Christmas in Ireland

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Christmas in Ireland
Wicklow Street, Dublin, Ireland.jpg
Christmas lights in Dublin, 2007
Official nameLá Nollaig
Significancemarking the birth of Jesus
CelebrationsChristmas tree decorations, church services
Begins8 December
Ends6 January
Date25 December
Next time25 December 2021 (2021-12-25)
Related toAdvent

Christmas in Ireland traditionally begins on 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with many putting up their decorations and Christmas trees on that day, and runs through until 6 January, or Little Christmas.[1][2] The greeting for "Happy Christmas" in Irish is Nollaig Shona Duit [singular] (IPA: [ˌn̪ˠɔl̪ˠəɟ ˈhɔnˠə d̪ˠɪtʲ]) or Nollaig Shona Daoibh [plural] (IPA: [ˌn̪ˠɔl̪ˠəɟ ˈhɔnˠə d̪ˠiːvʲ]). The literal translation of this is "Happy Christmas to you".

Irish traditions at Christmas[edit]

Ireland is a predominantly Christian country and Christmas plays an important role in religious aspects of Irish life, taking the place of the pre-Christian festival on the winter solstice.[3] There have been traditionally large attendances at religious services for Christmas Day and Christmas Eve,[4] with Midnight Mass a popular choice for Roman Catholics.[5][6] It is also a time for remembering the dead in Ireland with prayers being offered for deceased at Mass. It is traditional to decorate graves at Christmas with a wreath made of holly and ivy.[7] It was believed that if anyone died in the period between Christmas Day and Little Christmas on 6 January, they would enter heaven immediately.[3] Christmas day was traditionally referred to as "Big Christmas" or Nollaig Mhór to differentiate it from Little Christmas.[8]


William Power Seed Merchants of O'Connell Street, Waterford selling Christmas trees in 1929

In the period of the mid 19th to mid 20th century, it was common for Irish households to clean and prepare the house for the Christmas period. This would include a cleaning and whitewashing the home, with decorating taking place after this. The use of evergreen foliage such as holly was seen to represent Christ and his everlasting life, but also has pagan roots.[4] In rural homes, the byre or cow-shed, stables and other buildings for animals would be decorated to honour the role of animals in the nativity story.[5] Mistletoe was not part of traditional Irish Christmas decoration as it is not commonly found in Ireland,[9] but has become a feature in modern times. Along with Great Britain, Ireland saw the introduction of Christmas trees during the reign of Queen Victoria, with their prevalence increasing from the 1840s.[5] Christmas trees officially go up on 8 December because according to Christian tradition the immaculate conception was on this date.[1] Trees in towns and cities are erected in central locations every year along with lights.

Crib Scene, Sacred Heart Church, Omagh, Northern Ireland

In many homes in Ireland the traditional crib, along with the Christmas tree are part of a family's decorations. Traditionally the figure of the baby Jesus would not be added to the crib until Christmas morning,[5] and the three wise men would be placed in the nativity scene on Little Christmas.[4] Family and friends also give each other gifts at Christmas. Some people light candles to signify symbolic hospitality for Mary and Joseph. The candle was a way of saying there was room for Jesus's parents in these homes, even if there was none in Bethlehem.[7] Leaving decorations up after 6 January was considered bad luck, and all the holly that had been used as decorations would be burnt.[10]

Santa Claus[edit]

Santa Claus, Daidí na Nollag (lit. Daddy of Christmas ) in Irish, is known in Ireland and Northern Ireland as Santy or Santa.[11] He brings presents to children in Ireland, which are opened on Christmas morning. It is traditional to leave a mince pie and a bottle or a glass of Guinness along with a carrot for Rudolph.[6] Most big shopping centres have a Santa's grotto setup from late November so that shoppers and visitors with kids can visit Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas.[12]

Christmas Candle[edit]

The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas Eve is still practised. This is also called Coinneal Mór na Nollag is placed at the window to welcome people in need of shelter. Its primary purpose is to welcome Mary and Joseph.[3] In some houses, it was traditional for the youngest child to light the candle.[5] In the period before rural electrification, these candles would have had a significant effect on the rural landscape at night.[4] There are some traditions in which the candles burned at Christmas would be used for divining the future.[9] The tradition still persists, but often using an electric light in place of a candle.[8]

Christmas swim[edit]

It is traditional to swim in the sea on Christmas morning.[13] This is often done in aid of charity.[14] The Forty Foot in Sandycove in Dublin and Blackrock in Salthill, Galway are traditional venues for this where hundreds brave the cold temperatures and jump into the sea.[9]

Christmas dinner[edit]

Christmas Pudding with flaming rum

On Christmas Eve fish is traditionally eaten as a form of fasting before Christmas. In the mid 19th to 20th century, Irish families would have spent a number of weeks in the run up to Christmas "getting in the Christmas", slowly purchasing all the food and supplies needed for the holiday. In rural areas, the local shopkeeper would give loyal patrons a "Christmas box" as a gift,[4][5][3] which often included a Christmas candle and a Christmas jug. The Christmas jug was a china jug full of jam.[8] The tradition of the Christmas box waned after the rationing during World War II.[3]

The traditional Christmas dinner consisted of spiced or roast beef, a roast goose and ham with a selection of vegetables and roast potatoes.[4] The cooking of a turkey is a more modern, imported tradition.[5] They also have round cake full of caraway seeds. Dessert often consisted of an array of dishes, with Christmas pudding a traditional choice, which is sometimes served with brandy being poured over it and then set alight.[12] It was considered unlucky to cut the pudding before Christmas Day, and if the pudding broke during cooking the baker would be dead before next Christmas.[10] Other desserts include Christmas cake,[12] sherry trifle, yule log and mince pies with sauces such as brandy butter.

