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Christmas in Ireland: Irish Customs & Traditions

Melanie has been interested in cultures, languages, and travel since her youth. She also runs a YouTube channel: The Curious Coder.

The Christmas season in Ireland is a joyous and fun-filled affair.

The Christmas season in Ireland is a joyous and fun-filled affair.

Irish Christmas Traditions

Christmas traditions vary the world over. The Christmas season in Ireland is a beautiful and fun-filled affair. There are several events, traditions, and customs during Christmas time in Ireland that make it an enchanting time of the year. Though the Irish Christmas does share some similarities with Christmas in the USA and England, some traditions are uniquely Irish and make Christmas there a fantastic experience.

In many countries, holiday events occur before Christmas and continue through Christmas day, when the festivities end. However, Christmas is different in Ireland. The festivities start very close to Christmas day and continue afterward until the New Year and beyond!

If you're looking to celebrate Christmas in Ireland or are planning on incorporating Irish traditions into holidays in your own country, this guide will show you everything there is to know about Irish holiday traditions.

Snowfall at Temple Bar in Dublin

Snowfall at Temple Bar in Dublin

Preparing for Christmas

Homes in Ireland are thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom in preparation for the Christmas season. Families decorate mantles with holly and hang mistletoe in doorways. According to tradition, you're supposed to kiss another while you're under the mistletoe. This tradition is not only found in Ireland but in many other countries including the US.

Irish families do decorate yards and trees as well, much like in America and England. Whole neighborhoods will put up lights, trying to outdo one another with Christmas cheer. The trees are often decorated with holly and ribbons and set near the windows to allow passersby to see them.

Advent Calendars are a favorite item among Irish children. On the first day of Advent and every day thereafter, a little door is opened in the calendar, and a trinket or candy is revealed. Advent calendars are a fun way for children to count down the days until Santa comes.

During the holiday season, it is common for families to give a small gift of money to those who perform regular services (such as the postman). This giving is to show appreciation for their work. The amount may not be much, but if every family gives a little, it adds up quickly for these service workers, giving them a pretty good Christmas bonus.

Christmas Eve

Ireland is a predominantly Roman Catholic country and, as with many other Roman Catholic areas of the world, Christmas mass is on the night of Christmas Eve instead of the morning of Christmas. It is usually conducted and midnight and everyone who attends mass receives a candle to light.

Children do not leave out stockings, but sacks to be filled with toys on Christmas morning. After dinner is eaten on Christmas Eve, it is common for families to set aside milk and bread (or mince pies and Guinness) as a sign of hospitality. Another tradition is to leave the door unlatched (I don't recommend it, though).

A lit candle, decorated with sprigs of holly, is left in a window overnight. The candle is symbolic of the days of yore when candles left in windows would help light the way of any passing travelers. As a candle left in a window overnight isn't the safest idea, today many families use an electric candle.


Christmas Day in Ireland

Nollaig Shona Dhuit (that's 'Merry Christmas' in Irish Gaelic!) Christmas day in Ireland is focused more on the religious holiday than the more secular style Christmas celebrated in other countries. That said, children do receive gifts from Santa.

A white Christmas is highly desirable, but snowfall in Ireland is relatively light, so a snow-filled holiday doesn't always happen.

Christmas day is a time for families, so gatherings are often quite large. Dinner is generally served early in the afternoon instead of later at night. The main course of the meal is usually a goose, chicken, or turkey. Sides include stuffing, gravy, and, of course, potatoes. Christmas dinner is often the largest meal of the year. Dessert is usually a Christmas pudding with a rum-based sauce. Some families have what they refer to as “American biscuit tins,” tin containers laden with cookies. The rule when eating from the biscuit tin is that the first layer must be consumed before anyone can start on the second layer.

Holly is commonly used as a decorative piece

Holly is commonly used as a decorative piece

St. Stephen's Day & The Wren Boys

St. Stephen's Day is so close to Christmas that it bears mentioning. This holiday falls on December 26th (this is the same day as Boxing Day in the UK).

The story goes that a wren gave away St. Stephen's presence when he was hiding away, and he was caught and killed. Wrens have since been referred to as “the Devils Birds.” Because of this, "wren boys" go door to door in what is known as the "Wren Boys Procession" caroling for treats while carrying a dead wren on a stick. Today, the wren is not an actual dead bird, but rather a representation made of plastic or rubber.

Homemade Christmas pudding, yum!

Homemade Christmas pudding, yum!

Fun Christmas Traditions in Ireland

Many Irish Christmas traditions have been carried over from our ancestors, though some newer ones have cropped up recently. Time-honored classic traditions include the Christmas mass, the lighted window, and the decorations. Some of the more modern traditions are a bit more diverse, but fun.

The tradition of wearing genuinely awful Christmas sweaters has popped up recently in Ireland. These are worn with pride on Christmas day, for everyone to see; the uglier, more decorated, hairier, more outrageous, the better. People will try to outdo each other with their terrible sweater designs, but it all just adds to the fun of the season.

In and around Dublin, it is a common occurrence for families to sit and read “The Dead,” a short story from James Joyce’s “The Dubliners.” "The Dead" is an Irish version of A Christmas Carol, which highlights the magic of life and death.

One of the more bizarre Irish Christmas traditions is that of the Christmas day swim, in which you will find people from all over the country leaping into the sea, wearing nothing but their swimsuits and a Santa hat. It is very much like the Polar Bear swim done in some of the colder states in America. The waters are usually around 10 C (50 F) during this time of year, but the surrounding air outside of the water is much colder. There is no real explanation for this tradition, it just is, but it is a fun one to witness.

