The big clean-up

For many of our ancestors, Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) began with a bucket of whitewash in hand. This annual painting of outhouses was one of the most popular of rural Irish Christmas traditions. It was carried out mainly by the men folk while the women scrubbed the interiors.

It dates back to pre-Christianity and is generally regarded as the ancient version of spring-cleaning, carried out prior to the Winter Solstice when daylight hours shrink to just under seven and a half hours. With the arrival of Christianity the tradition was rebranded as a homely preparation for the arrival of Mary, Joseph and the new-born baby, Jesus.


Some say that this whitewashing tradition continues in some rural areas.  Where it may survive in spirit is in the understandable desire to make the home clean and comfortable for family and friends who will visit during the holiday.


Candle at the window.

This is one of the most well-observed of Irish Christmas traditions and has changed little over the years except in its increasing popularity. Just one candle used to be placed in a window as a sign of welcome for Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve but it is common these days to see lit candles, usually electrically powered, in all downstairs street-facing windows throughout the festive season. In some homes they are also placed in upstairs windows.


Sprig of holly with red berries


A holly wreath remains a popular front-door adornment and dates back to the days when most of our ancestors would have decorated their home with this freely available plant.


The tree and the tinsel

Decorating a tree in the dead of winter was a Pagan custom that has survived with little variation except that the dressed tree (now draped in tinsel) makes its appearance earlier and earlier each year! As with the rest of the decorations, they are now put up in many homes and offices at the beginning of December and remain in place until the 6th January.

This business of decorating the home with tinsel, fairy lights and festive ornament is a relatively recent phenomenon (especially when they are festooned all over the front of a house). Before the 20th century, it was only shops, churches, and the homes of the gentry that were decorated so lavishly. The ordinary family made do with holly and mistletoe.

Irish Christmas cards

The sending and receiving of festive greetings in paper format is hugely popular in Ireland. It isn't the oldest of Irish Christmas traditions by any means but there's an element to it — the inclusion of a long newsy letter, often with some recent photos — that I imagine is a throw back to the days of mass-emigration from the island.

Back then, a letter from a long-separated family member would have been the season's best present. A card, possibly bearing some essence of the foreign land from which it was sent, would have added an exotic touch.

The card would be placed on public display while the letter would be stored safely but readily available for regular re-readings.

Today, Irish Christmas cards are big business with cards exchanged between work colleagues, neighbours and friends, as well as family members near and far. And the Christmas letter is still well-practised in Ireland.


 The crib


A Christmas crib

For children, it was a treat to help set it up and to choose where to place the shepherds, the sheep and the donkey.

The placing of Mary, Joseph and the baby, Jesus, didn't require much creative direction, however. They got centre-stage on the straw-strewn miniature stable. Obviously.

I have a feeling that the crib in the home is one of the Irish Christmas traditions that may be on the wane. Not because the religious element of the festivities has been lost; Christmas remains essentially a religious holiday in Ireland.

Perhaps the little crib is considered clutter in homes that are often chock-a-block with people, presents, decorations and food at this time of the year.

Whether or not the crib-at-home is losing favour, there are often larger-scale cribs atmospherically lit up in town centres and there is certainly always one in every Roman Catholic church.


Midnight mass

Attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is probably the most widely practised of all Irish Christmas traditions. Usually the church will be crammed to the rafters with the largest single congregations of the year and it is a particulary social occasion, as families that have come together for the holiday meet friends and neighbours they may not have seen for a year.

Although midnight mass is a religious occasion, it is one that non-religious folk sometimes attend because they enjoy the chance to sing some carols, often accompanied by live music, to exchange Christmas greetings and to play their part in their local community.


In Ireland, Christmas cards and decorations in the shops might be seen as early as October, but the practice of decorating trees began late, mainly in the sixties with the advent of television. The ornamentation is similar to that in the U.S.--colored lights, tinsel "icicles," colored balls, etc. with the most popular treetop ornaments being a star or an angel.

Homes were decorated long before trees. Typical embellishments include garlands, candles, holly and ivy. Wreaths may be hung on the door. Some homes might display a miniature creche. Irish homes typically have a candle in the window to light the way for the Christ Child. Often the task of lighting the Christmas Eve candle falls upon the head of household. Additionally, an Advent calendar and candles add a nice touch. Decorations remain up until Epiphany, January 6.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve in Ireland has been a fast day, so it's not surprising that the evening meal (for many, the only meal of the day) of choice is fish. Even though this custom is less stringently observed today, our sample Christmas Eve menu returns to that tradition. Customs change, depending upon the area in which one lives, whether city or countryside, so the gathering of holly and boughs might not be as easily accomplished in one place as the other. Still, there is much one can do to recreate the traditional Irish Christmas Eve no matter where one lives.

Light food is in order for the observance of the occasion and in anticipation of the feasting to begin the following day, yet the meal is festive enough to be very special.

