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Christmas in Ireland: What Are Some Traditions and Customs?

Christmas in Ireland is HUGE. Irish Christmas traditions boast deep origins, both Christian and pagan, that live on into the 21st century.

Family look up at Christmas tree

Christmas in Ireland – What to Expect

First time visitors are often surprised at the scale of Christmas in Ireland.  The country effectively slows to a halt for a week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Retail opening times and public transport are restricted. Many offices and places of work will shut during this period, as friends and family travel to celebrate Christmas together.

There is lots of food and drink to be had at Christmas in Ireland. Irish people love an excuse to celebrate. And our Christmas celebrations always revolve around cooking, eating and alcohol!

Raising Money For Charity over Christmas

From Christmas Day swims to fun runs, Irish people love raising money for charitable causes over Christmas. Getting a blast of cold winter air, or icy sea water, is a perfect way to appreciate your cosy hearth. Dinner always tastes better after taking part in one of these events!

Christ Church Dublin at Christmas time

Christ Church Dublin at Christmas time

The Celtic Black Friday – Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Known as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the 8th of December began as a religious holiday, but has taken on new significance in Ireland. Here, it is traditionally a day when rural Ireland descended on Dublin en masse, to do their Christmas shopping. There was a hardly any space to park your tractor!

In recent years, this practice has become less popular. Rural Ireland nowadays has shopping centres of its own. And farming families shop online just like everyone else! Yes, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are popular here too.

Grafton Street, Dublin at Christmas time

Grafton Street, Dublin at Christmas time.

Christmas Trees, Holly and Other Plants

The tradition of erecting and decorating an evergreen tree in our living rooms arrived in 19th century Ireland via the German-born Prince Albert, husband to the British Queen Victoria.

However, the custom has deeper roots still. Before modern prosperity, Irish people decorated their homes with all manner of greenery. Holly and laurel, for example, are plentiful in Ireland during winter time. In times past, these plants were considered a way to ward off evil spirits from your home. Finding a holly bush with lots of berries, was traditionally considered a lucky omen for the year ahead. However, if the berries emerged earlier than December, folklore dictated a harsh winter was to follow!

Today, Irish people use the rich green leaves and bright red berries of holly to add colour to their homes at Christmas.

Customs around mistletoe date back to Norse times, where the plant was seen as warding off evil spirit and bringing good luck. Similar to now, it was hung over the door. The custom of kissing under the Mistletoe also dates back to this era. Some say this is the best bit of Christmas!

Welcoming Candle

An Irish Catholic tradition, a lit candle in a window symbolises that the homeowner would welcome in Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the holy family, unlike the innkeeper in Bethlehem that turned them away. It is also seen as a welcome to any guests or family members returning from far away. The youngest member of the family traditionally lit the candle.

During penal times in Ireland, when practicing the Catholic faith was outlawed, a lit candle was a sign that it was safe to say mass in the home.

Christmas candle in the window

Welcoming candle in the window, to welcome the Holy Family in if they’re passing.

St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day December 26th

The day after Christmas is a public holiday in Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, this is known as St Stephen’s Day, after the first Catholic martyr. In Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, 26th of December is known as Boxing Day. This is because, traditionally, servants and tradesmen were given gifts in boxes from their masters and clients on that day.

In modern times, Irish people often spend 26th December relaxing, with no pressure to cook or entertain. It’s a day to go for a long walk with your family and work off some of that Christmas Day dinner! Brave souls may even go for a quick St Stephen’s Day swim.

Wren Boys

In bygone years, 26th December was synonymous with the Wren Boys in Ireland. It still is in certain rural areas, notably Dingle.

The Wren Boys are groups of men, dressed up in straw hats and colourful costumes, with painted faces. They would go door to door, playing music and looking for money to ‘bury the wren’. In ancient times, the wren was hugely symbolic to the Celts. At one time the wren was hunted and nailed to a pole. For this reason the day was also called ‘hunting the wren’. Thankfully, this part of the tradition has died out.

Nollaig na mBan/Women’s Christmas – 6th January

6th January has many names. Known as Little Christmas or Epiphany in other countries, in Ireland, 6th January is known as Nollaig na mBan (pronounced Null-ig na mon), or, Women’s Christmas.

Customarily, this was a day for Irish women to rest after working hard over Christmas. Men took care of the children and chores. Today, of course, in modern, secular Ireland, household duties are shared (we hope!). For most, Nollaig na mBan is the end of the Christmas period; the twelfth night, when Irish people traditionally take down their Christmas trees, lights, candles, holly and other decorations.

Irish Christmas Phrases

How to say Merry Christmas in Irish?

Nollaig Shona Duit – (pronounced Null-ig hun na dit)

How to say Santa Claus in Irish?

Daidí na Nollaig – (pronounced daddy na null-ig)

How to say Season Greetings in Irish?

Beannachtaí an tSéasúir – (pronounced BAN-ock-tee on Tay-zure)

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