Christmas in Ireland: Irish Customs & Traditions

Updated on January 6, 2017

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 Christmastime which make this an enchanting time of the year. Though Irish Christmas does share some similarities with Christmas in USA and England, there are some traditions that are uniquely Irish and make Christmas there an amazing experience.

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

Preparing for Christmas

Homes in Ireland are fully cleaned from top to bottom in preparation for the Christmas season. Mantles are often decorated with holly and mistletoe is hung in doorways. According to tradition, you're supposed to kiss another while you're under the mistletoe. This tradition is not only popular 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 them to be seen by passersby.

Advent Calendars are a popular item among Irish children. Beginning the first day of Advent and every day thereafter, a little door is opened in the calendar and a chocolate or small toy is revealed. This is 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 to those who do for others. 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.

Holly is commonly used as a decorative piece
Holly is commonly used as a decorative piece | Source

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 the mass is given a candle, blessed by the bishop of the church, 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 really recommend it, though). This could be a part of the tradition of the lighted window.

A lit candle, decorated with sprigs of holly, is left in a window overnight. This is symbolic, as are many traditions, of the days of yore when candles left in windows would help light the way of any traveler's passing by. As a candle left in a window overnight isn't the safest idea, today many families use an electric candle which plugs into the wall. Electric candles are significantly safer than their wax counterparts.

Homemade Christmas pudding, yum!
Homemade Christmas pudding, yum! | Source

Christmas 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 fairly 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 a turkey. Sides include stuffing, gravy, and, of course, potatoes. This is usually the largest meal of the year for many. Dessert is usually a Christmas pudding with a rum-based sauce. Some families have what they refer to as “American biscuit tins,” tin cans full of layers of cookies. The rule when eating from the biscuit tin is that the first layer must be completed before anyone can start on the second layer.

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.

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 newer traditions are a bit more diverse, but fun.

The tradition of wearing truly 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.” This is basically 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 is 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, 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Melanie Palen


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • profile image

        Raymond H. Ford 2 weeks ago

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

      • profile image

        Chloe horn 2 months ago

        I like learning about Irish traditions

      • profile image

        Berry 2 years ago

        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?

      • spotlight19 profile image

        Jennifer Pena 3 years ago from California

        Interesting culture and article love your writing work.

      • peachpurple profile image

        peachy 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

        This christmas tradition is similar to countryside

      • torrilynn profile image

        torrilynn 3 years ago

        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.

      • melbel profile image

        Melanie Palen 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

        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. :)

      • profile image

        puka bear888 5 years ago

        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 profile image

        Thelma Alberts 5 years ago from Germany

        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!

      • phoenix2327 profile image

        Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 6 years ago from United Kingdom

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

      • melbel profile image

        Melanie Palen 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

        @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!

      • wilderness profile image

        Dan Harmon 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

        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?

      • melbel profile image

        Melanie Palen 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

        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, profile image

        Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

        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.

      • ktrapp profile image

        Kristin Trapp 6 years ago from Illinois

        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.

      • profile image

        Kieran Gracie 6 years ago

        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.

      • carcro profile image

        Paul Cronin 6 years ago from Winnipeg

        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 profile image

        Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

        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

      • profile image

        jenubouka 6 years ago

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

      • Carolus profile image

        Carolus 6 years ago from USA /Portugal

        Looks like Christmas in Ireland will be a blast!