First lay the table with a nice fabric runner and use cloth napkins and candles--always a decorative touch. A large fat pillar with a homemade wreath of holly would be an appropriate centerpiece. In the countryside, the Christmas Eve meal was taken in the kitchen, so informality is the keynote.

If holly and fir branches have been gathered, you may want to decorate the windowsill with small boughs and a candle to light for the Holy Family. Today, single electric candles work well for all-night burning and are much safer. In some homes, a lighted candle is place in every window, in others, only one window has the candle. The significance is to show the Holy Family they are welcome in that particular house. In the countryside, it was often common for the children to be taken up on a hill to observe the many lighted candles in the windows of houses.

The evening menu traditionally is creamed fish with creamed potatoes. Though traditionally a fast day, the fast rarely lasted until midnight. After the decorations were completed and the candles lit, it was time for hot tea, punch or other beverage, and the cutting of the Christmas cake which signaled the beginning of Christmas proper. Thus fed, the family might sit around the fire until time for night prayers and bed. In Ireland the holy significance of the occasion is never lost.


For centuries it has been a practice in Irish villages to set the kitchen table after the evening meal on Christmas Eve. On it is a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door is left unlatched. Thus, hospitality is extended to the Holy Family or to any traveler that might be on the road. Also it is said that the candles were "kindled to guide the angels who on Christmas night direct the New Born from the Heavens".

The story of the abiding religious faith to which this nation has clung to so strongly for centuries is reflected in the symbolism of the lighted candle in the window, which spells out the simple beauty of the the Christmas story.

This flickering symbol also served as a signal in times past to any priest seeking shelter and protection that he was welcome in this house and that it was safe to say Mass there.

Candle lighting at this time can also be traced back to antiquity, to the time when ancient Romans lighted candles at the midwinter festival to signify the return of the sun's light after the winter solstice.


Christmas Eve

This is the day for final household preparations and decorating the interior of the house. For our rural ancestors, the decorations were gathered by the children of the house from lanes and woods nearby. Dressing the fir tree on Christmas Eve is a mid-20th century development of this tradition.


Galway Cathedral, Winter 2010.

In practice, many, if not most, modern homes have had their tree in full celebration gear for a week or three and it is already the main focus of the family's living room. Wrapped presents collect beneath it.

If it hasn't already been done, lit candles are placed in windows as dark falls. Again, this is an old tradition, symbolic of lighting the way for Mary and Joseph. Welcoming refreshments are also left out for them. Traditionally this is a small seed cake and drink. Many Irish families still go through this little ritual, but many more leave out a mince pie, glass of whiskey and a carrot, intended for Santy and his reindeer who bring gifts for children (good ones only) during the dead of night.

One of the most prevailing traditions of Christmas in Ireland is Midnight Mass and most churches are packed on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day


Lavish table arrangement for Christmas

Children discover their gifts from Santy (not Father Christmas, not Santa Claus) at the foot of their beds or beneath the Christmas Tree (depending on family tradition) on this morning.

Morning is also the time when most of the madcap swims take place around the freezing coast. Most of these are organised for charity and the individuals taking part are sponsored to take their chilly dips.

The rest of the day is spent exchanging gifts, eating an extravagant feast of traditional Irish Christmas recipes and generally indulging the palate. Making merry usually involvesdrinking seasonal concoctions such as mulled wine, Irish cream, whiskey, sherry and champagne.

Christmas Day in Ireland remains primarily a family occasion. 

The feast of St Stephen

The 26th December is known as St Stephen's Day in Ireland. In Northern Ireland it's also known as Boxing Day. In most homes it is a sociable day, when visitors may call in to share some seasonal foods or liquid (usually alcoholic) refreshments.

Sport is also high on the menu throughout the twelve days of Christmas in Ireland and several horseracing meetings start on St Stephens. But there's no need to attend the track. People have a few bob each way on the horses at their own family gatherings.

St Stephens is also the day when a purely Irish phenomenon can be witnessed: the tradition of Hunting the Wren. This is when the Wren Boys take to the streets in colourful costumes and masks, and noisily parade a dead wren on a decorated pole. It's a strange tradition and its origins are often debated. Some say it originated in Pagan times. Others from the Viking invasion. Most opt for a simplified religious reference: the betrayal by a wren of St Stephen who was hiding from the Romans who subsequently killed him for his Christian beliefs.


Wren on tree branch

This, then, gave the reason for hunting down the wren, and in olden days a bird was, indeed, captured and killed. The Wren Boys would then carry the dead bird on a pole from house to house and beg for money to bury the 'evil bird'.


Hunting the Wren on St Stephen's is
a purely Irish phenomenon

At each house they would sing their song: 

The Wran. The Wran. The king of birds
on St Stephen's Day it was caught in the furze.
Although he is tiny, his family is great.
Put your hand in your pocket and give us a treat.

