If you spend Christmas in Ireland, you most likely will see many of the same general Christmas traditions that you would see in the UK or the US. There is typically a big Christmas dinners with friends and family, presents from Santa, and a decorated Christmas tree. However, you will also notice some customs that are distinctly Irish, reminiscent of their Gaelic-Catholic heritage.
Gaelic Christmas Greeting
For example, it is the traditional Gaelic greeting “Nollaig Shona Duit!” (pronounced no-leg hun-na ditch), that is typically used this time of year to wish those around a “Happy Christmas!” and to toast in the holiday season.
Advent Wreath & Calendar
As part of the Catholic preparation for Christmas, families make an advent wreath from greenery (usually some kind of evergreen) and four candles placed equidistantly around the wreath. Since there are four weeks of advent, a candle is lit at the beginning of each until all four are lit the week of Christmas. Children’s favorite Advent tradition is the Advent calendar. They celebrate the advent count down by excitedly opening a little door for each day of the Advent, starting from the beginning of Advent to Christmas day. Behind each door is a new little surprise, usually a chocolate or a small toy.
In true Catholic form, mass is held at midnight on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning like many other Christian faiths. At the midnight mass, each attendee receives a candle blessed by the bishop. Traditional Irish hymns and carols are sung during mass. Some of which are in Gaelic.
During the month of December, many homes get a thorough cleaning in preparation for Christmas and all the holiday celebrations. Cleaning house is indicative of the Irish dedication and respect for the spiritual aspects of Christmas. It is quite refreshing compared to the commercialized Christmas that is so dominant in the UK and US.
Holly & Mistletoe
After cleaning the house from top to bottom, it is time to gather the fresh holly and mistletoe. Both are fairly abundant in Ireland this time of year, so rich or poor, there is plenty of holly to decorate the mantles and front doors and there is no shortage of mistletoe to hang in the doorways.
Leading up to Christmas, many families take the opportunity to give back to people who perform regular services for them, such as the postman or grocery bagger. They usually give small amounts of money in an effort to be more appreciative and kind towards others during the holiday season.
On Christmas Eve, instead of leaving milk and cookies for Santa, most people leave milk and bread or mince pies and Guinness, in the spirit of opening up your home to others and being hospitable. Some Irish, will go as far as to leave their door unlocked at night. This is an older tradition that does not bode so well in this day and age for reasons you can imagine. Another old tradition is to place lit candles in the windows at night so that any weary travelers could know they are welcome to eat and rest there. It is symbolic of families welcoming Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to stay in Bethlehem. This beloved tradition continues on today, but the modern version places electric candles in the windows to show friendliness and warmth to all those that pass by.
A typical Christmas dinner is served in the afternoon on Christmas day as opposed to the evening. And the Irish don’t normally do turkey. Instead, a Christmas goose, chicken or ham is the prefered centerpiece of the feast. To accompany the main dish, there are many yummy side dishes, including cabbage with bacon, stuffing, and camps. Champs is Ireland’s version of mashed potatoes, but has a unique flavor due to the scallions they mix in. Usually, champs is served with a cube of butter that melts into a collected pool on top. And for dessert, there must be a Christmas pudding with rum sauce. The Irish also love their Christmas whisky cake and Barmbrack (Irish current loaf) served alone or with their tea.
Christmas festivities in Ireland start close to Christmas and continue on after Christmas, up until January 6th, the day known as Little Christmas, the Feast of Epiphany, or 'Nollaigh na mBean' (in Gaelic). On this day, men celebrate women by giving them a break from their duties, while they do something special for themselves. It is often considered bad luck to take down your holiday decorations before Little Christmas.