Irish Christmas traditions have a long and interesting history. Christmas is a very special time of the year for most parts of the world, and that is especially true in Ireland, where age old traditions continue to be followed.
In Dublin every street is covered in the sparkle of lights, Christmas music pours out of every shop and when you walk down Henry Street the street vendors will tempt you with cheap batteries and questionable chocolate.
It’s a wonderful time of year, but that doesn’t completely sum up the Irish Christmas experience.
What do the Irish do for Christmas?
What are some Irish Christmas traditions?
How do the Irish decorate for Christmas?
Read on, because in this post we'll explore some amazing Irish Christmas Traditions.
Table of Contents
- The Late Late Toy Show
- December 8th - A Big Day for Christmas Shopping
- Visiting Santa Claus
- Viewing the Christmas Lights
- Baking for Christmas
- Christmas Decorations - Holly and Ivy
- Sending Christmas Cards
- Christmas Carols
- Fasting for Charity
- Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
- Christmas Crib in the Home
- Candle in the Window
- The Arrival of Santa Claus
- Christmas Annuals
- Traditional Christmas Fry Up
- A Dip in The Sea
- Turkey Dinner
- Selection Boxes
- Tins of Sweets and Biscuits
- Christmas Crackers
- Christmas Pudding
- Mince Pies
- Christmas Cake
- Wren Boys and Saint Stephen's Day
- Women's Little Christmas
The Late Late Toy Show
On a Friday evening at the end of November, the Irish Christmas season is unofficially started with the Late Late Toy Show.
The Late Late Show is a television chat show that has been running for decades in Ireland. The toy show episode is the most watched all year long.
Children from all over Ireland test their favorite toys and share their opinions with the presenter, Ryan Tubridy and their worldwide audience. Fun and games are had by everyone. Children all over Ireland stay up until nearly midnight to watch the whole show.
December 8th - A Big Day for Christmas Shopping
December 8th was a big shopping day in Ireland in years gone by. This was a holy day of obligation in the Catholic church calendar, and Irish children would get this day off school in years gone by.
December 8th became the day that rural dwellers in Ireland would descend upon the big towns and cities to do their Christmas shopping.
Dublin city was packed with people "up from the country" who were ready to get the Christmas season started.
Christmas markets get into full swing in many towns and cities around December 8th. Belfast Christmas market is one of the most spectacular. It is traditionally organized beside the beautifully illuminated City Hall.
In modern Ireland, the concept of Black Friday has been introduced by marketing companies. Even though the Irish do not celebrate Thanksgiving, the day after American Thanksgiving is marked for huge sales to try to get the shopping season off to an early start.
Visiting Santa Claus
Just like in America, Irish children love to visit Santa Claus before the arrival of the big day.
Santa and his helpers can be found at big department stores. Many Irish tourist attractions transform into a winter wonderland for Christmas, inviting the man himself to send his elves and helper to meet with Irish children.
Some of the most fantastic Christmas celebrations with Santa's grottos are found at:
- Bunratty Folk Park in County Clare
- Doagh Famine Village in County Donegal
- Ailwee Cave in County Clare
- Newgrange House in County Dublin
- GAA Headquarters in Croke Park, Dublin
- Arnotts in Dublin
- Switzers in Dublin
These are only a few of the places to visit Santa in Ireland. You'll find him in most big towns, cities and at special locations throughout every county in Ireland.
Viewing the Christmas Lights
Irish cities, towns and villages are illuminated in Christmas lights each year. Some displays are truly spectacular.
Dublin city is a wonderland of lights and decorations each year from the end of November through January 6th each year.
Many people visit Irish cities just to take in the spectacle of the lights.
Baking for Christmas
Christmas baking began in Irish homes many weeks before the big occasion.
Mixed spice was made for adding to Christmas baking.
These dried fruit recipes mature with time, and often have whiskey added to them to help preserve them. They were ususally made at least six weeks in advance to fully develope their rich and bold flavors.
Christmas Decorations - Holly and Ivy
Irish homes are festooned in Christmas decorations these days. Outdoor lighting has become very popular in recent years, and Christmas trees have been popular for the last 70 years or so.
In centuries past in Ireland a wreath of holly on the front door of a home was the tradtional way of decorating.
Holly and ivy were used to decorate indoors, with red berried ivy being a favorite. A holly wreath is hung on many Irish doors for Christmas.
In recent years, decorations have gone up earlier and earlier. Many towns light up around the middle of November. Let's face it! The Irish just love Christmas.
Sending Christmas Cards
Irish people have traditonally sent Christmas cards by mail to family and friends, but in recent years this tradition has begun to dwindle.
