19 of the best Irish Christmas Traditions
Irish Christmas traditions are centered on the family and to some extent these days on celebrations within the church. However, given Ireland’s ancient history many Irish Christmas traditions stretch far back in time to the days before any organized religion. So how do Irish people celebrate Christmas?
In Ireland Christmas is still very much family-focused and even though there is a growing culture of consumption as in N. America Irish Christmas traditions still remain concentrated on family, friends, feasting and fun or the craic as it is called here.
Ireland at Christmas is a celebration that lasts for around two weeks and is an Irish holiday that is full of partying, dressing up, and hanging out with friends and family.
Here are just a few of Ireland’s favorite things at Christmas some old some new but all activities and aspects that make celebrating Christmas in Ireland an event that isn’t focused on consumerism and spending lots of money.
- 19 of the best Irish Christmas Traditions
- Christmas in Ireland
- 2 Traditional Irish Christmas Blessings
- 17 Christmas traditions in Ireland
- Little Christmas
- Irish Christmas Decorations
- Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
- Christmas Trees
- Santa Claus in Ireland
- Carol Singers
- Pantomime performances
- The Christmas swim
- A Christmassy Father Ted
- 12 Pubs of Christmas
- Irish Christmas food traditions
- December 8th – Culchie Shopping Day
- Christmas Markets
- St. Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day
- St Stephen’s Day horse racing
Christmas in Ireland
The Gaelic greeting for ‘Merry Christmas’ is ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ which is pronounced as ‘null-ig hun-a dit’. This is one of the many Christmas customs in Ireland – everyone is full of the Christmas spirit.
2 Traditional Irish Christmas Blessings
The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of a home and hearth to you
The cheer and goodwill of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and
God’s peace to you
God grant you lightness in your step,
A smile on every face you meet,
Loved ones gathered at your hearth,
And at your door, good friends to greet
A holy hymn upon your lips,
A window candle burning bright
And may the Good Lord bless your heart
And come to dwell here Christmas night.
17 Christmas traditions in Ireland
A Candle in the Window
An old Irish Christmas tradition and in Catholic homes across Europe, a candle was placed in the window to show priests and Catholics that the house was welcoming to them. This became a tradition during times of the Reformation.
Over the years, that tradition became a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem. The candle was set to show strangers and that those who are part of the Irish diaspora are welcomed home.
The ritual is also deeply connected to the Celtic and pre-Christian belief that the stranger may also be a god in disguise – you just never know and it can’t hurt to be welcoming.
In 1990, President Mary Robinson famously lit a permanent candle in the window of Aras an Uachtarain. This is what she said
“a reminder to all the emigrants of the Irish Diaspora that Ireland welcomed them and remembered them.
The Wren Boy Procession
The Wren Boy Procession takes place on St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day to us N. Americans) and there are parades around the country. This Irish tradition is making a comeback in some urban areas and there are many legends surrounding the “wren boy”.
It’s an odd celebration or commemoration – the Wren Boys dress up in old clothes, blacken their faces with coal and parade around with a dead wren (in effigy these days). The poor wren was hunted and killed then paraded around on a pole with a holly bush and the dead wren.
Some say it was because during the penal times in Ireland a village was planning an attack against the British. A little wren, however, caused a ruckus by tapping its beak on the drum and awoke the sentries who then proceeded to ward off the attack.
Other legends have it that the wren was a sacred Druid’s bird and so must be killed by the faithful Christians. In Celtic lore, the wren is a bird of the past year as it sings throughout the winter months. This would mean that the Wren Boys are re-enacting the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. This is one of those ancient traditions in Ireland that is having a renaissance.
Mummers in Ireland
Mummers or mumming is a traditional custom that dates back around 2500 years. In the ancient annals of Ulster, men in tall conical masks are mentioned as chief entertainers to King Conor, who lived at the royal fort of Emain Macha.
Originally thought to come from England mumming has been in Ireland long before this. Mummers are Christmas celebrants and perform traditionally during the twelve days of Christmas. Mummers lead parades, host and perform plays
You must have heard the expression “mums the word”? Mum is actually a Middle English word that means silence. So the “mummers” plays were, in the beginning, mimed. Words were added much later but many of the original stories have been lost to time.
