How do you celebrate yours? Irish Christmas traditions past and present

Some of Ireland's most enduring Christmas pastimes ...

How do you celebrate yours? Irish Christmas traditions past and present

Christmas Day swim at the 40 foot. Pictured are Alan Heffernan (left) and Graeme Whelan from Ballybrack, 25-12-2013 Image: Laura Hutton

From taking the kids to the panto to that icy cold Christmas day dip, modern Ireland has no shortage of traditional festive frolics.

Many of our oldest traditions have fallen by the wayside as flashy lights and non-stop shopping take over the holiday season but some have been passed down from generation to generation to remain in some form to this day.

The Christmas ‘white-wash’

For many of our ancestors the four week lead-in to the big day began with a bucket of whitewash in hand and a grimy outhouse to tackle.

This tradition of cleaning the house from top to bottom dates back to pre-Christianity and is often regarded as the pagan answer to Spring-cleaning.

Carried out just prior to the Winter Solstice, the tradition was rebranded as a homely preparation for the arrival Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus following the arrival of Christianity to Ireland.

Wren Day

The Day of the Wren or Lá an Dreoilín is still celebrated on St Stephen’s Day in many parts of the country.

Pictured dancing at the Wrenboys festival in Sandymount is Peter Haran today on St. Stephen's Day 2012. Image: Mark Stedman / RollingNews

The tradition revolves around the hunting of a fake wren. In the past an actual bird was hunted by the ‘wrenboys’ and tied to a decorated pole. Crowds of people dressed up in masks, straw hats and colourful clothing and paraded around towns and villages singing carols and generally celebrating the season.

There are a few different theories as to where the tradition originated.

One tale suggests the original wrenboys came about after a treacherous bird warned a group of Cromwellian troops of an impending attack by Irish forces.

The invaders were asleep and surrounded when a group of wrens pecked on their drums and woke the sleeping sentries just in time to foil the attack.

Another theory suggests the wren betrayed Christian martyr St. Stephen by flapping its wings and revealing his hiding place.

Candle in the window

Leaving a candle in the window on Christmas Eve remains a popular tradition in Ireland to this day.

The candle is seen as a welcome to strangers and a symbol that none will be turned away from the house. The flickering lights in windows throughout towns and cities provides a warmth to the holiday season and may also be seen as way to remember loved ones in faraway lands.

Many families often placed an extra setting at the dinner table - again to symbolise a welcome for any stranger that might drop in.  

Holly in the doorway

The modern Christmas tree is a relatively new introduction to Ireland. In times past, families travelled out into the countryside to find bushels of holy and ivy to decorate the mantelpiece and doorways around the house.

Image: Rui Vieira PA Archive/PA Images

Finding a holly bush with lots of berries was considered a good luck and considering the prevalence of the plant in Ireland, the tradition allowed everyone to decorate, regardless of their prosperity.

Holly is a symbol commonly associated with Christmas and has been used in Yule-tide celebrations for almost two thousand years.
Holly was also once used for protection, and in Ireland’s druidic times it was used to ward off evil spirits before they could enter the house.


Little Christmas / Women’s Christmas

Nollaigh na mBean, falling on January 6th, is traditionally the end of the holiday season in Ireland.

Tradition dictates that women get the day off while the men of the house set about the daily chores and take down the Christmas decorations.

The men were left at home while towns and villages around the country while women hit the town and met up with friends.

The day also marks the Feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the arrival of the three wise men at the crib. It is considered bad luck to keep your decorations up past the feast and - fair warning - the superstition dictates that any remaining decorations have to stay in place for a full year to ward off certain misfortune.

The Late Late Toy Show

Traditionally aired on RTÉ on the last Friday in November, The Toy Show holds a special place in the hearts of many children - and let’s be honest, plenty of adults - around Ireland.

The Late Late Toy Show, 26-11-2015. Image: Sam Boal

Dedicated to showing the year’s most popular toys this bastion of consumerism has taken on greater meaning for many over the years. Regularly the most-watched TV show of the year; dodgy jumpers, cute kids and on the spot bloopers have made for some hilarious moments down the years. For many, the Toy Show has come to represent the beginning of the holidays.

Midnight mass

Mass attendances may be on the wane around the country but if you’re looking for a throng of merry churchgoers look no further than midnight mass in Ireland.

Many churches pull out all the stops with warm decorations, live music, choirs and candles. Many families still take the tradition as a time to come together with friends and neighbours and celebrate the season.

More recently, many churches have moved the ‘midnight’ service back to accommodate children and younger worshippers and - possibly - to cut down on the arrival of the odd overly-indulged Christmas caroller.

Reading of the dead

One of the most famous stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners collection, the dead features a group of friends and acquaintances gathering for a post-Christmas get-together.

 The longest story in the collection, The Dead is often cited as the greatest work of short fiction ever and its Christmas setting has given it a timeless place in many Irish households.


A St. Stephen’s Day at the races

After a slap-up feed and maybe one too many on the big day - heading off out to the races on Stephen’s Day represents a chance to stretch the legs and get a bit of fresh air outside the house.

One of the many pairs of binoculars at the Leopardstown Races, Dublin. Image: Graham Hughes

The Leopardstown races in Dublin attract almost 20,000 people each year with race-meets in Limerick and Down Royal making up the card on the 26th.

For those who don’t fancy a flutter - there’s Leinster and Munster in the rugby to get through on top of a full programme of premiership football.

The icy plunge

For the more adventurous among us Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a freezing dip in the ocean.

Christmas day swims take place all over Ireland on Christmas morning, from Derrynane in County Kerry to Rosses Point in County Sligo. In the capital, the Forty Foot in south Dublin and Portmarnock across the city are the best known spots for the seasonal plunge with hundreds of people jumping off the rocks and strands wearing little but their Santa hats and togs.

The bracing temperatures make for an extreme way to start the day and with hot drinks and the odd hip-flask passed around the atmosphere couldn’t be merrier.

Not a tradition for the faint of heart perhaps, but there’s no doubt its one way to banish the cobwebs and get the appetite ticking over for the big feed later in the day.

St Stephen’s day sales

Last on the list is perhaps the craziest tradition of them all. The January sales have been creeping back earlier and earlier each year so that for many being first in the door on December 26th provides some much needed retail therapy after the festivities of the days before.

This is one that might leave Santa shaking his head but it is Christmas after all so each to their own ... even if it does mean rolling out the sleeping bag to beat the morning rush.