Christmas in Ireland
In a recent blog, we talked all about the traditional Italian Christmas traditions. If you missed it you can read it here. We had a great reaction to that blog and we have decided to do a similar one on the traditional Irish Christmas traditions for all the different nationalities that we see using our website.
Ireland’s Christmas traditions are not extremely different to those found in other parts of the world. There’s lots of exhausting shopping, gift exchanging, people eat far too much and Santa Claus is the star attraction for most children!
These are some of the most widely practiced traditions surrounding an Irish Christmas, however every family will have their own little traditions and will celebrate the festive season in their own way.
Around this time of year, it is not uncommon to hear a lot of Irish people saying ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ to each other. This means ‘Happy Christmas’ in Irish. It is pronounced like ‘nullag hona gwit’. So if you have an Irish friend or colleague, give them a surprise and wish them a Happy Christmas in Irish this year.
A Light in the Window
One old custom that a lot of families still continue to do is placing a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. It is a symbol to welcome strangers and to remember those who are far away from home. Although, in modern times, we’re not entirely sure how well strangers dropping by for a visit would actually be welcomed were they to take the symbol literally!
But the little lights shining in windows does give a warm and welcoming feel when walking through a town, village or neighbourhood.
Decorating the House
Houses are traditionally decorated with things like holly, pine cones and ivy but also glass, wooden or plastic ornaments. Many people place a holly wreath on their front doors. Most people will have at least a small crib (Presepio in Italy) in the house, with the baby Jesus only placed into the manger on Christmas morning.
Natural Christmas trees, are by far the most popular choice, although fake ones are being used more and more as time goes on. Getting the tree is itself a bit of a tradition, with families having a favourite type of tree and often all going together to choose the perfect one. Trees are sometimes bought direct from the growers and in some rare cases you even get to go out in the woods, with the grower, to choose the exact tree you want but more often from temporary shops set up on near local shopping areas or by the side of the street in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Trees are decorated with lights and trinkets, generally the same ones every year, though some style conscious people buy or even create a whole new look for their tree each year.
December 8th, or around that time, is the usual date for putting up and decorating the tree in Ireland.
Decorating Public Places
Town centre decorations are erected and Christmas lights turned in late November or early December.
Streets are filled with lights, some of the larger shops go all out to have the most impressive window display (See Arnotts and Brown Thomas). Cleary’s on O’Connell Street was one shop people always looked forward to seeing as their displays were known all across the country. Huge trees go up in town squares and shopping centres. Cribs are also erected, some almost life size, in churches, town centres and in shopping centres too.
Decorating the outside of houses was a rarity until the turn of this century but has become more common, with some people putting on quite lavish displays of lights.
From about the first week in December you can hardly walk up a street or enter a shopping centre in any corner of Ireland without encountering a group of singers belting out Christmas Carols. Singers are often dressed for the occasion and they are singing their hearts out for a good cause, so if you are enjoying the entertainment do drop a couple of euro to the collectors.
Pretty much every theatre, concert hall, church and school have Christmas carol concerts too.
One fairly new event that become somewhat of a tradition happens on Christmas eve. Famous Irish singers such as Bono, Glen Hansard, Paddy Casey and more, head into Grafton Street and put on a packed busking show often blocking the whole of the street.
The Christmas Swim!
One long standing tradition in Sandycove, a suburb of South Dublin is the Christmas Day Yes, in Ireland, in December, they swim in the freezing Irish Sea. Crazy, but they say it’s fun!
Quite a crowd of less brave people – wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves – gather to watch the blue swimmers emerge from the water.
The Wren Boys
St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, is the day when the Wren Boys come out, mostly in the South of Ireland but they can also be found in certain localities around the country.
“Hunting the Wren” is an ancient ritual and its origin comes from when a wren was hunted, killed and hung on a holly bush. The wren had, according to legend, earned this cruel punishment by betraying the hiding place of St Stephen, the first martyr, by chattering on the bush where he was hiding. A betrayal which led to the saint being stoned to death. In reality the tradition almost certainly refers back to pagan times, long predating Christianity, and is related to the position of the wren as the king of birds in Celtic Mythology.
This position was supposedly earned when in a contest the tiny wren flew higher than any other bird, a feat managed by the clever wren hitching a ride on an Eagle’s back, and then launching itself and flying high when the Eagle became tired and began to return to land.
In modern times, no birds are killed, instead those engaged in the ‘hunt’, the so called ‘wren boys’, dress in straw suits or other costumes and march through the streets, calling into pubs, houses and even local hospitals while beating drums and playing whistles, singing and repeating the rhyme below while asking for “a penny for the wren”.
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.”
(In many parts of Ireland, the word ‘treat’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘great’!)
The ‘pennies’ collected were in the past used to fund a big party for the wren boys in a local hostelry, where much alcohol was happily consumed. This, along with its probable pagan origins, made the tradition very unpopular with the clergy, and their disapproval, along with mass emigration, was instrumental in the tradition almost dying out in the mid-20th century. In recent years, it has been revived though, and the money collected now goes to local charities.
Also known as ‘Women’s Christmas’ or Nollaig na mBan, Little Christmas falls on the 6th of January (the Feast of the Epiphany), and marks the official end of the Christmas season. Traditionally the men of the house take over for the day, preparing meals and allowing the women to have a rest. This tradition has died out a little but there are still many families around Ireland that keep this tradition alive.
Little Christmas is also the day when the tree and all the Christmas decorations are taken down and put into storage.