppose we do continue this tradition today as we decorate, bake, and clean to welcome family and friends to our homes during the Christmas season. But still, I wonder...does this preparation do anything to welcome the coming of Christ in our hearts?

Just something to think about....

Dec 14, 2009

The Wild Boar is Back!

BRIGID OF IRELAND is set in the 5th century. There are many things about ancient Ireland that do not exist today. However, the wild boar is not one of them. Once extinct in Ireland, the animal has been spotted in several counties. One of its primary predators in Medieval times was the Irish wolfhound, which does not roam around hunting boars anymore. Farmers and naturalists are concerned about the reemergence of this beast. You can read about it here or here.

photo via creative commons by Dylan

Dec 11, 2009

Instructions from St. Patrick

©Cindy Thomson
Continuing with St. Patrick, we find in his writings that he left a "suggestion" for us.

From my book, Celtic Wisdom:

"Patrick desired that his legacy would be passed on: 'I wish only that you, too, would make greater and better efforts. This will be my pride, for 'a wise son makes a proud father.'"

As I've noted in the book, this is a reference to Proverbs 10:1:

The proverbs of Solomon:
A wise son brings joy to his father,
but a foolish son grief to his mother.

And Proverbs 15:20:

A wise son brings joy to his father,
but a foolish man despises his mother.
(quoting from the NIV)

I wonder how many of us have thought of ourselves as being "sons" of St. Patrick. But we are sons and daughters of those who have gone before us. I wonder if I've done enough to bring joy, especially to my Father who made us all.

Dec 10, 2009

What Voices Do You Remember From Your Past?

My grandmother was born on December 10, 1900. Her ancestors were Scots-Irish, although I doubt she knew that. She collected names and dates and photographs, and I inherited those and traced the family tree.

She died in 1977. We called her grandmother by her own request--not grandma or worst of all in her mind, granny. (I still remember my little cousin Jenny getting in trouble for that one!) The title "Grandmother" fit her because she was old school, not a cuddly granny-type.

I remember her voice and some of the things she said, not all of them nice. But in her defense she suffered from cancer during a time when there was little treatment available. Old people can be grouchy. Sometimes they have reason.

A few years after she died I had a dream. I was standing in front of her like I so often did for photographs. She was wearing her usual large fake pearl necklace and earrings and a homemade dress. She was an excellent seamstress, a skill I didn't inherit. But in the dream she was missing her usual stoic manner. She seemed regretful and told me that she loved me. I don't remember her ever saying that to me when she was alive. The kinds of things I remember her saying included overhearing her tell my mother that I was fat and that she needed to do something about that, that we must get the ants out of our house because she feared she would wake up with them in her bed, and probably lots more that I've forgotten.

But that's just the point. The dream made me forget the trivial stuff and remember that she did love me. It also served to remind me that I want to live so that when people think of me they remember a voice of love rather than that of crabbiness.

Do I believe she spoke to me from beyond the grave? No. But I do believe she spoke to me from the past--from my memories. What voices from the past do you hear? Learn to listen to the ones that build you up and teach you and ignore the rest.

Dec 9, 2009

Celtic Voices

public domain via Flikr
Celtic Voices, the title I chose for this blog, refers to the voices St. Patrick heard long ago. Many people credit Patrick for bringing Christianity to Ireland. In principle this is true, but technically there were Christians in Ireland before he came, first as a slave at the age of 16, and later as a willing minister. The reason Patrick returned to a land where years earlier he had escaped captivity had to do with a dream.

In the dream a man, perhaps an angel, came to him. Quoting from my book, Celtic Wisdom:

"One night a man named Victoricus visited him in a dream, bearing many letters from Ireland. He gave one to Patrick that read 'The Voice of the Irish.' Immediately Patrick heard the voices of those he'd known in Ireland crying out together, 'We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.'"

The result of Patrick listening to those voices and acting on what he heard was that Ireland was blessed with a valuable patron saint who ministered to the lost, many of whom went on to develop learning centers (monasteries) and teach others, both in Ireland and on the European continent.

