Irish Christmas Traditions
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“Nollaig Shona Dhuit” (pronounced null-ig hun-a dit), Gaelic for “Happy Christmas,”
is the most traditional Christmas greeting in Ireland
Following are a few of the most widely accepted Irish Christmas traditions that mark the holiday season and remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas in Ireland is marked by celebrating the birth of Jesus, reuniting with family and friends, and enjoying festive music and good food. Incorporating a couple of these Irish customs into your Christmas celebrations can be a delightful way to reconnect with your Irish roots, no matter where you are spending the holiday season.
The Big Clean: One of the most popular age-old practices during Advent in rural Ireland has been to “whitewash” the family home, clean it inside and out, and from top to bottom. This custom began as a way to prepare the home for the arrival of Mary, Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus. Apart from the whitewashing, many families in Ireland still practice this ritual, as it also makes the home clean and comfortable for family and friends who will visit during Christmastime.
Decorations: Once all is neat and tidy, the home is ready to be decorated. Traditionally, decorations would go up on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and would come down on Little Christmas, January 6. The advent wreath is a central part of Christmas preparations in the Irish home. The Advent wreath is a circular garland of evergreen branches representing eternity. There are four candles, each representing an aspect of the spiritual preparation for the coming of the Lord. The white candle in the center of the wreath symbolizes Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, sent to wash away our sins. Another widespread decoration in Ireland is the holly wreath. Holly grows wild in Ireland and is used to garnish the entire house. Celtics consider holly to represent life and rebirth. The evergreen leaves of holly symbolize life during a time when all else is bare and the red berries represent new life in Christ. When decorations are hung, a cozy turf fire completes the Christmas ambiance!
Window Candle: It is customary in Irish homes to set a candle in the front window on Christmas Eve. The candle is an eminent sign of welcome for weary travelers in search of a resting place, much as were Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem.
Midnight Mass: There is no Irish Christmas tradition that compares to attending midnight mass. Every church in Ireland is sure to be packed to the rafters 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 live music being played, midnight mass in Ireland is a splendid way to connect with the local community at Christmas. An Irish Christmas Blessing: “The light of the Christmas star to you, The warmth of home and hearth to you, The cheer and good will 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.”
Traditional Food for an Irish Christmas: The traditional Christmas supper in Ireland typically includes roasted goose or ham, champ potatoes (Irish mashed potatoes with chopped scallions), cabbage with bacon, and cranberry sauce. After the meal delectable fruit cakes, puddings and whiskey Christmas cakes are enjoyed by all. Barmbrack (a slightly sweet traditional Irish currant loaf) served toasted with butter and a cup of tea can be enjoyed any time of day. And most Irish households delight in a tin of Irish Biscuits (cookies) at Christmas.
Irish Christmas Greeting Cards: Sending and receiving Christmas cards along with a lengthy hand-written letter and recent photos is immensely popular in Ireland. This tradition dates back to the days of mass-emigration from Ireland, when a letter from a long-departed family member would have been the best Christmas gift of all. A festive greeting card, perhaps embodying the foreign land from which it was sent, would have added an exotic touch. The card(s) would be prominently displayed while the letter would be safely tucked away but readily available for regular re-readings. Christmas cards and letters are still anticipated in Ireland today.
James Joyce’s “The Dead”: “The Dead” is an inspirational short story from James Joyce’s collection “Dubliners.” The story tells the tale of a group of Dubliners whom gather together to celebrate Christmas. Like an Irish version of “The Christmas Carol, “The Dead” is a tale of reflection on our past, our present, and future.
Horse Races on St. Stephen’s Day: St. Stephen's Day, December 26, began as a day honoring the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, who was stoned to death shortly after the Crucifixion of Christ. St. Stephen's Day is a national holiday in Ireland, but, the various celebrations have little connection to the saint. For reasons unknown, St. Stephen has been named the patron saint of horses. Nonetheless, horse races in Ireland on St Stephen’s Day have evolved into a tradition in Ireland. The races in South Dublin attract almost 20,000 every year. Heading off to the races is a chance to get out of the house, stretch your legs, have a bit of excitement over the horses, and enjoy a drink with friends.
The Wren Boy Procession/Christmas Caroling: During Penal Times a group of soldiers were about to be ambushed. They had been surrounded by a group of wrens that 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. This later evolved into a caroling. Although people rarely go door to door any more, carolers can be heard on main streets during the Christmas season raising money for various charities.
Christmas Day Swim, Forty Foot, South Dublin: Simply for a bit of craic, Christmas day swims take place all over Ireland on Christmas morning. However, the most famous location for this madcap ritual is 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 with average water temperatures of 50F / 10C! And the temperature of chilly December air is usually only about half that of the water, making the experience quite invigorating! Certainly not for the faint hearted, the Christmas Day swim is thought to be a cure for hangovers. Participants often receive sponsorship for charities.
Nollaig na mBean (Women’s Christmas): Customarily, January 6, The Feast of the Epiphany, is the final day Christmas is celebrated in Ireland. Also known as Nollaigh na mBean (Gaelic for Women’s Christmas) and Little Christmas, it is a day that Irish men take on all the household duties. Most women celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts.