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Christmas in Ireland

In Ireland Christmas is a special time filled with lots of Irish customs and traditions. 

Great emphasis is placed on spending time with family and friends, especially those who you haven’t seen in a long time. 

Many Irish living abroad choose to come home to celebrate Christmas and New Year with their relatives, whenever possible thus making a very busy time to travel. 

It is also a time to indulge in good Irish Christmas food and drink, with some of the food preparation taking place weeks before the actual celebrations.

While it rarely snows in Ireland at Christmas time, this doesn’t impact on the festive atmosphere at all! Regardless of the weather outside, festive Christmas celebrations in Ireland are full of roaring open fires, warm drinks and good company!

(Read more about the Ireland in December here and the Weather in Ireland in December here)

How to say Merry Christmas in Irish? (Irish Gaelic)

The Christmas lights illuminate Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
The Christmas lights
illuminate Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
(Photo: © Flavio Vallenari via Canva)

If you would like to wish one person merry Christmas or happy Christmas in Irish (Irish Gaelic) then use “Nollaig shona duit”. This is pronounced “null-ig hun-na gwitch”.

Nollaig shona daoibh” is used to wish more than one person Merry Christmas (plural form). This is pronounced “null-ig hun-na djeev”.

Irish Christmas Traditions

Here is a list of 18 Christmas traditions that are common throughout Ireland. Not every family celebrates each one, but most celebrate some at least. 

Some take place in the weeks before Christmas, while others happen in and around the 25th of December.

  1. Advent Calendars
  2. The Late Late Toy Show
  3. December 8th: The Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  4. Christmas Lights and Decorations
  5. Christmas Markets in Ireland
  6. Visit Santa
  7. Christmas Puddings and Christmas Mince Pies
  8. Christmas Tree and Christmas Wreath
  9. Carol Concerts
  10. Candle in the Window
  11. Christmas Cribs
  12. Santa Claus in Ireland
  13. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
  14. Tins of Christmas Biscuits, Boxes of Sweets and Selection Boxes
  15. Wren Day: St. Stephen’s Day
  16. Irish Horse Racing
  17. January 6th: Little Women’s Christmas
  18. Visit to the Panto

Feel free to incorporate some of these Irish traditions into your own holiday celebrations!

Pre-Christmas Traditions

Several key Christmas traditions from Ireland start in the weeks before Christmas. 

Advent Calendars

Advent calendars take all forms and shapes
Advent calendars take all forms and shapes. Many of you might be familiar with the chocolate filled type!
(Photos: © Metkalova (l) and Thomas Northcut (r) via Canva)

A traditional advent calendar, whereby each day of December up until the 24th a door is opened to reveal a new picture relating to the story of Mary, Joseph and the birth of Jesus has alway been popular.

Today it is possible to find advent calendars for an entire range of products for both kids and adults. 

The Late Late Toy Show

For many Irish kids and adults the run up to Christmas starts with The Late Late Toy Show. This is one of the most popular and well known television programs of the year in Ireland.

The Late Late Show is the Friday night flagship program on the main television channel RTÉ (Radio Telefis Éireann) and has been in existence since 1962, making it one of the longest running in the world. 

Once a year, usually the last Friday night in November the Late Late Show studio studio is transformed into a winter wonderland paradise of toys, books and all things Christmassy.

Kids largely take over the role of presenting the show and it is a fun-filled night interspersed by song and dance routines from famous, as well as up and coming artists of all ages.

It is one of the few nights of the year that Irish kids are allowed to stay up very late. After watching the show, many kids write their traditional Christmas wish list letters to Santa.

(Usually The Late Late Toy Show is available to stream worldwide via RTÉ Player.)

December 8th – The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

A busy shopping evening in Dublin City, Ireland.
A busy shopping evening in Dublin City, Ireland.
(Photo: © Marudor via Canva)

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary and has often been considered the unofficial beginning of the Irish Christmas season.

While the feast day was not a national holiday, until relatively recently many Catholic schools closed on this day.

It became a traditional day for people based in the countryside to do their shopping for Christmas in Dublin, Cork and the other main cities. For those of you who would like to reminisce or get an idea of how the day used to be, read this newspaper article from the Irish Examiner.

The other purpose of the trip was to enjoy the abundant Christmas lights and decorations and soak up the festive atmosphere. As shopping culture has changed, this day is no longer busier than the other ones in the lead up to Christmas in Ireland. 

