In Ireland, the first tingle of Christmas feeling usually marks the start of the festive period for people, but officially, Christmas doesn’t start here until December 24th. And while many Christmas traditions are similar to those in Britain and the US, Ireland has plenty of unique ways of celebrating.
Technically, the holiday season in Ireland lasts two weeks, between the Catholic feasts of Christmas Eve and the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, which is also known here as ‘Women’s Christmas’.
On Christmas Eve, people in many Irish houses used to put a tall, thick candle on the windowsill of the largest window after sunset. The candle was left to burn all night and represented a welcoming light for Mary and Joseph.
The Irish name for Christmas is ‘Nollaig’ (pronounced Null-ug) – also the name for the month of December. Santa Claus is known as ‘Daidí na Nollag’ (Daddy na Null-ug), and Merry Christmas is ‘Nollaig Shona Dhuit’ (Null-ug show-na ditch).
The day after Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day is also very important in Ireland, as shops open for post-Christmas sales and horse racing meetings are held around the country. St. Stephen’s Day also used to be called Wren’s Day, and one very old tradition is the Wren Boys Procession that takes place in towns and villages.
The tradition goes back to ancient times when a wren was killed and carried around in a holly bush. The more modern celebration consists of “hunting” a fake wren and putting it on top a decorated pole.
Crowds of ‘strawboys’, dressed up in masks, straw suits, and colourful clothing, celebrated the wren by parading and playing music. They would go from house to house playing violins, accordions, harmonicas and horns, and ask for money ‘for the starving wren.
The Wren Boys Procession mostly died out in the early 20th century, although it still takes place in some towns including Dingle, in Country Kerry in the South West of Ireland. Some processions still take place, but no wren is hunted or used.
On January 6th, ‘Nollaig na mBan’, or Women’s Christmas, traditionally celebrates the role of women. In older times, Irish women would meet in each other’s homes to sew and chat. Although it’s mostly died out, some women still like to get together on the Sunday nearest Epiphany.
Traditional Christmas food in Ireland includes ‘Christmas cake’ a round cake, full of caraway seeds, and one used to be made for each person in the house. Now it’s more common to have a Christmas Cake like those in the UK, a rich fruit cake covered with marzipan and decorated with icing. ‘Mince Pies’ – a fruit-based mincemeat sweet pie of British origin – are also eaten, and an addition to turkey for Christmas dinner, beef spiced over several days, cooked, and then pressed is also eaten, hot or cold.