Mumming was traditionally done during the harvest season and to represent and celebrate the end of the year. Mummers are found throughout the world from Newfoundland in Canada to Japan of all places. They are sometimes called Christmas Rhymers and Hogmanay Men.
If this ancient tradition fascinates you as it does me, you can read much more about it on the Sligo Heritage site where you will find some fascinating information on these kinds of ancient traditions.
Aughakillymaude’s Mummers Centre in Fermanagh boasts an intricate display of detailed mumming sculptures of Ireland and abroad that recite nonsensical mumming rhymes, a photographic exhibition on mumming, a Wickerman effigy and a video documentary on mumming bonfire rituals.
Learn a traditional straw craft with straw craftsmen the distinctive straw craft of making mummers straw masks, harvest the love knots and straw dolls or a Saint Brigids Cross. School groups dressed in mumming straw costumes are shown how to enact the Mummers play.
Sacred Mary traditions
Because Mary is essentially a sacred name as the mother of Jesus there have been several customs that have come about in Ireland in particular.
A girl named Mary should light the candle in the window and she is the only one who can put it out. Mary is also the one who should be taking down the Christmas decorations or at the very least, a Mary should visit on that day in January.
Little Christmas which is also known as Women’s Christmas and in Gaelic Nollaig na mBan falls on the 6th of January which is also the Feast of the Epiphany and it is the traditional date for the end of the Christmas season.
This is the day that all the decorations come down and men take over the house. The women who have worked themselves stupid during Christmas get to take a break and head out for a ladies’ lunch or a simple drink at the local.
Irish Christmas Decorations
Many of us hang a Christmas wreath on our front doors at Christmas, but did you know the tradition started in Ireland? The widespread practice of placing a ring of Holly on a front door started in Ireland in pre-Christian days.
In Ireland, there was an ancient Celtic tradition of surrounding your doors and windows with holly and ivy as they had magical properties and kept the spirits away.
Since holly and ivy stay green even during the winter months, they were thought to have some magical power and were immune to the force of winter, which was thought to be the death of the old.
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
Quite likely, the best-attended mass of the year and even if you are not religious, it is a fantastic spectacle. Christmas choirs with the gorgeous resonance that can only be obtained with a beautiful church. Nativities both living and sculpted, Communion, and the ultimate gathering of the local community where you get to see and meet people you haven’t had a chance to visit with for a year.
Like any other area in the world that celebrates Christmas Irish, houses are decorated with all manner of ornaments, wreaths, candles and the obvious.
The 8th of December or thereabouts is usually the common date for putting up and decorating of the tree. Most Irish prefer the natural pine tree but of course, these days fake trees can be found everywhere.
Many homes will also have a nativity set but the Baby Jesus is never placed in the manger until Christmas morning.
Larger urban centres like Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick and so on will start decorating the city and hanging Christmas lights around this time as well. There is usually a big celebration with a celebrity roped in to turn on the lights and get the City ready for Christmas.
Santa Claus in Ireland
Here in Ireland, Santa Claus is known as “Santy” I don’t know why but it seems to be the way right across the country from the North to the South. There will always be a parade happening in a City big or small to celebrate the man’s annual journey.
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without carol singers and here in Ireland, you will hear them on every street corner. You may even get lucky to have some knock on your front door.
Every school, church and local hall will have some kind of Christmas Carol event or evening, the most popular in Dublin is the Carols by Candlelight concerts at Christ Church Cathedral, while in Cork the Lord Mayor’s Christmas Concert in City Hall is a yearly favourite.
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a pantomime to take the kids to, and many adults will go just to bring back those memories. Panto is a tradition dating back to the Italian street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte in the 16th Century. Great entertainment for the whole family panto is participatory theatre at its funniest and finest.
You will find theatres across Ireland and particularly in Dublin and Belfast hosting Christmas panto performances.