I think these kind of Celtic voices (not necessarily in dreams but in legends and stories) speak to us today, and I wanted to explore this idea on this blog. I hope you'll join me!


Dec 7, 2009

Passing of an Irish Legend

A few days ago the world learned of the passing of Liam Clancy, who along with the Clancy Brothers and Makem, was a legend in Irish music. But as this article explains, these folks (of whom he was the last living) were extremely important to Irish music because they saved and promoted the old traditional tunes. Without their efforts, the world might never know that tradition.

A great tribute to those Irish music preservationists is beautifully portrayed in Tommy Sands's BALLAD OF TOMMY MAKEM. I couldn't find a youtube video, but you can buy the song for just 99 cents.

I for one am grateful for those who kept the tradition alive, and for those like Tommy Sands who "keep on singing."

Nov 4, 2009

An Irish Mystery

A different tree in Ireland. From creative commons by Michael Foley
I recently came across this story, and I thought I'd share it.

Ireland has always been a place of mysteries. Sir John Pentland once said: "In Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs."

This happened in Rostrevor in County Down. For many generations people claimed to hear the ringing of an invisible bell near a graveyard that was associated with the ancient church of St. Bronagh. The church no longer existed but the ruins from a 15th century church remained. Now, you might think this was odd, but in Ireland supernatural events are expected. People thought it was the fairies, don't ye know!

That is, until 1888 when a storm knocked down a massive oak tree in Kilbroney churchyard. When the tree was cut up for firewood, an ancient bell was found deep within it, perhaps concealed for hundreds of years by ivy that had grown over it. It's an excellent example of the kinds of bells used in ancient monasteries. How did it get there? It might have been hung there when the tree was young or hidden there to protect it from raids. It is now kept in the local church and can be seen today.

Where but in Ireland are people surprised when something is proven NOT to caused by fairy folk?

You can read about an Irishwoman's visit where she saw the bell, and rang it even, on this blog.

Oct 14, 2009

Monastery Ruins on Lough Erne

photo creative commons by Wes Eggins Images
This picture is of the ruined monastery on Lough Erne in County Fermangh. This is on Devenish Island. One of the characters in a novel I'm currently working on lives in this area in about 477AD. While the location may have contained a monastery in the 5th century, these ruins are mostly, if not all, from a later time period, maybe the 12th century.

Have you visited the area? If you have, I'd love to hear from you. Email me: cindy at cindyswriting dot com

Sep 25, 2009

Win Free Stuff!

How to get something for nothing:

I give away something every month in a trivia contest for my newsletter subscribers. In the past I've given away lots of books, t-shirts, Christmas ornaments, bookmarks...all kinds of stuff. Don't miss out! Sign up for my newsletter at

Sep 16, 2009

Celtic Wisdom--official US release

Celtic Wisdom is now officially released in the US. Any bookstore should be able to order it.

Here is an interview I did recently online. Be sure to vote for it (look for the link on the right hand side of the page.)

I'm still in need of some Amazon reviews. If you've read it and enjoyed it, please let others know.

By the way, I've been posting some Irish proverbs over on twitter:

Aug 21, 2009

Milwaukee Irish Fest 2009

What a great time we had at Irish Fest. I had the pleasure of letting book lovers know that my new book, Celtic Wisdom, Treasures From Ireland, is just about to be released. I had copies of Brigid of Ireland with me at the Fest as well.

I had book signings and a talk at the Hedge School with my friend Patti Lacy, author of An Irishwoman's Tale--an amazing book based on a true story.

It was a pleasure to meet new friends like Alister McReynolds, historian and author. He is an expert on the Scots-Irish. I picked up a copy of his book. In addition I reconnected with Dr. Tim Campbell, Director of the Saint Patrick Centre in Northern Ireland. He had advised me on my St. Patrick chapter in Celtic Wisdom and I presented him a copy of the book at the Fest.

I met many other really cool people, including the organizers of a couple of other Irish festivals. We heard a lot of cool bands, including Master Fiddler Natalie McMaster and her husband Donnell Leahy; and the legendary Tommy Sands (who also happened to sit next to me on the shuttle ride back to the hotel.)