Christmas Lights and Decorations

Christmas decorations on Shop Street, Galway City, Ireland.
Christmas decorations on Shop Street, Galway City, Ireland.
(Photo: © Rihardzz via Canva)

In the cities and larger towns, great effort is made to transform the streets for the Christmas season.

Watching the Christmas lights being switched on for the first time has always been an exciting event and one of the Christmas traditions that Irish people enjoy each year. Wandering from shop front to shop front to view the Christmas window displays is another traditional favourite.

For some people, a Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a saunter on some of the famously decorated streets in Ireland such as Grafton Street in Dublin or St. Patrick Street in Cork to view the Irish Christmas decorations.

Christmas Markets in Ireland

Christmas Markets in Galway City, Ireland.
(Photo: © Rihardzz via Canva)

In Ireland, Christmas markets have alway been a great place to buy a wide selection of handmade Irish Christmas gifts and other presents for friends and family in the weeks before Christmas.

Previously, Irish Christmas markets would usually have been held indoors over a weekend, with each seller displaying their ware on stalls. I

n more recent years, there has been a shift to outside stalls, more typical “German style” Christmas markets that are in situ for roughly 3 to 4 weeks in the lead up to Christmas.

For example, Dublin has several of these markets, some with different themes. The Galway Christmas Market is also a very popular one, as well as the Belfast Christmas Market in Northern Ireland.

Visit Santa

The annual visit to see Santa is a highlight for many kids.
(Photo: © StockstudioX via Canva)

For Irish children, a visit to see Santa in his grotto to tell him how good they have been for the past year is another firm favorite in the run up to Christmas in Ireland.

With parents and often grandparents in tow, this unmissable annual event, complete with a surprise present gift bag for each child and an obligatory photo, is a special one that is looked forward to each year. 

Christmas Puddings and Christmas Mince Pies

Christmas pudding and mince pies.
Christmas pudding (l), Christmas pudding set alight (m) and mince pies (r).
(Photo: © Esp_Imaging (l), Linh Moran Photography (m), Calbo (r) via Canva)

No Irish Christmas would be complete without a Christmas Pudding served as dessert after the traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Day. It is a typical part of a traditional Christmas dinner in Ireland and Britain.  

What is a Christmas pudding? It is a dense, fruit-filled pudding that includes raisins, currants, sultanas, breadcrumbs, cloves and other spices, and rum or whiskey as some of its main ingredients. It is usually served with cream, vanilla ice-cream or custard.

What are mince pies? These sound meatier than they actually are! Today mince pies are a sweet pastry dessert filled with finely chopped dried fruit and spices. The origin of mince pies dates back to the time of the Crusades, when meat would have been included in the pies.

Christmas puddings are best made a few weeks before Christmas Day, thus allowing the flavors and aromas to mature. The end of November, just before the start of Advent is a popular time to make these Christmas delicacies. 

In some families, all the members help to make the puddings and each person gets to make a Christmas wish when they stir the mixture!

Here are some great Christmas food recipes, including Irish Christmas Pudding, Irish Christmas cake and homemade mince for mince pies from one of the most famous Irish cooks, Darina Allen. 

Christmas Tree and Christmas Wreath

A Christmas wreath hangs outside a house door in Dublin, Ireland.
A Christmas wreath hangs outside a house door in Dublin, Ireland.
(Photo: © mustafa6noz via Canva)

Many people in Ireland prefer to have a real tree for the smell and authenticity, rather than an artificial one in their homes at Christmas time.

The purchase and decoration of Christmas trees is taken very seriously by some Irish families. Often the entire family is involved in the event, from choosing (and deliberating) which homegrown Irish Christmas tree to buy, to how to decorate the tree from top to toe. 

Typical Irish Christmas tree decorations for a Christmas tree include small silver, wooden and glass ornaments, tinsel or lametta and lights. Christmas crackers are occasionally placed on the tree as well. 

The task of placing the Christmas star or angel on the top of the tree is often given to the youngest member of the family. 

Hanging a Christmas wreath on the door is one of the traditions Irish people have kept from the pre-Christian times.

The ancient custom of ringing doors and windows with evergreen vegetation such as ivy or a sprig from the holly bush was thought to protect the house in the midst of winter. 

Carol Concerts

Carol concerts are part and parcel of the run up to Christmas in Ireland. Many concerts are held in churches as weekend events in early advent. Schools often have their own little Christmas Carol concerts.

On the streets, there may be some Christmas Carol singers too.

Christmas Eve in Ireland 

Christmas Eve is usually a busy day in Ireland. Last minute shopping is usually done during the day and then in the evening, families often start celebrating the festivities together.

