Christmas in Ireland is celebrated much the same as their neighbors throughout the United Kingdom and the Western world, but like the others they have their fair share of unique holiday traditions.
People decorate their homes, businesses, and towns with mistletoe, boughs of holly, colorful lights and ribbons, and the traditional Christmas tree. The practice of placing a ring of holly, or a wreath, on the front door originated in Ireland. Holly is one of the main plants that flourishes at Christmas time in Ireland, so it’s common to see holly-centric decorations around.
Advent Calendars are popular among children, counting down the days until Christmas. Each day, a little door is opened in the calendar to reveal a small trinket or treat.
Around this time of year, many give a small gift of money to those who perform regular services, such as the postman, to show appreciation for their year-long service.
In Dublin, it’s a common tradition for families to sit together and read “The Dead”, an Irish version of A Christmas Carol from James Joyce’s “The Dubliners.”
Another tradition involves leaving a candle burning all night on the sill of the largest window in the house, to represent welcoming Joseph and Mary as they wandered in search of lodgings.
Ireland has a large population of Roman Catholics, and as such the people revere the Virgin Mary. There are certain Christmas traditions involving girls named Mary, which at one point was the most popular female name in the nation; the candle in the window could only be lit and extinguished by a girl named Mary, and the removal of decorations in January could only begin after a visit from a Mary.
The Christmas dinner is often the largest dinner of the year. Traditional Christmas dishes in Ireland include turkey, chicken, goose, and spiced beef, with sides dishes of stuffing, gravy, and potatoes. For dessert, round cakes filled with caraway seeds, fruit cakes, and Christmas pudding are popular. Once the dinner is finished, the table is set again with bread, milk, and a welcoming candle as a sign of hospitality for passersby. After the Christmas dinner, Ireland’s Roman Catholic congregation attends a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Each attendee receives a candle to light.
Children leave out sacks to be filled with toys by Santa Claus, and families gather around their Christmas tree on Christmas Day to open presents and spend the day together. Another Christmas Day tradition is the Christmas Day swim, wherein people around the country go swimming in the sea wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a Santa hat.
The day after Christmas, December 26th, is St. Stephen’s Day; Generally a day to visit family and friends, many sporting matches are held on this day as well, including football and horse-racing (as St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses.)
The Wren Boys Procession, or Wren Day, is an old tradition that also takes place on St. Stephen’s Day. The precise origin of this event is uncertain, with several tales attributed to it. But many involve vilifying the wren bird as a traitor, or as “The Devil’s Bird.” During this procession, the “wren boys” carry a pole with a holly bush tied to its top from house to house, singing carols for treats and change. In ancient times, an actual wren would be hunted and placed atop the pole, but now a plastic or rubber wren is used instead.
Christmas decorations are usually taken down on Little Christmas, or January 6th, and it’s considered bad luck to remove the decorations before this date. The Feast of Epiphany also takes place on this day, and women are encouraged to take a day off for themselves to relax, while men do all the housework in their place.