Finally, I have to mention an amazingly funny and educational play put on by the Bangor Drama Club (that's Bangor, Northern Ireland). It was 10,000 years of County Down history in 30 minutes. So fun! Earlier we met Galvin on the shuttle who told us about some of the challenges the group had, including one member who was temporarily left in London due to a passport irregularity, and another who fell on the sidewalk in Milwaukee and broke her wrist. But the show went on and it was great!

It was so much fun to meet readers, including one who told me she had bought Brigid of Ireland at the Dublin Irish Festival. Now, if I just didn't have to WRITE, I could spend my time visiting the many Irish festivals all over the country. But Tom says we should save our money to visit Ireland, and after all we heard about Northern Ireland, the land of both of our ancestors, I think he's right!

Aug 7, 2009

Festival Time!

I'm headed to the Milwaukee Irish Fest, the largest Irish festival in the world. I'm really looking forward to meeting new folks who share my passion for Irish culture and history. I'm also looking forward to getting reacquainted with some old friends. Author Patti Lacy will be speaking and signing with me. It's her first time at the Fest. We're sure to have a lot of fun. I will also be meeting up with author Brenna Briggs. Brenna has arranged a pre-Fest book signing at Books & Brew in Milton, WI. There will be several authors there, so if you're in the area stop in!

I'm also looking forward to seeing Dr. Tim Campbell again. He is the director of the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. He will be speaking about the history of County Down, and I'm really looking forward to that since that's where my ancestors came from. Tim also helped me with the section on St. Patrick in my new book.

If you're at the fest, stop by Sean's Celtic Creations. Sean makes quality Celtic jewelry. Next time you see me, look at my wedding ring as an example. I always enjoy stopping by and saying hello to Sean. He's been so encouraging to me in my writing journey.

And besides all that, I'm looking forward to the fabulous Celtic music at the Fest!


Jul 19, 2009

RIP Author Frank McCourt

"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years."--Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes has a wonderful article about Frank McCourt. While his childhood was miserable, he overcame it, and that's the lesson to remember. I think his book was such a success because he shared his soul, painful as his memories were. When an author puts so much of himself into his work it shows and people can relate. I know Angela's Ashes touched my heart.

Blessings to the McCourt family in their time of loss.

Jun 30, 2009

Don't Have Time to Read? I'm Not Buying It!

I hear this from people all the time. I have two thoughts about it:
1) What you are really saying is, "I choose not to read." Or maybe, "I don't like to read [fiction, news, books...whatever.]
2) How did we get here from ancient times when wars were fought over the possession of books?

First of all, it's simply not true that someone doesn't have time to read. When people say this it's like they're trying to make themselves appear super important, like they're as busy as a CEO. But wait, CEOs read, don't they? They read books, newspapers, web sites, blogs...they have to keep a finger on the pulse of society and trends. Even busy people find time to read. I simply cannot buy into the fact there is no free time in a person's day. We wait in line at the grocery. We wait at the hair salon, the doctor's office, the dentist. You can choose to bring your own reading material or read a six-month-old People Magazine in the waiting room, but either way you're choosing to read--or not, but it's a choice. Another choice is music, talk radio, or audio books. People spend lots of time in cars. There IS time to read!

Did you know that St. Columcille (founder of Iona) so coveted a book that he snuck off and copyed it at night by candlelight? (Or, as the legend goes, he did not need candles because his fingers were luminous.) When he was discovered, he refused to give his copy back. Books were so rare and valuable that a war was fought over it. And the result was that Columcille end up living in Iona instead of Ireland. (Well, the result was actually more earth shattering than that!) You can read about this in my new book, Celtic Wisdom.

But whatever you do, don't say you don't have time to read!

Jun 25, 2009

To Bless the Space Between Us by John O'Donohue, p. 2-3.

"There are journeys we have begun that have brought us great inner riches and refinement; but we had to travel through dark valleys of difficulty and suffering. Had we known at the beginning what the journey would demand of us, we might never have set out. Yet the rewards and gifts became so vital to who we are. Through the innocence of beginning we are often seduced into growth."