St. Stephen’s day also has a horse race every year. St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses after all; why not enjoy a derby on his day? It is unknown if St. Stephen is responsible for this tradition, or the crowds of 20,000 or more people who attend the event are what keeps it going.

Perhaps the best Irish Christmas tradition is the one that doesn’t take place until after the New Year. On January 6th, Ireland celebrates the Feast of Epiphany or Nollaigh na mBean. This is essentially a Women’s Christmas, in which women are encouraged to take the day to themselves to relax, shop, go to a spa, or whatever else their heart desires. Men are expected to do all the housework in their stead.

Christmas in Ireland is a fun-filled time that focuses on families, food, and the religious significance of the holiday. There are many cultural aspects of this holiday as well as age-old traditions that make the Irish celebration of Christmas intriguingly unique and generally a blast.

© 2011 Melanie Palen


kirishima845 on April 03, 2020:

im like corona and peas

PotatoTurtle on December 18, 2018:

Now I really want to go to Ireland!

Joe on December 04, 2018:

Thank you for all the interesting Christmas traditions and customs of the Emerald Isle. I'm very fortunate to be travelling to Ireland for the Christmas and New Year's holidays with my entire family. My eight grandchildren are extremely excited to help us share this once in a lifetime happy memory.

We will be visiting the town of Dunmanway County Cork where our grandparents grew up and came to America in the early 1900's.

Junette on June 22, 2018:

Thanks for the info on Irish Christmas. I recently had my DNA done. Thought I was almost all German but found out that I am 47% Irish. Attended Irish Fest in Milwaukee, Wi this year and loved.

Raymond H. Ford on February 01, 2018:

My great Grandfather emigrated from Co. Kildare in 1845 I think all of us still hunger for a touch of Ireland

Chloe horn on December 20, 2017:

I like learning about Irish traditions

Berry on December 03, 2015:

My mother told me that a plate on the table in place of a stocking was the Irish tradition, does anyone know if that was once true?

Jennifer Pena from California on December 25, 2014:

Interesting culture and article love your writing work.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 25, 2014:

This christmas tradition is similar to countryside

torrilynn on December 24, 2014:

This is really great. It's always interesting to learn how they celebrate Christmas in another country. I'm part Irish so this was very useful indeed. Voted up.

Melanie Palen (author) from Midwest, USA on November 27, 2012:

That's so cool! Christmas is a really magical time of year no matter how old you are. Thank you so much for leaving me a note. :)

puka bear888 on November 27, 2012:

Hi i love christmas its my favorite time of the year i celebrate it every

year i put up christmas light and christmas trees and decorate the house with all the things they used in ireland iam studing that in class

and i hope i get an A+!!!!!!!....

Thanks for listing wright back please!!!!!!!

Thelma Alberts from Germany on November 24, 2012:

Hi, Melbel. I can relate to the Irish Christmas as I have lived and worked for a few years there. It was a very good celebration. Thanks for reminding me those years. Have a great day!

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on December 18, 2011:

Great hub. This is how Christmas should be celebrated. With family and friends sharing the spirit of the festive season. Lovely.

Melanie Palen (author) from Midwest, USA on October 30, 2011:

@Wilderness - OMG embarrassing typo! Thank you so much for letting me know.

Yeah, the Irish Christmas is very similar to our Christmas except I haven't caroled in years. Perhaps this year I will!

Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on October 30, 2011:

I love Christmas - as you say it is a magical time - and it is always interesting to see how other lands celebrate that best time of year. Surprisingly, it isn't much different - Santa, gifts, caroling and family - very similar to my own traditions.

A great hub, and my thanks for your effort here.

ps. Irish Christmas begins shortly before Christmas and continues until..Christmas?? Should that be New Years?

Melanie Palen (author) from Midwest, USA on October 26, 2011:

Thank you so much, everyone, for the amazing comments. Christmas is such a magical time. :) I'm so glad you all enjoyed the article. :)

Hello, hello, from London, UK on October 23, 2011:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your hub about the Irish customs and traditions. I love reading about the various ways in different countries. Thank you for the pleasure.

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on October 23, 2011:

I love the various Christmas traditions around the world. I feel our Christmas has become so "Americanized" that traditions are becoming lost. I have always wondered what Christmas pudding was so I am glad you shared the photo. Voting up and beautiful.

Kieran Gracie on October 22, 2011:

I grew up in Ireland, and it was our custom to have the Christmas Dinner with our grandmother, who lived a few miles over the hills. As melbel mentions, the Christmas Pudding was something to look forward to - although we had it with brandy butter rather than a rum sauce.

Our tradition was to have some silver coins hidden in various parts of the pudding. These were the now-defunct sixpenny pieces, about the size of a dime, and we were all told to chew VERY carefully! However, it was no secret that our grandmother always made sure that every child got at least one sixpence.

Great memories. Thank you, melbel.

Paul Cronin from Winnipeg on October 20, 2011:

Ireland sounds like a great place to be at xmas, or anytime for that matter. I'd love to try that Christmas pudding, Yum!

Danette Watt from Illinois on October 20, 2011:

I would love to go to Ireland, any time of year would do! Coming from an Irish-Italian Catholic background, I remember many a year going to midnight mass after visiting relatives. Voted up

jenubouka on October 20, 2011:

Sounds and looks amazing. One of my go before I kick the bucket places to visit.

Carolus from USA /Portugal on October 20, 2011:

Looks like Christmas in Ireland will be a blast!