On Christmas Day I turned the spit.
I burned my finger, I feel it yet, 
so up with the kettle and down with the pan; 
oh, give me a penny to bury the Wran.

Over time, and probably in only a few isolated instances, the mischievous antics of some Wren Boys grew increasingly boistrous and disorderly. Many remember being terrified of the Wren Boys when growing up, and were convinced they would take them away if they found them. Many admit being rather glad when the tradition started to wane.

It used to be celebrated in towns and villages everywhere, but is now observed in only a few locations (mostly in the southwest and Dublin), and is a much more organised affair than it used to be. Instead of running amok, the Wren Boys parade through the streets with music and collect money for charity from spectators and from the many pubs and bars they visit on their way. 

Epiphany or 'Little Christmas'

The 6th January,or the feast of the Epiphany, commemorates the arrival of the three Kings or Wise Men at crib. It is the final day of Christmas in Ireland and is the time when all seasonal decorations have to be taken down. Failure to do so results in bad luck, so the superstition goes, unless you leave them up for a full twelve months!

This day is also known as Little Christmas in Ireland. In Irish, Nollaig na mBan, means Women's Christmas. Traditionally, the woman of the house was given a day off after the twelve days of cooking and acting the hostess. Instead, the men would take over family responsibilities while the women went out with their friends. It was probably the only day of the year when the local bar would be full of women rather than men.

Sadly, this is another tradition of Christmas in Ireland that is dying out. There have been attempts to revive it, and some restaurants, bars and hotels still try to entice groups of female friends with special deals. However, in a society where so many women now work outside the home and are economically independent, it seems destined to quietly fade away. What a shame.



I readily confess that I'm no mathematician but I count 14 days, not 12 days, from 24 December to 6 January inclusive.

Apparently there are reasons for this confusion about the Twelve Days of Christmas. They are to do with Eastern and Western Christian religious observances, and a habit of counting nights as days. All very complicated, and not of any relevance to celebrating Christmas in Ireland!

Just accept that whenever the festive partying starts, it ends on the 6th!




Christmas in Ireland : markets

In the 18th and 19th centuries, The Margadh Mor – the Big Market – kickstarted the countdown to Christmas in Ireland.

Its alternative name – the Live market – was perhaps a better description because this is where the fowl (turkeys, goose, hens) were sold alive.

In the third week, the Dead Market took place. You can work out why. At this market, too, were bought new clothes, whiskey, sweets, tobacco and all the ingredients for a Christmas pudding.

The latter, which bears little resemblence to the modern Irish plumb pudding, was boiled on Christmas Eve after the home had been decorated with laurel, holly and ivy.


To our ancestors, Irish Christmas recipes didn't come in beautiful books filled with pretty pictures. They didn't need to. The winter festival was a time to celebrate using cooking methods that had been handed down, usually orally, through the generations.

Geese, ducks, great sides of beef, sheep and pork were turned on the roasting spit in the halls of chieftains in early Christian and medieval times.

In later centuries, the spit had become the kitchen oven and, by the late 18th century, vegetables and fruits began to feature more heavily on the table during the Irish Christmas.

Recipes using beef suet, mixed dried fruit and whiskey in cakes and puddings – not terribly dissimilar to those that make an appearance on our modern festive tables every year – started to acquire a seasonal status.

Preparations began weeks in advance for these cakes and puddings. 

So, too, did the slaughter of cattle and pigs. The latter were shared out with others.

While the majority poor simply shared with their immediate family and neighbours, the traditional division among the gentry in the early 19th century was as follows:
  • The head, tongue and feet: the blacksmith
  • the small ribs attached to the hindquarters: the tailor;
  • the kidneys: the doctor
  • the udder: the harper
  • the liver: carpenter
  • the marrowbone: the odd-job man
  • the heart: the cowherd
  • a choice piece each: the midwife and the stableman
  • black puddings and sausages: the ploughman.


To the gentry of Ireland, Christmas food meant enormous feasts of meats, fishes, vegetables, rich creamy sauces and all manner of sweet delicacies washed down with copious quantities of alcoholic refreshments.

But to the majority of our ancestors, Irish Christmas recipes produced rather more hearty fare. While they were less rich than the foods enjoyed by those further up the social ladder, they were nonetheless exceptionally luxurious to the palate of a population that lived at subsistence level (or worse) for much of the year.




Just some of the traditions that make's Ireland special at Christmas

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 for week. 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 friend and get in touch with the local community at Christmas.

2. Horse races on St. Stephen’s Day

St. 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 Leopardtown, 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 is 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 gather 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, carollers can be heard on more main streets over Christmas raising money for charity. It 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 layer. 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 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 household as they are  lit up like Rockerfeller Centre.

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 and dreadful weather 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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