Christmas in the Emerald Isle is always a feast for the senses. Many traditions date back hundreds of years. Here are some favourite old Irish Christmas traditions.
There is so much to see in Ireland at Christmas; beautifully decorated homes and shop windows, huge Christmas trees, and festive lights. But look under the surface and you will see that there are some wonderful old Christmas traditions that are honoured all around the country.
Old Irish Traditions
The laden table: The Irish people know how to serve a proper feast for Christmas dinner. Turkey is the most popular centrepiece, but goose and duck are more traditional. Spiced beef – a joint of beef rolled in spices like cinnamon, cloves, and allspice – is becoming more popular. The meal involves several courses, with side dishes, gravy, and sauces such as cranberry sauce and homemade bread sauce. Side dishes include Brussels sprouts with bacon, roast potatoes, and mashed root vegetables.
A candle in the window: An old tradition, which is sadly dying out, is the practice of putting a lighted candle in the window of your home. It symbolised a welcome for Joseph and Mary as they wandered the streets looking for a place to stay. It also told strangers that there was an offer of food within the house
Little Christmas: Sometimes known as Women’s Christmas, this falls on the 6th of January (the feast of Epiphany) and is the official end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, men take over the household tasks so that the women can rest, and this is also the day that the decorations are taken down
Guinness and mince pies: These are left out for Santa (or Santy) to fortify him in his travels. A pint of Guinness and some little pastries filled with dried fruit and spices are a far cry from the usual milk and cookies
The Christmas swim: Not for the faint-hearted, this involves going for a swim in the freezing Irish sea on Christmas morning. A popular location is Sandycove, near Dublin, where people meet up to go for their swim. But perhaps the most famous location is Forty Foot Rock, south of Dublin, where people can be seen jumping off the rock into the icy waters of Dublin Bay
The 12 pubs of Christmas: You probably know the song about the 12 days of Christmas, where lovers exchange increasingly outlandish gifts on each day of the Christmas season. The Irish have the 12 pubs of Christmas. A pint from each of the 12 best pubs in your area is the goal, but few people reach the end of the challenge!
Modern Irish Traditions
Some of the more modern traditions are the ones that tourists see on their visits. Ireland becomes a place of light and gaiety, and decorations are everywhere you look. But if you’re lucky enough to get friendly with an Irish family, you will experience a true Irish Christmas with all its hospitality and fun. And delicious food of course!
Decorating the house: The Irish really go to town on Christmas decorations. A few weeks before Christmas, decorations are put up indoors, the house is decorated lavishly on the outside and the Christmas tree is the centre of it all. Trees can be chosen from the forest or bought from the grower, but are usually bought from roadside shops that pop up just for this purpose
Decorating public places: If you walk down any street in Ireland during the Christmas season, you will see beautifully and creatively decorated shop windows, filled with lights, Christmas trees, and colourful gift-wrapped packages. Stores seem to be trying to outdo one another as to who has the most lavish display! A store called Brown Thomas is a fine example of luxury displays
Singing Christmas carols: Groups of people gather to sing famous Christmas songs. Members of the public, religious groups and charity organisations all turn out to sing carols, whatever the weather is doing, and hopefully receive some money for their efforts
Meeting Santa: Santa can be found at his cottage in the Mourne Mountains and you can even see his loyal elves hard at work in the workshop behind his cottage. Woodland trails are there for excited children to burn off some energy and you can meet the reindeer in Phoenix Park, Dublin
Midnight mass: Held on Christmas Eve, this service is always well-attended. People gather with their friends, family, and neighbours to worship and give thanks. Mass is sometimes held earlier in rural areas of the country – around 8.00 pm is common
Christmas markets: These are becoming popular all over the world. but Dublin has a floating market! Visitors flock there for gifts as well as mulled wine, hot chocolate, and live music. It’s only there for the 12 days of Christmas so it’s a novelty. Other towns and cities have their own Christmas markets, with lots on offer and a magical atmosphere
St. Stephen’s Day races: Saint Stephen is said to be the patron saint of horses. These races attract up to 20,000 people and are held in Leopardstown every year. It’s a chance for people to get out in the fresh air and stretch their legs. And perhaps have a little flutter on a horse, just for fun
Holly wreaths: These are placed on front doors every year. Holly was one of few plants that would grow at this time of year in Ireland’s often harsh winter climate, so even the poorest families could afford to decorate their homes for the Christmas season. Traditionally, the wreaths were hung on the 8th of December and taken down on the 6th of January
Boxes of biscuits: Every household will have at least one box of special biscuits, along with the Christmas pudding, mince pies, and chocolates. The rules state that you must finish the top layer of biscuits before moving on to the second layer. There are usually about ten different types of biscuits in each tin, including bourbon creams and pink wafers
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this article. If you have any comments or questions please leave them below.
Have you ever wondered how they celebrate Christmas in other countries? Please visit old German Christmas traditions
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4 thoughts on “Old Irish Christmas Traditions”
I knew that the Irish went full out for Christmas but had no idea it was to this extent.
I love some of the things that they do, I like the candle in the window tradition. Is a shame it is dying out though. I am sure the 12 pubs of Christmas would be a fun thing to don’t sure how many I would make it too though. As for the Christmas day swim I think I would pass and stay where the booze and food is.
Thanks for this interesting article.
Hello again Kevin, I’m glad that you enjoyed the article and learned some new things. The 12 pubs of Christmas would be doable if you had a couple of weeks to spare. If you tried to cram it all into a couple of days then you would be visiting an Irish A & E department!
Jumping into a freezing cold sea is not my idea of fun either, but those who do it say that they feel wonderfully invigorated afterwards. Perhaps they have a point there. Thawing out with a nice pub meal is my idea of fun too
What a fun article! I am of Irish descent in the United States and I love Christmas. I really enjoyed seeing the customs and traditions of the Christmas celebration in Ireland. I would love to visit some day. I had to smile about the tradition of leaving Guinness for Santy on Christmas Eve. Leave it to Irish men to convince the families that Santy really wanted beer instead of milk! I am excited for Christmas!
Hi Scott, glad you enjoyed the article. Christmas traditions in other countries fascinate me. I’m sure Santy would be fortified by his pint of Guinness and able to finish his rounds without getting tired! Maybe you could adopt some of these traditions for your Christmas celebrations, in homage to your Irish ancestry? The Guinness will go down well I’m sure. I hope you get to visit Ireland one day!