Some Irish Christmas Traditions

With so many Americans – especially in this neck of the woods – having Irish ancestry on the family tree, I thought our blog readers might enjoy this list of Irish Christmas traditions – some old and some new. This was posted today by writer Jane Walshon the Irish Central website where you can get more “Irish information (see link below). As I see it we have very little of these Irish Christmas traditions in our American celebration. More in another post about some others whose influence we do still see.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Ireland 

The top ten Irish Christmas traditions that make the season…

Christmas really brings out the best in Ireland and  the Irish from  cheerful festivities to wild acts of machismo, happy reunions,  musical  celebrations in Church and partying. In Ireland Christmas lasts  for  about two weeks and is gladly celebrated as a respite from the  winter.

Here are just a few of Ireland’s favorite things at  Christmas, some old,  some new, but all activities and aspects that make  Christmas in Ireland  particularly special:

1. Midnight Mass on Christmas  Eve

If you’re looking for a Church packed to the rafters  look no further  that any Church in Ireland at midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  This is a  huge social gathering where family, friends and neighbors, who you  may  not have seen all year, come together and celebrate Christmas.

With Christmas carols being sung and often live  music, midnight Mass in  Ireland is a great place to catch up with old friends  and get in touch  with the local community at Christmas.

2. Horse races on St. Stephen’s  Day

Saint Stephen is the patron saint of horses but I am  almost positive that  this is not the reason that the horse races in Ireland on  St. Stephen’s  Day have become a tradition in Ireland. The races in  Leopardstown, South  Dublin, attract almost 20,000 every year but I think this  has little to  do with the old Germanic tradition of racing horses on St  Stephen’s Day  to honor the saint.

In Ireland heading off to the races is a chance to  get out of the house,  stretch your legs, perhaps have a flutter on the horses  and have a  drink with friends.

3. Christmas Day Swim, Forty Foot, South  Dublin

Christmas day swims take place all over Ireland on  Christmas morning but  probably most famously at the Forty Foot Rock, just south  of Dublin. On  Christmas Day hundreds of people can be seen jumping off the rock  into  the Irish Sea wearing only their bathing suits.

The water in the Irish Sea on Christmas Day is  usually around 50F / 10C.  Unfortunately the temperature outside the water is  usually about have  of this making the experience bracing, to say the least.  This is  certainly not for the faint-hearted but is a proven hangover cure and  its  participants often receive sponsorship for charities. 4.  Reading of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead”

“The Dead” is a short story from James Joyce’s  collection “Dubliners”.  The story tells the tale of a group of Dubliners  gathered together for a  Christmas celebration in James Joyce’s transcendent  tale of the banality  and magic in life and death.

This tale has rather become like an Irish version of “The Christmas  Carol” a tale of reflection on our past, our present, and  future.

5. Awful Christmas Sweaters

This started off as aunties, grandmothers and  relatives handing over the  most ugly sweaters as present for Christmas but  somehow Christmas  Sweaters have almost turned into a competition on the streets  of  Ireland

The woollier, hairier and more ridiculously  decorated the  better. In fact, this year I spotted a gentleman with fake  robins, bells  and fairy lights all on one sweater.

6. Christmas Caroling / The Wren Boy  Procession

During Penal Times a group of soldiers were about to  be ambushed. They  had been surrounded by a group of wrens pecked on their drums  and woke  them. The wren became known as “The Devil’s Bird”. To remember this on  St Stephen’s Day people would have a procession and go door to door  wearing  old clothes, with blackened faces, and a dead wren on top of the  pole.

Thankfully this later evolved into a caroling.  Although people no long  go door to door, or at least very rarely, carolers can  be heard on more  main streets over Christmas raising money for charity. If  there’s one  thing the Irish love doing is making music and Christmas is the  perfect  excuse to make some noise.

7. USA boxes of biscuits

Recently I saw an Irish comic speak about USA  biscuits for five minutes  straight. It was only then that I realized that  everyone I know has a  tin of biscuits in the house over Christmas in the house  when I was  growing up.

Although there were the traditional mince pieces,  pudding, and  chocolates too the biscuits and the rules about the tin are  something  that everyone I’ve spoken to remembered.

There were about 10 types of  biscuits in each layer  of the tin but you were not allowed to break  through to the second layer  without finishing the first. This  would cause at least one fight a day among  the family. The tins were  also filled with biscuits like pink wafers and  bourbon creams.

8. Decorations / Holly wreath

Christmas decorations in Ireland traditionally was  minimalist, just a wreath of  holly on the front door of the house. However,  National Lampoon’s  “Christmas Vacation” seems to have been a blue print for  many Irish  households as they light up their houses like Rockefeller  Center.

Also traditionally, decorations would go up on  December 8, the Feast of  the Immaculate Conception and come down on Little  Christmas January 6.  However, this year I spotted full Christmas decorations on  some houses  in the first week of November. What can we say? The Irish love   Christmas.

9. The shopaholics lament

Most stores are closed Christmas and Stephen’s Day  but a brand new  tradition sees more and more stores now opening after Christmas  Day.  This year because of the recession it seems certain  that more and more  stores will take part.

10. Women’s Christmas / Nollaig na  mBean

January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, is  traditionally the Irish finish  celebrating Christmas. It is also known as  Nollaigh na mBean in Irish  (Women’s Christmas).

Tradition has it that women get the day off and the  men of the house get  to do the housework, cooking and take down the Christmas  decorations.  Women meet up have a day out and treat themselves.

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2 Responses to Some Irish Christmas Traditions

  1. John Quealey says:

    In Ireland Christmas starts on Christmas Eve and ends on little Chistmas January 6th. It is just visiting and tea.

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Marie.

    I never heard that explanation for the Wren Boys. I’ve always heard that because St. Stephen was stoned to death, on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, they would stone a wren to death and bring it door to door doing a sort of trick or treat thing. (Nowadays they don’t kill the poor wren).

    St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, is better known in Dublin as Boxing Day, as it’s known throughout the UK. There’s a history to this too, but in my experience it really means you go and meet all your friends at your local pub.