Irish Christmas Traditions

My family is celebrating an Irish Christmas this year. Here's what I've been able to uncover about Irish Christmas traditions. What do you know about how the Irish celebrate Christmas?

THE CANDLE IN THE WINDOW: The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas Eve is an Irish tradition that dates back to ancient laws of hospitality towards strangers. The candle was a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they traveled looking for shelter. To have a light in your window on Christmas Eve to welcome the stranger meant that you were welcoming the Holy Family too. To have no light meant that you shared the guilt of the Innkeeper at Bethlehem who said, “No Room!” Tradition says that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name 'Mary'. The candles are usually red in color, and decorated with sprigs of holly.

STOCKINGS: Stockings for the children are filled with apple, orange, tangerine and chocolate coins.

SANTA: It is tradition to leave mince pies and a bottle of Guinness out as a snack for Santa. Children in Ireland are accustomed to finding presents left by Santa in their bedrooms, often in a sack at the foot of the bed. An occasional big gift may be left under the Christmas tree, but it’s usually unwrapped.

HOLLY: The placing of a ring of Holly on doors originated in Ireland as Holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and which gave the poor ample means with which to decorate their dwellings. No Irish home would be complete without holly. Holly grows wild in Ireland and is used to decorate the entire house. The Celtics believed holly represented life and rebirth. The evergreen leaves symbolized life during a time when all else was bare and the red berries represented the coming of spring. With the coming of Christianity to Ireland the berries took on a new meaning, new life in Christ. One charming folklore says holly is put out as a kind gesture to tiny fairies who might use it as a hiding place to come in out of the cold.

ST. STEPHEN’S DAY: St Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, is almost as important as Christmas, with football matches and celebrations. St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses but I am almost positive that is not the reason horse races on St Stephen’s Day have become an Irish tradition. The races in Leopardstown, South Dublin attract almost 20,000 every year. Heading off to the races is a chance to get out of the house, stretch your legs, put some money on the horses and have a drink with friends.

THE SWIM: Christmas day swims take place all over Ireland on Christmas morning but probably most famously at the Forty Foot Rock, just south of Dublin. On Christmas Day hundreds of people can be seen jumping off the rock into the Irish Sea wearing only their bathing suits. The water in the Irish Sea on Christmas Day is usually around 50F. Unfortunately the temperature outside the water is usually about half of this making the experience bracing to say the least. This is certainly not for the faint hearted but is a proven hangover cure and participants often receive sponsorship for charities.

READING: “The Dead” is a short story from James Joyce’s collection “Dubliners”. The story tells the tale of a group of Dubliners who gather together for a Christmas celebration in James Joyce's transcendent tale of the banality and magic in life and death.

SKITS: Pantomimes are still performed by small groups of amateurs and professional actors alike in the days following Christmas. Irish “pantos” are humorous productions of Cinderella, Snow White and other familiar fairy tales. In them, men frequently play the part of women and vice-versa. Generally, there’s a great deal of singing and dancing, with jokes making fun of eminent politicians or celebrities thrown in.

AWFUL CHRISTMAS SWEATERS: This started off as aunties, grandmothers and relatives handing over the most ugly sweaters as present for Christmas but somehow Christmas sweaters have almost turned into a competition on the streets of Ireland. The woollier, hairier and more ridiculously decorated the better. In fact this year I spotted a gentleman with fake robins, bells and fairy lights all on one sweater.

BISCUITS: Every Irish family has a tin of biscuits in the house over Christmas. The rules about the tin are very strict. There are about 10 types of biscuits in each layer of the tin but you are not allowed to break through to the second layer without finishing the first layer. This tends to mean at least one fight a day among the family.

DINNER: The traditional Christmas dinner consists of spiced beef, potatoes, cranberry sauce, vegetables, sausages, Irish soda bread, plum pudding, Christmas cake, and mince pies.

SELECTION BOX: Children are given chocolate as a treat after the Christmas dinner that is more commonly known as a Selection Box, a selection of Chocolate bars. Families are strict that everyone must eat their Christmas dinner before receiving their selection box with each member of the family sitting in front of the television to watch Christmas Movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

IRISH BLESSING: The Irish share a warm and heartfelt blessing for Christmas such as: “The light of the Christmas star to you, The warmth of home and hearth to you, The cheer and good will of friends to you, The hope of a childlike heart to you, The joy of a thousand angels to you, The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.” Or “May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door, and happiness be guided to your home by the candle of Christmas.” It is also traditional to share an Irish toast such as: “Nollaig faoi shéan is faoi shonas duit.” It means “A prosperous and happy Christmas to you.”

Check out the recipes and decor on my Pinterest page.


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