Candle in the Window

A single candle in the window at Christmas time is an old Irish tradition.
(Photo: © KellyvanDellen via Canva)

Placing a lighting candle in the window, particularly on Christmas Eve is one of the most well known of all Irish Christmas symbols and is known far and wide. 

A candle in the window is a special Irish Christmas symbol of welcoming. It is thought that this Irish custom dates back to the Penal times, when masses had to be celebrated in secret as it was illegal to practice the Catholic religion. 

The symbol of a candle lighting in the window was to show that the house welcomes Mary, Joseph and Jesus on the night that they couldn’t find shelter. 

However, it also acted as a secret message to passing priests, that it was a safe house to visit and celebrate mass in. 

Building upon this tradition the Irish President Mary Robinson started the tradition of having a light in the window of the Irish presidential house, Aras an Uachtarain, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. A Tilley lamp is lighting round the clock in the window as a beacon to the Irish Diaspora worldwide.  

Christmas Cribs

A Christmas Nativity Crib is often found in Irish houses.
A Nativity Crib is usually part of the Christmas decorations in Irish houses.
(Photo: © Manaemedia via Canva)

In many Irish homes, a Christmas Nativity crib can is still very much part of the Christmas decorations. Traditionally, the baby Jesus figure is only put in the manger of the crib late on Christmas Eve. 

In times gone by, a popular custom on St. Stephen’s Day (the 26th of December also known as Boxing Day in the United Kingdom) was to visit all of the churches in the nearby area to view the Christmas cribs.

Santa Claus in Ireland

Each Christmas Eve, Santa Claus visits all the boys and girls in Ireland. Many kids post their wish list letters to Santa in the weeks before Christmas and receive replies from the man himself and his little elf helpers in An Post

Just before going to bed, kids will leave their stockings out to be filled by Santa (or Santy as he is affectionately known). 

A treat or two usually awaits Santa when he arrives in an Irish house. 

Santa has always been fond of a little tipple of whiskey or pint of Guinness or Murphy’s Stout in Cork.

More recently kids have become aware of the no drinking and driving rule, which of course applies to driving a sleigh too, so Santa usually gets milk and biscuits or a mince pie or two now instead. 

Treats left out for Santa.
Treats left out for Santa.
(Photo: © Cleardesign1 via Canva)

Kids usually leave out a carrot or two for the reindeer to nibble on as well. 

If the kids have been good, then on Christmas morning they can hope to receive something nice, the alternative for naughty kids is a sack of coal

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve

For many Irish families, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is the official start of Christmas. 

While midnight is in the name, not all of these masses are actually celebrated at midnight.

 Many are held at a more family friendly hour earlier in the night around 8pm or 10pm. In some parishes, the Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day mass is a children’s mass in which they can play an active role.  

Some families decide to open their presents before mass on Christmas Eve, while possibly the  majority of Irish people wait until Christmas Day to open their Christmas gifts. 

Christmas Day in Ireland

This is the main day of festivities in Ireland. It is usually a day filled with family celebrations, presents and delicious food.

Christmas Swim

Santa Christmas Day swim and surf
Be prepared to see all sorts of bathing costumes for the Christmas Day Swim!
(Photo: © Davidf via Canva)

A Christmas Day swim early in the morning is a longstanding Christmas tradition in Ireland that has become more popular in recent years. 

One of the more popular spots for a Christmas swim is the Forty Foot in Dublin, but at locations all around the coast, people brave the cold waters for fun or as a fundraiser for charitable causes. 

This sight is one to behold as many people get into the swing of it by wearing novelty costumes and Santa hats. Be prepared to see hot water bottles, flasks and merriment! 

Irish Traditional Dinner

A traditional Christmas dinner in Ireland, complete with Brussel sprouts!
A traditional Christmas dinner in Ireland, complete with Brussel sprouts!
(Photo: © Sam Edwards via Canva)

This event is much more than just the food alone. It is usually an all day occasion from the preparation, through to the eating and cleaning up where families come together to celebrate one of the most special occasions of the year.

What is in a traditional Irish Christmas Dinner? Irish families usually enjoy a dinner of roast turkey and ham, with roast vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, and perhaps even some Brussels sprouts. Flavored herb stuffing along with gravy and bread sauce top off the meal. Goose, duck or fish are alternative, less popular mains for a traditional Irish meal. 

For anyone who still has any room left after the main meal, then come the desserts! These are usually mince pies, sherry trifle and the almost obligatory Christmas Pudding. 

On Christmas Day, the Christmas pudding is steamed and eaten as dessert with generous amounts of whipped cream after the main meal. 

One of the best Irish Christmas food traditions involves setting the pudding alight before eating it (see the center image of the Christmas pudding above). A little well is made at the top of the pudding and some alcohol is poured into it, then this alcohol is set on fire and a bluish flame dances around the pudding. 

Tins of Christmas biscuits, Boxes of Sweets and Selection Boxes

A tin of Danish Butter biscuits

A tin of Danish Butter biscuits is often opened in households at Christmas time.
(Photo: © Oleksandr via Canva)

Regardless of whether it is a box of Cadbury Roses, Cadbury Heroes, Quality Street or Celebrations there are some favorite sweets that are fought over in every family and the others that remain largely unwanted at the end of the tin. In Ireland, this is no different! 

Jacob’s Chocolate Kimberley, Jacob’s USA or McVities Family Circle boxes of biscuits are some of the most popular options. Usually there are two layers of biscuits in a tin. Many families have the fun rule that is taken quite seriously by some that all the biscuits (or sweets) from one layer must be eaten before starting on the layer underneath.

Kids usually receive a selection box or two at Christmas. This is a colorful flat box with a selection of the well-liked bars of chocolate and sweets.   

St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland (December 26th)

Wren Day: St. Stephen’s Day

Wren on bramble

While the robin is often traditionally associated with Christmas, in Ireland the wren also plays an important role.
(Photo: © David O’Brien via Canva)

This ancient Irish Christmas tradition of the Wren Boy Parade still takes place over Christmas in rural Ireland, including Dingle in Kerry. 

The wren, or sometimes called Wran is a bird closely connected with celtic mythology and is thought to be symbolic of the year gone by. 

In the past, an actual wren bird was hunted and killed for this event, but that does not occur any more and a fake bird is used instead.

The bird is paraded on a tour of the town on a pole and cheered on by young boys (and more recently girls and adults too) dressed up in old clothes sometimes with their faces blackened or covered in straw outfits. The wren boys sang their song and collected money from people for schools, charities or for a dance event called “Wren Ball”. 

This unique Christmas tradition is an important Irish celebration in some parts of the country and is a day full of music, mischief and merriment.

(The rest of the) Twelve Days of Christmas

Irish Horse Racing

Horse racing over the Christmas season.

The horse racing festival at Leopardstown over the Christmas season is one of biggest events of the horse racing year in Ireland
(Photo: © Jakubgojda via Canva)

The Leopardstown Christmas Horse Racing Festival (26th to 29th Dec.) is one of the biggest in the Irish horse racing calendar and is part and parcel with the Irish Christmas Traditions for many.

This major social event in South Dublin attracts a broad crowd from many walks of life.

Whether the aim is to bet, socialize, soak up the festive atmosphere or a combination of all three, this is an unmissable Irish Christmas event for thousands of people each year.  

January 6th: Little Woman’s Christmas

A toast between friends.

Little Women’s Christmas on January 6th is traditionally a night off for the ladies and is often spent socialising with friends.
(Photo: © Kokouu via Canva)

Unlike other countries, the twelve days of Christmas often extend until January 6th in the new year in Ireland. In some places, it is even thought to be bad luck to take down decorations before this date. 

The Feast of the Epiphany, which is celebrated on this date, is known as “Little Women’s Christmas” Traditionally this was the day that women took a break after the busy Christmas period and the men were left to manage the usual household chores of cooking and cleaning. 

In more recent times, this day has become an occasion where women socialize with friends and family. A meal of spiced beef on this day is a strong tradition in Cork, prevalent to this day. 

A Visit to the Panto

Cinderella is one of the typical panto performances.

Pantos like Cinderella are performed throughout Ireland between December and January each year.
(Photo: © Msderrick via Canva)

A post Christmas treat and one of the best loved Irish winter traditions for lots of families involves a trip to the pantomime (or panto for short). 

What is a Christmas Pantomime or Panto? This is a theatrical production based around a well known fairy tale (like Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin etc.) incorporating comedy, songs and dancing. It is typically performed between December and January. 

Kids and adults alike are entertained by the abundant gags, slapstick humor and jokes often containing very local references. Cross dressing actors are a regular feature in these performances. 

“Look out behind you!” is one of the most well known and loved catchphrases from the panto.

Ireland in December

Hopefully you have enjoyed reading our Irish Christmas traditions. Can you think of other ones that we have forgotten? Please let us know!

 

If you would like to know more about Ireland, as well as what to see and do during the December, take a look at the Ireland in December post. It will give you a good insight into what to expect!