The Christmas swim
Every Christmas Day in Sandycove, a gorgeous beach in South Dublin, the crazy Irish meet up to have a Christmas swim. Why? The Christmas swim is famous around Ireland for the fundraising for charities with each swim sending the proceeds to their charity of choice. The Christmas Day swim is now found across Ireland wherever there is freezing cold water to jump into.
A Christmassy Father Ted
Father Ted is that quintessentially Irish piss-take about a group of priests and their antics. Millions may have seen the Father Ted Christmas show but over the past 20 odd years but it is still required Christmas vowing in most households. The show includes a fabulous funeral, Priests in a lingerie department and a huge amount of laughs.
12 Pubs of Christmas
One of the newest “traditions” is the 12 Pubs of Christmas. This “tradition” has been developing over the past few years. It may appear to be a millennial party but in Ireland, everyone joins in for the craic. Young and old alike you select your ugliest Christmas Jumper (also known as a sweater, cardigan, or sweatshirt).
We are talking jumpers that are simply hideous with lights, velcroed Santas, real candy canes, and the like. The idea is to hike between 12 different pubs in your area and drink a full round in each pub. There are strict rules to abide by when visiting each pub.
Irish Christmas food traditions
A traditional Irish Christmas dinner begins on Christmas Eve when the turkey or roast of some kind is shoved into the oven. Vegetable prep is done, potatoes are peeled for roasties, and mince pies are laid out alongside many a baked treat and chocolate, lots of chocolate.
Booze will consist of everything you can think of the best Whiskey, Guinness, beers, and gin lots of gin, which has become very trendy these days. Every Irish home will have goodies laid out on the counter for those guests that will drop by, and drop by they do.
For the traditional Christmas dinner you can almost guarantee – in most households, there will be a roast turkey or preferably goose, a gammon (a beautiful Irish ham), and quite possibly a roast of beef or pork. The trimmings will include roasties (roast potatoes), mash or champ, and Brussels sprouts (you don’t mess with tradition even if folks hate them). There are also carrots, parsnips, cabbage, stuffing and gravy lots of gravy.
An Irish Christmas Dinner will be served between 2 and 4 and sometimes will last that long. After this massive feast, the family will serve desserts that can include mince pies, plum pudding or Christmas pudding drowning in Whiskey.
A traditional Irish Christmas cake is one of those recipes that have been handed down for generations in many Irish families. The cakes are made many weeks before Christmas so they can soak up all that luscious booze. Tradition says that when the children help make the cake they must make a wish while stirring the batter.
The essential ingredients in an Irish Christmas Cake – are dried fruits of all kinds, especially those super sweet bright red glacé cherries. Once done the cake is iced with marzipan or an icing sugar glaze and set out for everyone to admire and tuck into.
Christmas Pudding or Plum pudding now for some reason plum pudding doesn’t contain plums but the Victorians called raisins plums, therefore, the name. The pud as it is fondly known contains a host of dried fruit particularly raisins, suet (yes beef suet) spices like cloves, nutmeg, and ginger and the whole thing is brought together with some kind of alcohol from rum to brandy to whiskey it really doesn’t matter as long as it’s there.
The great Christmas chocolates, Quality Street, Roses and Selection Boxes. In every kid’s stocking or pillowcase or whatever they hang for gifts, there will be a Selection Box.
This is a simple gift of a variety of chocolate bars that they can chew on until they get sick. There is always an orange, a clementine or a mandarin or two in the sack as well. This more than likely dates back to the depression years or war years when treats like this were unavailable most of the year.
Another great Irish tradition – at least in our families – is the giant box of assorted biscuits with lots of chocolate covered ones.
December 8th – Culchie Shopping Day
The nick-named ‘Culchie Shopping Day’ falls on December 8th and is essentially Dublins Black Friday. The day when people ‘from the country’ came to Dublin to shop. It is also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Sadly these days the Irish have become accustomed to the American Black Friday and online shopping so this day has fallen somewhat out of favour.
