Gloria In Excelsis – The Song of the Angels

By James O’Doherty


The most human and lovable of the church’s feasts, Christmas, seems to come earlier and earlier each year. For more years than I care to remember I was responsible for the selection and erection of the huge Christmas trees for Dublin city. So each October I spent the month walking the forests of Laragh, Glendalough, Aughrim and Wexford. As the trees are so densely planted it was hard to find isolated trees that met the requirements of the capital city. A walk on a clear October day along the roads leading to the forest with dark green leaves of holly among the dead russet leaves of the oak, with a glimpse of silver birch gleaming in the winter sun was delightful. Into the forest surrounded by native trees – oak, ash, birch, sycamore – it is hard to believe that Ireland has fewer trees than any other country in Europe and yet the mild and moist climate of Ireland favours the rapid growth of trees.

All lovers of nature share a common belief that there is no greater mystery than the mystery of life. We know that no matter how many clouds there are the sun still shines. So, back to Christmas, for me it is a gift from God, a simple story of a child born in a stable, a time for quiet contemplation and to remember loved ones no longer with us. I have a particular interest in the tradition of the Christmas tree but before we look at how to go about selecting that tree lets think of some of the other traditions that have grown up around this season.

Christmas was first celebrated on December 25th in the year 353AD following a decree of Pope Julius. On Christmas morning every priest was permitted to say three masses; midnight, dawn and in full daylight. Midnight mass is that distinctive Christmas service which makes the feast so special. The Song of the Angels – The Gloria in Excelsis was first sung at Christmas. It was introduced into Rome in the first half of the fifth century and it was celebrated by the Pope in the Church of Santa Maria Massiore.

The Christmas crib was built in 1223 in Greccio, Italy by St. Francis of Assisi and a Dublin man Nahum Tate wrote the beautiful, “While shepherds watched….” in 1703. Silent Night was written by a young priest Father Joseph Mohr and was performed on Christmas Eve 1818 in the little church of St. Nicola in the town of Oberndore in Austria. In 1843 the first Christmas card was printed in England. In 1862 it became fashionable to send cards to friends and family.

Yule log customs can be traced to many parts of Germany. In Hesser and Westphalia for example it was the custom on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to lay a large block of wood on the fire and when it was charred to take it off and preserve it. When a storm threatened it was lit again as a protection against lightening. It was called Christbrand.

Lots of Christmas tradition there. The Christmas tree itself is of German origin. Once again it is time to select your Christmas tree and the choice is vast. Do try to avoid the authentic looking artificial trees and select a real one. I do not recommend you buy a potted tree as these will almost certainly die because they have been cut up and replanted into a pot.

I recommend you select from the following – Norway Spruce, Noble Fir, Nordmann Fir, Blue Spruce – all have a lovely shape with dense branches. As always when erecting your tree secure it properly and keep it away from fire and heating appliances. Put the lights on first when decorating it and remember to unplug these at night and when leaving the house. I tend not to put my tree up too early. Christmas week is ideal and it will look its best over the festive period.

There are some lovely house plants for your indoor Christmas display. Remember to keep them away from heat sources, water them carefully as the amount of humidity in the air influences the health of your plants. The beautiful Ponsettia known as the flower of Holy Night is the centre of the Christmas decoration. This was introduced by Joel Roberts Poinsett from Mexico. Keep this plant in a warm position in good light with no draughts and mist the leaves regularly. Let it dry out and then thoroughly water it giving it fortnightly tomato feeds.

Other plants to consider at this time of year are the Peace Lily, Azalea, Cyclamen, Christmas Cherry Solarum – this has a lovely festive air but do remember its berries are toxic. Try the lovely Hyacinths and for foliage try some branches of the beautiful Rosemary (scented).

Despite the long dark nights and short days you can get beautiful frosty crisp sunny days through December. On days like these keep an eye for the illuminating branches of trees and shrubs. The Winter Solstice approaches when the sun reaches the tropic of Capricorn. This is the time of year when there are some beautiful shrubs performing in your garden. A lovely one Hamamelis Mollis with beautiful fragrant flowers is the best of the witch hazels, no garden should be without one. Jasminum Nudiflorum, Viburnum Tinus, Climonanthus Fragrans, Pernettya, Helleborus and Winter Heathers are also worth mentioning.

The tree of the month is the festive holly. A good holly to grow in your garden is J.C. Van Tol, one of the best for the home grower. Look out for the beautiful Prunus Subhirtella Autumnalis during these months of limited sunlight and colder temperatures.

There are other tasks to do through the festive season. In your garden prune deciduous trees and shrubs. Prune apple trees and bushes, sow hardy peas and broad beans, cover rhubarb crowns, prune roses, cut the grass at a high level, tidy paths and sheds and do not forget to feed the birds. If conditions are mild, look out for the early flowering of Primroses – Polyanthus. At the turn of the year look out for the popular Pussy Willow with its lovely grey furry catkins, and the Snowdrops. It will not be long before the garden loses the bleak winter appearance.

Christmas beckons, enjoy the many traditions and may the child of Bethlehem bless you and yours this Christmas.

Nollaig faoi shean agus faoi mhaise duit.