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Lots of Ireland’s Christmas traditions stretch back hundreds of years, while others have a more modern flavour. From the spirit-lifting chords of Christmas carols to the heart-warming tradition of home-baked goodies, Irish hospitality threads through everything we do at this special time of year.
Here are just some of the things we get up to over the festive period.
One of the most cherished Irish Christmas traditions is the Midnight Mass, a solemn yet joyous occasion that marks the beginning of the festive celebrations. Churches across the island are packed as the congregation joins in with the familiar tunes of Christmas carols and hymns, and remembrance of what Christmas is all about. As the clock strikes midnight, the church bells chime, signalling the official start of Christmas Day.
Christmas wouldn’t be the same without lots of delicious treats. Christmas cakes laden with dried fruits, nuts, and spices are a staple, bursting with rich flavours that celebrate the abundance of the season. Popular alternatives, or additions, are mince pies filled with a mixture of dried fruits and spices. Mouth-watering aromas filling the house make everyone feel extra cosy and warm, cocooned against the winter chill outside.
Boxes of various types of biscuits used to be a purely Christmas delicacy, and having such a box is still part of Christmas in many families. The favourites would all get eaten first, so often there was a rule that you couldn’t start the second layer until all the first ones were eaten. Of course, there’s always someone who’ll sneak a favourite from below!
Christmas dinner, the main meal and often the starring event of Christmas day, is a feast of roasted meats (usually turkey but not always) and vegetables, condiments and sauces, with enough of it to feed a local army. Christmas pudding follows, served with either custard, brandy butter or cream, and often set alight as it’s brought to the table.
Inside and outside, sparkling lights adorn buildings and public places, strung across streets, around houses and dressing up Christmas trees. Rich and colourful, filled with joy and merriment, they seem to get more elaborate with every passing year. From chubby Santas and serene angels, to tinsel and beads, pine cones and streamers, just about everyone adds their bit to create a twinkling atmosphere.
Christmas markets, a relatively new tradition, are fast becoming a staple. You’ll find craft stalls offering unique gifts as well as local produce and festive food. A wander around a Christmas market is sure to get you feeling a bit Christmassy.
A colourful and fun procession that takes place on 26th December (St Stephen’s Day) in some parts of Ireland, the Wren Boys procession has its roots in pagan and early catholic times. People dress up in straw costumes to hunt a wren (not a real one) which is then put on top of a pole. A lively, musical parade follows.
While lots of Irish Christmas traditions focus on bright lights, good food and plenty of fun and noise, there’s a quieter, more reflective, side too, which many still observe. Placing a lit candle in the window on Christmas eve is one of those traditions, serving as a beacon of hope and goodwill and to remember those who’re away from home.
On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, tradition dictates that women take the day off and men assume responsibility for the household tasks including preparing meals. Also known as ‘Little Christmas’ or ‘Women’s Christmas’, it’s also the day when decorations are supposed to come down, marking the end of the Christmas season.
Some traditions are a bit more frivolous.
Christmas Swimming – a freezing cold Christmas day swim in the Irish Sea. Such fun!
Guinness for Santa – you can’t be expecting Santa to deliver all those presents on nothing but milk or sherry. He needs his pint.
12 Pubs of Christmas – a thoroughly Irish take on the familiar song, 12 Days of Christmas, except this is a pub crawl across your 12 favourite pubs. Could you make it to the end?
Whether you like your Christmas old-fashioned or bang-up-to-date, Irish Christmas traditions leave nothing to chance. It’s fun and laughter all the way while respecting the deeper meanings and embracing the importance of family and friends.