Every town in Ireland seems to have a version of the Christmas Market. There’s no better time to wander around in the cold picking up some great local crafts and enjoying steaming mugs of hot chocolate or mulled wine. These markets usually go hand in hand with a Christmas parade and lighting of the decorations in town.
In Belfast you can head to the market in front of city hall. In Dublin the Dublin Castle Christmas market is back this year from December 8th to December 21st. Planning is afoot to bring back the Dun Laoghaire Christmas Market this year
- The Galway Christmas Markets: Nov 12th to Dec 22nd.
- Wicklow Christmas Market: November 19th, 20th, 25th, 26th, 27th and on December 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 16th, 17th and 18th.
- Derry Guildhall Winterland Market: Dec 16th to Dec 18th
- The Belfast Christmas Markets: Nov 19th to Dec 22nd.
- Donegal’s Lapland: Nov 25 to Dec 22nd.
- Waterford Winterval: Nov 18th to Dec 23rd.
- Glow Cork: Nov 22nd to Jan 8th.
- The Kilkenny Christmas markets: Nov 26th to Dec 23rd.
Dublin has a floating market, no less: the Docklands 12 days of Christmas festival is moored over George’s Dock in the city centre. Come for the gifts, stay for mulled wine, hot chocolate and live music. In Galway, Eyre Square turns winter wonderland for the Galway Continental Glow Christmas Market. Bring comfy shoes for the dancing, and an appetite for food chalets.
St. Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day
St. Stephen’s Day, which is also known as the Day of the Wren (boxing day in N. America) commemorates the life of St Stephen, a Christian martyr. St Stephen was believed to have been stoned to death sometime around the year 33 CE. According to an Irish legend, a wren while hiding from his enemies (this is another of the wren legends) betrayed him.
Another legend tells of the Viking raids on Ireland around the year 750 CE. Unlike the tale of the Irish village that was, rebelling against the English this legend says that Irish soldiers approached a Viking camp to drive them out. However, a wren started eating some crumbs on top of a drum and alerted the Vikings to the presence of the Irish soldiers.
Irish Spiced Beef is traditionally served on St Stephen’s Day (26th December). Spiced beef is a rump or silverside of beef that is cured and salted then boiled in water or Guinness. After this marinade, it is then roasted and served for lunch or dinner with the usual accompaniments.
These days, just like in N. America St. Stephen’s day is when all the Christmas sales start and the stores are jam-packed with thousands of bargain shoppers and kids spending their Christmas money.
St Stephen’s Day horse racing
Another of the Irish holiday traditions that are unique to several places in Ireland and across the UK are the horse races. In Ireland it is the St Stephen’s Day horse races. These horse races have been a long-standing tradition and can attract up to 20,000 visitors.
The Leopardstown Christmas Festival offers an exhilarating day out for sporting fans, socialites and thrill-seekers alike. Held over four days in December starting on St. Stephen’s Day, an impressive racing program guarantees the best of National Hunt racing while Leopardstown’s extensive facilities have become traditional hotspots for post-Christmas get-togethers.
The Limerick Christmas Racing Festival starts off with the first race at 12:20pm. St. Stephen’s Day racing is a tradition in the mid-west and there is live music after racing in the Marquee with Tiny Giants.
New Year’s Eve across the world is the celebration of winter and the seasons moving into spring. Marking the end of the harvest season and the darkest part of the year, here is Ireland you can physically see the sun staying out longer and longer.
The celebrations are held all over Ireland with feasts and fireworks. Drinking, parties, theatre, cabarets and simply going down the pub with the neighbourhood, we all celebrate the end of an old year and the birth of a new one.
Nollaig faoi shéan is faoi shonas duit.
A prosperous and happy Christmas to you.
Belfast has many of the same Irish Christmas traditions and there are a lot of Christmas Events taking place right across N. Ireland as well – if you are lucky enough to spend Christmas in Belfast here’s a great article on what’s happening there.
If you want to give some Irish gifts this season there are plenty of small things (and larger lol) that you can give. Think Claddagh’s, Irish tree decorations, Avoca throws, Aran knit sweaters.
What is your favourite Christmas memory?
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