Irish Christmas traditions have evolved over many years. Some, like the hanging of a holly wreath on the front door, date back to pre-Christian times. Others, like the Late Late Toy Show, are relatively recent additions.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different suggestions for what to include on a list of Irish Christmas traditions. Chances are, though, that at least some of the following will crop up:
Candle in the Window
In Christian tradition, a candle lighting in the window symbolised a welcome for the holy family on Christmas Eve.
Holly on the Door
In pre-Christian tradition, holly was thought to protect against evil spirits. Holly was also sometimes used as a sign of welcome for the fairies, offering them shelter and warmth in the winter. Some suggest this may have been because the holly tree itself would provide good shelter if you were to climb in underneath it (assuming you could avoid the prickles in the process, I suppose).
Perhaps unusually, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th was traditionally a day for shopping in Ireland. Families from all parts of the country would travel to the capital to do their Christmas shopping.
The Late Late Toy Show
The annual Late Late Toy Show — an Irish television programme — showcases toys in the run up to the holiday season. Watching the show is a family treat with some parents allowing their children to stay up late to see the toys while others record the show for family viewing the next day. Definitely a more recent tradition, but there are parents in Ireland today who remember watching The Late Late Toy Show with their own parents.
Fairytale of New York
Shane McGowan’s rendition of The Fairytale of New York with Kirsty Mac Coll is a Christmas anthem and together with seasonal advertisements like the ESB’s ‘Going Home‘ advertisement have become part and parcel of the holiday season atmosphere.
The Wren Boys
December 26th, St Stephen’s Day, is traditionally Wren Boys’ Day in Ireland. Disguised in straw costumes, boys and girls would chase the wren and use a fake wren to ask for donations “to bury the wren”. Today, the donations mostly go to charity.
Nollaig na mBan
Celebrated on 6th January, Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas) was traditionally a day for women to get together while the men attended to household chores — a kind of reward for women for their hard work over the holiday season.
While Christmas is probably the biggest festival of the year in contemporary Ireland, in the past the Celtic festivals based around the solar calendar were celebrated and some of those festivals continue in various forms to the present day — the most lasting of them being Halloween.