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 turn of this century but has become more common, with some people putting on quite lavish displays of lights.

Carol Singers

Carol Singers

From about the first week in December you can hardly walk up a street or enter a shopping centre in any corner of Ireland without encountering a group of singers belting out Christmas Carols, with varying degrees of skill! Invariably the mood is good though, singers are often dressed for the occasion and they are singing their hearts out for a good cause, so if you are enjoying the entertainment do drop a couple of euro to the collectors.

Pretty much every theatre, concert hall, church and school have Christmas carol concerts too.  Among the most popular in Dublin are the Carols by Candlelight concerts at Christ Church Cathedral, while in Cork the Lord Mayor’s Christmas Concert in City Hall is a perennial favourite.

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.

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

Published: November 28, 2008 | Updated: March 31, 2017 | Image Credits

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  • Rossa Lighting says:

    Thanks for sharing this valuable overview. All the topics are defined Christmas that how to enjoy this festival.

  • Tom Sullivan says:

    would anyone happen to know what the Irish did BEFORE coca cola invented Santa Claus? In Germany there is the independent tradition of St. Nikolaus

    • Dermor McCumail says:

      Coca Cola did not invent Santa Claus. The pre modern “cola santa’ as you call him derives in Irelnad mainly from “Daidí na Nollag” Nikolaos the WInderworker of Myra. Also you would have to look at the original melding of the two when the Anglo-Saxons (germans) collided with the “Irish Celts” and other Celtic peoples … while they were not directly conquered by Rome or completely Anglo-Saxoned …. one can see the influences. I hope this helps Mr. SullIvan.

  • grace T says:

    Christmas in Ireland sounds super fun maybe one day I can go there and experience all the traditions

  • Bob says:

    Its great to see that someone realises the importance of keeping traditions alive.
    When I was growing up the house was full of Holly, hanging over pictures etc., and Mistletoe hung over the sitting room door.  My father ensured a candle was lit in a window that could be seen from the road. He would have some type of wreath on the door made up of all sorts of bits and bobs.  He would bring us walking through the woods on Christmas eve to get the Holly.  The Christmas tree came in various shapes  at the time and we always had some type of tree as sparce as it might be.  A Christmas log with a candle in it always appeared on the table Christmas day.  Christmas time has always been my favourite time of year.  We were lucky that my brother worked in a butchers and had the Turkey for us each year.  Christmas eve was special as it was a time when we were told stories by candlelight early in the evening. I can remember one Christmas a man knocked on the door and we all thought it was Santa…but it was an old man that travelled the roads and was known locally.  My father brought him in and gave him a load of food and a few small whiskies. He told us a load of stories of his travels and were up late that night. I don’t think it would happen to often today that someone would be left in. We had no room, but he was happy with the armchair he was in, he slept in it and the next morning (Christmas morning) my Father was up and made him breakfast.  He was up and was heading for another house for Christmas dinner.  A priest called another Christmas eve and was wondering were the Crib was…I pulled one out that was in the kitchen.  After a bite to eat he then asked us all a couple of questions, but strangely enough never spoke to my mother.

  • Mary says:

    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.

  • Paul says:

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

  • Anonymous says:

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

  • Eugene says:

    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

  • Caroline Murphy says:

    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 says:

      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!

    • Moi says:

      The candle in the window was put there during Penal times: families left a candle in the window so that priests (in hiding from persecution) would see the light and know that the home was safe and the family would love a Christmas Mass there. It was also told to the police, etc., that it was to welcome the Holy Family as they traveled, which is a lovely sentiment, too. Remembering the true reasons for what we do is important, too.

    • sheldon says:

      i know it is pretty sinister but it pretty cool at the same time.

    • haley says:

      I’m part irish and no nothing about the Irish tradition. But someday I would love to visit Ireland when I’m older.

    • Maryjo Sullivan Gallagher says:

      I am from Ireland, but live in the US. I belong to a Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians and we do Woman”s Little Christmas on Jan 6th every year. Very fun

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