Cards were displayed on mantlepieces or sometimes hung on a string on the wall. They became part of the Christmas decor in an Irish home.
Many Irish charities produce Christmas cards which are bought all over Ireland as a way to support these important charitable causes.
Plus Irish Christmas blessings abound, so there was no shortage of endearing words to add to Christmas greeting cards.
Irish people tend to use the greeting "happy Christmas" instead of "merry Christmas." However, this is changing with the passing of time, and a greater influence from American culture taking hold.
The Irish love of music is very evident at Christmas time. Many charities organize groups to sing carols on the streets of Irish towns and cities in order to raise money to help those in need.
Christmas is a time for singing in Ireland. Christmas Mass features choirs singing beautiful hymns and carols in English and Irish (the term for the Gaelic language in Ireland).
Fasting for Charity
Some Irish charities organize 48 hour fasts to raise much needed funds for those in need.
Participants only drink water for a full 48 hours and many millions of euros are raised each year by these brave volunteers.
Concern, a charity that focuses on helping people in poorer nations, organizes a fasting event each year. It is well supported by Irish people with millions of euros in donations gathered each year.
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve Mass is a big event in Ireland. This is a religious ceremony combined with a community gathering. Family, friends, and neighbors celebrate Christmas together.
Many people may not attend church all year, but on Christmas Eve they make an extra effort to join in. This year, this tradition will be limited, but hopefully in years to come, Christmas Eve Mass will once again draw large crowds in Ireland.
The statue of the Baby Jesus is laid in the church crib once Midnight Mass is over.
Christmas Crib in the Home
Irish people often set up a crib or manager scene in their home. This is a reminder of the reason for the season.
The three wise men are kept outside of the crib, until the 6th of January, when they can join the Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Christmas crib.
Candle in the Window
On Christmas Eve there is a tradition in Ireland, especially in the southern parts to light a candle in a window, inviting anyone who may be passing, be they friend or stranger, to stop by, while also serving as a beacon of hope for the Holy family.
If you’d like to learn more about the candle in the window, I actually have an entire article on it. This old tradition dates back to Penal times in Ireland.
I also shared a round up of DIY homemade candle tutorials you might like to check out.
The Arrival of Santa Claus
Santa Claus visits Ireland just like he does in the United States. Chimneys are swept clean to make sure he can enter homes without getting his red suit dirty.
In Ireland, Santa is often referred to as Santee or Santy.
His gifts are much anticipated by Irish children.
Irish children often receive books called annuals for Christmas. These compendium books include short stories, games, puzzles, word searches, cartoons, and photographs.
Sometimes Santa Claus brings Christmas annuals, or sometimes they're received as gifts from loved ones and friends.
They have different themes. Sometimes they focus on a favorite sports team, or cartoon character. Othertimes they focus on favorite movies or television shows.
There's a wide selection to choose from in Irish bookstores and gift shops, so everyone usually gets their favorite.
Traditional Christmas Fry Up
Traditionally Christmas morning starts with a good fry up, a meal with fried eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, white pudding, potato farls, and sometimes baked beans depending on the family.
It’s less common these days as families get more health conscience, but there are still many households that still start their Christmas this way.
A Dip in The Sea
Festive swims are very popular all over Ireland. Now, I don't mean a swim in a lovely warm swimming pool. A Christmas day swim in Ireland means a dip in the freezing cold waters of the Irish Sea or the Atlantic Ocean.
In Dublin, one of the most popular spots for a Christmas swim, is the Forty Foot near Dalkey.
You'll find people jumping into the sea from Howth to Sandycove, and Dun Laoghaire to Killiney in Dublin, and at beaches all over Ireland.
In years gone by only men were welcome to swim in this famous swimming spot, but today all are welcome to take a Christmas dip.
Have you ever wondered what is the traditional Christmas meal in Ireland?
The traditional Irish Christmas dinner isn’t all that different to the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.
Turkey takes center stage with stuffing, which is usually either sage and onion or thyme and onion stuffing. A few different types of potatoes are served ususally mashed potatoes, roast potatoes and sometime potato croquettes.
Ham is often served together with the turkey. The ham is either boiled or baked in the oven.
In years gone by goose was usually on the menu instead of turkey. It was served with potato stuffing.
Christmas dinner is usually a very lavish meal in Ireland. Once the meal is over and the dishes cleared, the table is often laid once more.
This tradition is known as the Laden Table. Milk and bread are placed on the table with a candle to welcome any wandering traveller. In olden times this was done as a sign of welcome for Mary and Joseph, who might just stop by to bless the Irish family for Christmas.
