In Ireland today, Christmas is the largest annual celebration. In the country, the 8th of December is typically viewed as the start of the Christmas season, and that is when they put up Christmas trees and decorations. Overall, there are similarities between Irish traditions during this time and other Western countries. One of them is having a decorated tree up along with exchanging gifts. However, there are some slight differences unique to the region that we are going to discuss here.
The reason why Christmas is a huge deal in Ireland is based on the fact that the country is predominantly Christian, and they have been for centuries.
History of Christmas in Ireland
The current Christmas traditions upheld in Ireland do date back to the Gaelic culture and religion. Gaelic is one of the languages and customs of the Celts. The Celts began to convert to Christianity in the 4th century. Something to also note is that the Celts during those early years were oppressed in terms of practicing religion, so they had to come up with ways to still uphold their traditions and not get into trouble.
That was during the Penal times that began in 1607, where restrictions were put on Catholics and their practices. Over the next few decades, it got worse, with Catholics getting barned from public, military, and political participation. That left Catholics having to worship in secret to avoid penalties. Most of the laws got removed between 1778 and 1793, with the last gaining done away within 1829. In 1920 there was the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that did away with all the possible remaining laws that might still have been present.
Celtic Christmas traditions
Here we’ll explore some of those traditions. If you so wish, it could be something that you adopt for the next Christmas at your home.
Candle by the window
In Ireland, you will still find that on Christmas Eve, people still put candles by the window. They are varying reasons for that, but the primary one is as a symbol to welcome Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus, as they were looking for shelter by night. The other traditional aspect of having a candle by the widow was that only the youngest member of the family could light it, and the only person with the right to extinguish it was if here was a member of the household called Mary. This practice is called The Wanderers Candle.
The other reason for the candle was to show Catholic priests that the home with the candle was a safe space for them when they were looking to perform mass. That was during the Penal times where there were several laws put in place that would force Irish Protestants and Catholics to accept the Church of Ireland that was Anglican. The other reason why a candle gets left by the window is to welcome those who do need shelter.
Another Irish tradition that is unique to the modern-day Celts is decorating graves during Christmas. They put a wreath made from both ivy and holly. It is also a time when Ireland remember the dead and offer prayers for them during mass. Church attendance is typically highest on Christmas Eve and Christmas, while most Catholics prefer going for the Midnight Mass.
During Christmas morning, these Celtic descendants take a dip in the sea. If you want to take part in it, you can go to the Sandycove in Dublin, where you can join those who can brave the cold temperatures for a swim who are usually in the hundreds. The reason for this practice is to aid charity.
Table with food
Still, on the theme of helping Mary and Joseph, the other Christmas tradition that existed was setting the table with food after Christmas Eve. People would leave a loaf of bread that had raisins and caraway seeds on the table along with a pitcher of milk. Beside it, there would be a large lit candle. Once the table was set, the members of the house would leave the door unlatched so that Mary and Joseph would see the candle as a welcome, enter the house, take the bread and milk, and continue on their way.
Wren Boy Procession
While the basis of the tradition has somewhat changed, the Wren Boy Procession began during the Penal times. The wren is a bird, and they warned soldiers of an impending attack while they were asleep and surrounded by beating on their drums. The plot failed, and this the bird got the made ‘The Devil’s bird.’ The Irish legend also goes that Stephen got betrayed by a wren when hiding from enemies. The tradition that came after was killing wrens during December 26th, but that changed to having a pole with a holly bush got carried from house to house while families dressed in old clothes along with blackened faces. That has disappeared, but the people, during Christmas, still go from house to house on St. Stephen Day, which is on the 26th of December.
Does Ireland have a Santa?
The English name for Santa Claus in Ireland translates to Daddy December and is called the “Father of Christmas,” “Santy,” or just Santa. As in the Western countries, in Ireland, it is believed that Santa brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve, and they get to open them on Christmas morning. However, instead of the cookies that kids typically leave for Santa, in Ireland, they traditionally leave a mince pie along with a glass or bottle of Guinness. For Rudolph, kids leave a carrot. Americanization has changed this way, and instead, nowadays, kids put cookies.
Since the 4th century, the Celts have been taking part in Christian Christmas traditions. They have also infused their culture into some of the practices that you might not see anywhere else, especially in the West. This article is meant to revive some of these traditions, especially if you are part of the modern-day Celtic culture.
1.Ancient Christmas traditions still followed in Ireland Dec 04, 2019< https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/irelands-ancient-celtic-christmas-traditions >
2.Christmas in Ireland <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_in_Ireland>
- What are the 8 Celtic countries
- 16 Celtic/scottish Symbols and meanings
- 8 symbols of welsh gaelic irish and their meanings
- Did Vikings Celebrate Christmas?
- Is there a difference between gaelic and celtic
- what is a traditional viking wedding
- who is santa claus history?