May 8, 2009

Tell Me About Ireland

©Cindy Thomson, Dunluce Castle
Have you been to Ireland? Tell me when and where, and if you have any tips or do or don'ts about visiting Ireland, please share!

Mar 17, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Update: This is a picture of when I DID get to visit the Saint Patrick Centre and meet with Dr. Tim Campbell
Since it's Saint Patrick's Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to tell you a bit about the Saint Patrick Centre in Northern Ireland. One day I'll get there to visit for sure (update: I've been there twice now!), but they've updated their web site with a wonderful video telling you all about the centre and its programs. Saint Patrick was British, probably born in the region that is now Wales, and came as a missionary to Ireland. His work was accomplished in Northern Ireland, although there are plenty of references to him in other parts, and his legend and his message speak to our common Christian heritage.

I met the director, Dr. Tim Campbell, a few years ago at the Milwaukee Irish Fest. You'll see him in the video several times. Go ahead and check out the site. You'll be glad you did. And enjoy the day as a time to celebrate all things Irish!!

Feb 28, 2009

Did St. Patrick Really Use the Shamrock to Prove a Point?

There is a legend that when St. Patrick came to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity he used the common shamrock to explain the Trinity.

The shamrock has three parts, but it is only one plant. Likewise, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only one God. Nice story. Did it happen? Well, we don't know. That's the way it is with legends. But it could have, and here's why:

The Irish had a love for numbers and their order and balance. Three was one of the numbers that they thought had special significance, but there were others, like five. There are five provinces of Ireland, there are five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot, and so on. But the number three was used in little wise sayings called triads. I love to read those. Here are a few:

Three best to have in plenty:
sunshine, wisdom, and generosity.

Three good things to have:
a clean shirt, a clean conscience, and a guinea in the pocket.

Three things that never rust:
a sword, a spade, and a thought.

Three truths:
sunrise, sunset, and death.

Three best friends and three worst enemies:
fire, wind, and rain.

So, it's not out of the question that St. Patrick (or perhaps someone else) used the shamrock to explain the One True God.

Feb 24, 2009

Let's talk about Celtic Christianity

What do you know about it? What do you want to know? Here are two topics that I'd love to hear your thoughts on as I work on gathering material for a new book.

  • I think many evangelical Christians (and maybe others as well) steer clear of anything Celtic, believing it to be pagan. Some even equate paganism with Satan worship. Do you or anyone you know shun Celtic crosses, Celtic knots, and other Celtic symbols because it's unclear what they represent and a Christian doesn't want to promote paganism?
  • Do you believe Irish saints, like St. Patrick, are Catholic? Where does this idea come from, in your opinion?
I really want to know what people are thinking, so please leave your thoughts. Thank you!!!

Feb 1, 2009

Happy Saint Brigid's Day!

Feb. 1 was traditionally the festival of Imbolc, a time for divining the weather and celebrating the fertility of the livestock. The goddess Brigid (spelled many different ways) was associated with this season. As Christianity was introduced, the old beliefs were blended with the new so Feb. 1 is the supposed date of Saint Brigid's birth. Please don't ask me if she was a real person. That's a matter of opinion and belief. There are only the old tales to go by, but it's not out of the question that there was a real Brigid, named for the popular goddess, who founded a duel monastery (for men and women), did miraculous works, was extremely generous, and was revered for centuries--and still is.

If you want to read my intrepretations of her early life (fiction), get a copy of Brigid of Ireland.

If you want a short synopsis of her life and the stories associated with her, read the chapter on St. Brigid in my new book, Celtic Wisdom: Treasures From Ireland.

If you want to learn how to weave a St. Brigid's cross, traditionally woven on this day by children in Ireland, go here.


Jan 14, 2009

Make Each Word Count

Old Irish Proverb:

Words have a magical power.
They can raise up the spirits or dash them down.
They can bring laughter as easily as tears.
Spend words like a miser counting coins.
Make each word count.