At Christmas time chocolate companies like Cadbury, Galaxy, and the Mars Corp. put together boxes of a few different types of chocolate bars that they sell. They're lovingly known as selection boxes.
They’ll be sitting under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, and that’s when the trading begins.
Everyone will be trying to negotiate, trying to trade that one bar they don’t like in the set for something a bit better. It may not sound very exciting right now, but on Christmas Day there is just something that makes those normal chocolate bars so magical.
Tins of Sweets and Biscuits
During the entire Christmas season, and for a few weeks afterwards as well, anytime you go to visit a friend or family’s house you’ll find a tin of sweets or a tin of biscuits (cookies), or possibly even both.
They are exactly what it sounds like, a large container of chocolates or other sweets that are individually wrapped or a neatly contained tin of biscuits.
Chocolate coated biscuits or cookies predominate in most Christmas biscuit tins. Afternoon Tea is a favorite, and there's a tin called USA Selection. In my humble opinion, very few of the biscuits or cookies in that selection are anything like the cookies sold in the USA.
You might already have experience with the tin of cookies at Christmas time if you had a tin Danish Butter Cookies that got turned into a sewing kit in your house.
Over the last decade or so Christmas Crackers have started becoming a tradition in American households.
With their little paper hats and terrible jokes that nobody laughs at they have been a feature in Irish households for generations.
It isn’t clear exactly when the tradition started in Ireland, but they were first made in London in the late 1840s.
Christmas pudding is a treat that looks similar to cake but is actually wildly different. It's served for dessert on Christmas Day in Ireland.
Traditionally, they are made weeks in advance and hung on hooks, allowing the flavors time to develop. These days most people cheat and buy premade ones though.
After Christmas dinner the Christmas pudding is set alight before serving.
Warm plum pudding is served with a variety of toppings. The topping of choice varies from home to home. They include...
- Hot custard
- Whipped Cream
- Brandy Butter
- Whiskey Sauce
- Irish Cream Sauce
Before you cringe too hard, because I heard you cringe from here, Mince Pies are sweet, and they don’t have any meat in them. They’re a traditional little pie made with mincemeat, (all one word unlike ground beef which would be mince meat.)
Mincemeat is made up of dried fruit, distilled spirits, and spices. Originally, it did have meat in it, but thankfully that tradition is all but gone today. Mince pies are a staple at every Christmas party you’ll go to in Ireland.
Christmas cake is a cake you will find on Irish dining tables during the Christmas season, and you may have even had it at your dining table too. It is a fruitcake covered in white icing and decorated.
Inside you will find raisins, candied cherries, currents and other fruits. It is mostly popular these days with older generations.
Wren Boys and Saint Stephen's Day
The day after Christmas is a special day in Ireland. This day is nown as St. Stephen’s Day in the Republic of Ireland or Boxing Day in Northern Ireland.
In rural Ireland, especially in Munster, young and old dress up in old clothes and paint their faces on St Stephen's Day. Sometimes they carry a replica of a wren on a pole.
Legend has it that the wren revealed where Saint Stephen was hiding, resulting in him being stoned to death. The wren in therefore known as the devil's bird.
People go around from house to house singing, dancing, and playing music. This day is known as Wren Day.
In rural parts of Ireland they will be collecting money for charity. Many towns, especially Dingle in County Kerry hold a wren boy procession as part of this old Irish tradition. They beat drums and dress up as straw boys wearing straw suits.
This ancient custom is fading away in modern Ireland, but it still has a hold in Kerry, Cork and other rural parts of Ireland. It dates back to Irish mythology where birds were held in high regards.
Pantomimes, or Pantos are a type of musical stage comedy designed for families during the Christmas season.
It isn’t unusual to find them telling fairy tales or Disney stories, just with all the Disney parts changed and given an Irish twist. Pantos can be about anything at all, and are full of slapstick comedy.
Women's Little Christmas
On January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, Ireland celebrates Little Christmas, or Women’s Christmas, Nollaig na mBan.
Traditionally this day marks the last of the 12 days of Christmas, and is a celebration of all the women who worked so hard over the holiday season.
On this day the men take over the household duties, letting women go out and meet with friends, go to the pub, and just have a day to unwind.
These are just a few of the amazing traditions around Christmas that can be found in Ireland.
They also happen to be some of my favorite and some are ancient rural traditions I still take part in to this day.
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Do you have similar traditions in your house?
Let me know about them in the comments below. I'd love to learn how your Irish family celebrates Christms.
Plus, if I've left anything out of this list of Irish Christmas traditions, do let me know.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade