Every family has their own unique Christmas traditions. It could be decorating the tree together, eating a certain special food on the day, watching a favourite film each year, or a million and one other things! Just as every family has their own traditions, every country has their own unique way of celebrating the holiday too. While that won’t come as a shock to too many people, the origins and meanings behind these traditions may be somewhat more surprising. We decided to uncover some Irish Christmas traditions and where they came from. Some are still celebrated today in a more modern format, but some have been long forgotten.
Christmas in Ireland is much more than a day-long event based on religion – although that’s how it started out, of course. These days the Christmas season starts almost as soon as Halloween is over, with shopping centres showing off their Christmas displays as early as the first or second week in November – always a controversial subject for the locals! Events to turn on the Christmas lights on the main streets of towns and cities are (thankfully!) a little bit later, by the end of November. By the beginning of December, Christmas markets, parties, music and films are everywhere and the season is in full swing, eventually coming to close around the first or second week of January. Traditionally, this all stems from two religious dates in Roman Catholicism; the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and the Epiphany of the Lord on January 6th.
In a bid to encourage people to shop during the economic downturn however, it has expanded past these dates more and more each year. Irish people participate in all of the same Christmas traditions in the western world; decorating a tree, giving presents to loved ones, having a family dinner of roast turkey, pulling Christmas crackers, enjoying some time off work to spend time with family and friends, and so on. Many homes also still remember the religious aspect of the holiday by having a nativity scene in their homes, attending mass on Christmas morning and saying grace before meals. There are some traditions unique to Ireland however, both modern and from times long past...
The Late Late Toy Show Ireland holds an interesting world record; the longest running TV show in the world, ever! The title is held by the Late Late Show, which began in 1961 and was one of the first programmes ever shown on Irish television. Over the decades it has had just four hosts, caused several controversies and media storms, and his been a staple of Friday night television from its inception right up until today. Usually a chat show format with a handful of guests per night, at the end of every November one Friday night is dedicated solely to toys instead and renamed the Late Late Toy Show for the evening. Children from all around the country appear on the show demonstrating their favourite toys of the year, showing off special talents, and generally having a great time, while the rest of the children in the country stay up late to watch and pick up ideas for their Santa wish lists. It always makes for great family (or nostalgic) viewing and is a guaranteed tradition in any Irish household with young children.
The Wrenboys The Wrenboy tradition is somewhat peculiar, and stretches back for centuries. It originated with the tradition of wren hunting on St. Stephen’s Day by groups of men who called themselves ‘wrenboys’. The captured wren was tethered to a pole that was carried by the leader of the wrenboys. They then paraded down the streets with it, singing songs and asking for donations. People would attach ribbons and flowers to the pole and give the boys small amounts of money, with which they funded a feast for the town that night – the decorated pole with the wren still on top acted as the centrepiece. Later on, this transformed into finding a hidden fake wren and the money collected was donated to a local charity, but the rest of the process stayed the same. Although it has largely died out now, you may still be able to find a wrenboy procession in some parts of the country such as Dingle in county Kerry.
Christmas Swim One of the more oddball Irish Christmas traditions is the Christmas Day Swim. In many coastal areas of the country – but particularly the Sandycove and Dollymount areas of Dublin – brave men and women get out of their cozy beds in the morning, strip down to their swimsuits and Santa Claus hats, and jump into the (usually freezing cold) waters of the Irish Sea. Why? For the craic, of course! In most places it’s still a local ‘anything goes’ kind of tradition, where neighbours gather to wish each other happy Christmas, snigger at the shivering swimmers, or just get a breath of fresh air. In recent years however donations have been collections at swims to give to certain charities, giving an extra feeling of Christmas cheer to the activities (not to mention some much needed rationality!). Once they’ve been chilled enough, the swimmers head home for a hot shower and breakfast.
Little Christmas The 6th of January is traditionally the day when the Christmas decorations come down and normal service has fully resumed. Children are back in school, adults are back at work, shops start post-Christmas sales, and the new year has well and truly begun. In Ireland, however, it is also known as ‘Little Christmas’ or ‘Women’s Christmas’. In less modern times, women would have spent the previous few weeks cooking and cleaning all day and night to ready the household for the celebrations, not to mention accommodating guests that came to stay over the holidays. January 6th, when it was all over, was a time when they could finally relax and put their feet up. It evolved into a day when female family members joined together for meals, spent the day together, treated themselves and even gave small gifts – like a mini-Christmas exclusively for women. The men, unfortunately, were left to fend for themselves for a day, or even worse, made to wait hand and foot on the women in their lives!
Christmas FM Christmas FM is a relatively new tradition to Ireland that has yet to appear anywhere else in the world. Like most people, the Irish love Christmas. Unlike most people, however, we love it so much that there is now a dedicated radio station over the Christmas season that exclusively plays Christmas music non-stop! Christmas FM is a non-profit temporary radio station that broadcasts for 30 days from the end of November until the last week of December. Each year, they choose a different charity to raise funds for through listener donations. Since it’s beginning in 2008, the station has raised over €500,000 for various Irish charities including the ISPCC, Simon Community, Barndardos, Aware and Age Action, among others. Originally broadcast across Dublin only, it proved so popular that it’s now available (almost) countrywide as well as online. They’ve even set up a second Internet radio station, ‘Classic Christmas FM’, that broadcasts year round online.
Fairytale of New York All around the world there are certain Christmas hits that are played across the airwaves year on year, from religious songs to rock hits and everything in between. In Ireland, by far the most popular and most loved of these songs is Fairytale of New York, by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. First released in 1987, it is an Irish folk style duet, with Pogues frontman Shane McGowan singing with MacColl. It was an instant hit (although it missed out on the elusive Number One spot in the UK charts) and is still the most played Christmas song of the 21st century. The song is about an Irish couple in New York who spend Christmas reminiscing and bickering – something more than a few families can probably relate to. Allegedly, it came about after Elvis Costello made a bet with the band that they couldn’t produce a hit Christmas single. He also wanted them to call it ‘Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank’ after the opening lyric, but the band thought that title wasn’t exactly radio-friendly!
Christmas Candle Another tradition unique to Ireland is the placing of a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The origin of this tradition is again, religious. In the Bible’s nativity story, Mary and Joseph knock on doors searching for a place to stay for the night while on their way to Bethlehem. By placing a candle in the window at the front of the house, the household is letting passers-by know that should they need somewhere to warm up, they’re welcome to knock on the door. In times past the tradition was both a symbol of Christmas hospitality and an affirmation of a household’s Catholic faith at a time when religion was of the utmost importance to people’s daily lives. Nowadays, it also serves as a reminder to think of those less fortunate than us at Christmas.
The Nativity Scene Many Irish families that were brought up in a religious household still hold to the tradition of placing a replica of the nativity scene somewhere in a common area of the home. This includes small figures of Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, an angel and of course a baby Jesus in a crib, all housed in a ramshackle barn complete with cows and donkeys. There are a number of traditions associated with the nativity scene that differ from family to family. They often include placing some hay from the local church’s nativity scene in your own version at home, waiting until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the crib, and even waiting until January 6th to add the three wise men – i.e the day the decorations are supposedly packed away!
St. Stephen’s Day The day after Christmas Day is known in Ireland as St. Stephen’s Day – not ‘boxing day’ as in the UK. St. Stephen’s Day is equally as important as Christmas Day, and both days are public holidays. While Christmas Day is reserved for spending time solely with family and friends, on St. Stephen’s Day people usually go out and streets are filled with people wandering around again. Sports matches are held, some shops begin early sales, and the pubs reopen (no pubs open on Christmas Day). It’s also when everyone begins the usually mammoth task of eating all of the leftovers from the previous day’s dinner! Happy Christmas!