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Christmas Traditions in Ireland

Ireland’s Christmas traditions are not dissimilar to those found in many other parts of the world -  there is lots of shopping, gifts are exchanged, people eat too much and Santa Claus is the main man for most children!

These are some of the most widely practiced traditions surrounding an Irish Christmas, though of course every family will have their own traditions and will celebrate the festive season in their own way.

In the main image above Christmas lights spell out ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ or ‘Happy Christmas’ in Irish – promounced something like ‘nullag hona gwit’.
Photo by MmMmMmMatt

A Light in the Window

Christmas Candle by Fergal of Claddagh

One old custom that many continue to observe is the placing of a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, a symbol to welcome strangers and to remember those who are far away from home. I am 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.

Decorating the House

Houses are decorated with natural material such as holly, pine cones and ivy but also glass, wooden or plastic ornaments. Many people place a natural holly wreath on their front doors. Most people will have at least a small crib in the house, with the baby Jesus only placed into the manger on Christmas morning.

Christmas trees for sale in Galway by boocal

Natural Christmas trees, usually Noble Fir, are by far the most popular choice, though fake ones are used. Getting the tree is itself a bit of a tradition, with families having a favourite type of tree and often all going together to chose the perfect specimen. Trees are sometimes bought direct from the growers – in some cases you even get to go out in the woods to choose – but more often from temporary shops set up on vacant lots 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 year after year, though some style conscious people create (or buy) a whole new look for their tree annually.

The 8th of December, or around that time, is the usual date for putting up and decorating the tree.

Decorating Public Places

Crib in Dublin city centre by infomatique

Town centre decorations are erected and lights turned in late November or early December – it seems to get even earlier with each passing year.

Streets are filled with lights, shops vie to have  the most impressive window display and 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 malls.

Decorating the outside of houses was a rarity until the last 5-6 years but is now becoming more common, with some people putting on quite lavish displays of lights.

The Christmas Swim!

Christmas Swim at Sandycove by fyunkie

There are some intrepid people who get out in the open air and away from all the excess on Christmas morning, though it can be fairly miserable out there at that time of year.

One long standing tradition in Sandycove, a suburb of South Dublin is the Christmas Day Swim – in the sea. Yes, in Ireland, in December, they swim in the freezing Irish sea – and let me tell you it is MUCH colder even that it looks in the picture! 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 also in certain localities elsewhere.

Hunting the wrenHunting the Wren” is an ancient ritual – in its original form 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.

Nowadays no birds are killed, instead those engaged in the hunt, the so called ‘wren boys’, dress in straw suits or other costumes (not unlike Halloween costumes) and march through the streets, calling into pubs, house 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 result is somewhere between chaos and mayhem, as the video  below, from the Wren Day in Dingle, shows.

YouTube Preview Image

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. It has been revived now though, and since the money collected now goes to local charities, the clergy are much more supportive.

Little Christmas

Also known as ‘Women’s Christmas’ or Nollaig na mBan this 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 – personally I am ALL about bringing it back!

Little Christmas is also the day when the tree and all the Christmas decorations are taken down and put into storage


What Others Say

  1. Caroline Murphy Oct 28, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    You’ve pretty much got it perfect except for a few minor things. The candle in the window isn’t for welcoming strangers (that sounds quite sinister) but for offering a welcome to people who are far from their own home or travelling. It’s supposed to remind people of the inns where Joseph and Mary tried to get lodging for the night in the nativity. That Catholic church still really has its claws in us doesn’t it?

    Also, little women’s Christmas is still a big deal, just not in the same way. Usually on the 6th of January every year, all the women of the family (any mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, first cousins etc. often 15 or older) will organise something just for them – a spa day, lunch in a nice restaurant or something else that means a lot to them as a group of women connected. The men don’t really take over any more, true, but tradition is still there on that one.

    Also, the Christmas swim in Cork is usually for charity. People either go around getting local people to sponsor them, or volunteers from charities walk up and down the beach with collection boxes or selling hot chocolate and tea for charity. 

    • Katherine Oct 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm

      Yes, the candle for strangers does sound a bit sinister! I was always told that’s what it was for though and I know some people still set an extra place for a stranger.

      I am really quite envious that you celebrate Little Christmas like this, it sounds wonderful – go for it! In my house its just another day…. nothing at all. I don’t know anyone else who has a day like that either – maybe it’s a tradition that’s alive still in some families but not others? Whatever you do, don’t let it die out in yours!

  2. Eugene Nov 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    I like the web site, fair play, where can i purchase some Irish Christmas signs like the photo in your web site ” mollag shona dhuit”, i would really like to get the message in Irish rather than the english boring format. Thanks, Eug

  3. Anonymous Jan 7, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for this interesting overview. Little Christmas is quite amazing…

  4. Paul Dec 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    LOVE IT SOO MUCH!!!!!!!!!

  5. Mary Nov 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Great website. Growing up in Dublin we were always told the candle was to welcome strangers.  I still remember the dread mixed with hope that I felt as a child that nobody would actually show up at our door looking for a place to stay. (It never happened) I still do the same thing though I doubt my own kids give it a second thought.  Little Christmas or Nollag na mBan wasn’t a big deal in Dublin when I was young but now I always try to host a ‘girls’ night at my house.  I love the old traditions even those that I personally didn’t engage in as a child.
    well done on an excellently researched website.

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