Thousands of tins of biscuits, which are bought in advance, may then be opened and eaten. Of the traditional biscuit selections available ahead of the festive season, the Afternoon Tea variety outsells the others.[15] Chocolate selection boxes are also popular as gifts at Christmas.[6]

After Christmas Day[edit]

St Stephen's Day would be marked by the visiting of wren boys to homes to collect money for the "wren party".[4][5] It was traditional for Christians to fast on St Stephen's Day in honour of the saint's martyrdom.[3] Both Ireland and Northern Ireland have the tradition of Christmas mummers' play, similar to but different from the wren boys; participants would cite rhymes in exchange for "treats" in the two weeks leading up to Christmas.[10][16][17] Christmas celebrations in Ireland finish on 6 January, variously known as Women's Christmas (Nollaig na mBan), Little Christmas or Epiphany,[4] with people taking down their Christmas decorations. The period between Christmas day and Little Christmas was known as "between the two Christmases" and was a popular time for matchmaking as it was traditionally a period of leisure. It was commonly believed that only snow that fell during this period would stay on the ground.[8]


Since the 1980s both Ireland and Northern Ireland have seen an increase in the number of Irish and British emigrants returning to the island for the Christmas period.[18] Prices increased massively over the period in 2020, due to the easing in travel restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic in both the United Kingdom and Ireland.[19]

Christmas spend[edit]

Christmas lights, Belfast in 2009

In 2015 a survey it was found that 44% will have sufficient money in their monthly income to pay for Christmas, 23% are likely to dip into their savings, while almost half of those surveyed (45%) will have to borrow money to cope. The last 33% of all the people are unknown off their shopping spend.[20]

The big traditional Christmas shopping day used to be 8 December, when many schools would close for the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception and people from rural areas would head to the towns and cities to do their Christmas shopping. The tradition appears to have begun in the 1940s, when the department store Clerys, under the new management of Denis Guiney, offered a refund on their customers' train tickets if they spent more than £5 in the store.[21] With the advent of online shopping and other popular shopping days such as Black Friday, the 8 December is no longer a very busy shopping day.[22][23][24]

Holiday period[edit]

Traditionally, the holiday period was viewed as running from Christmas Day until 6 January.[3] Christmas Day and St. Stephen's Day or Boxing Day are public holidays, and many people do not return to work until the next week day after New Year's Day.[16] Many multinational companies and businesses close the day before Christmas Eve and re-open the day after New Year's Day. Shop and public service workers usually return to work the day after St. Stephen's Day and sometimes on St. Stephen's Day if the Christmas sales have started.[25]

Christmas over the media[edit]

The Late Late Toy Show[edit]

The Late Late Toy Show is an annual edition of The Late Late Show aired on RTÉ One usually on the last Friday of November and is dedicated to the showcasing of that year's most popular toys. It is regularly the most watched television programme of the year by Irish audiences,[26][27][28][29][30] and is broadcast live, meaning anything can and has happened.[31][32][33] The show, which consists of an adult-only studio audience[34] dressed in traditional Christmas attire, does not accept advertisements which promote toys for its commercial breaks but, whilst new gadget-type toys regularly break down during the live show, being featured on the programme itself has been said to have a major boost to sales of a product over the following number of weeks in the build-up to the Christmas period.[35] The attire of the presenter, namely a jumper, is also subject to speculation in the media beforehand and afterhand.[36][37][38] Advertising in 2009 cost €17,000 for each 30-second slot—this compares to €9,750 for the 2010 UEFA Champions League Final.[39]


Joe Duffy's walk around Grafton Street, Dublin is an annual tradition broadcast by RTÉ Radio 1 on Christmas Eve.[40] RTÉ 2fm disc jockey Dave Fanning counts down his "Fanning's Fab 50 Christmas Trance Tunes" listeners music poll on air each year before Christmas, with U2, Touché Amoré and Alexisonfire proving most popular on a regular basis.[41] From 2008, Christmas FM broadcast Christmas songs non-stop until 26 December.[42][43]

Christmas music[edit]

"Fairytale of New York" was voted the song most drivers wanted to listen to in the Republic of Ireland in 2009, with "Happy Xmas" topping a similar poll cast in Northern Ireland.[44] The Christmas music of British singer Cliff Richard is most popular with those over the age of 55.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jordan, Ailbhe; Lyne, Laura (26 November 2018). "When should I put my Christmas tree and decorations up?". DublinLive. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  2. ^ Byrne, Nicola (1 December 2018). "Are you putting up your Christmas Tree today? · The Daily Edge". Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Mahon, Bríd (1998). Land of milk and honey : the story of traditional Irish food and drink. Dublin: Mercier Press. pp. 143–146. ISBN 1-85635-210-2. OCLC 39935389.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h McGarry, Marion (16 December 2019). "What was Christmas like in rural Ireland back in the day?". RTÉ Brainstorm. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Quinlan, Áilín (11 December 2014). "Our Christmas traditions - Where they all began". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  6. ^ a b c "Eight Christmas traditions that are uniquely Irish". RTÉ Entertainment. 29 November 2018. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  7. ^ a b "Christmas in Dublin". Christmas in Dublin. Archived from the original on 10 August 2003. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
  8. ^ a b c d McMahon, Seán (2004). Brewer's dictionary of Irish phrase & fable. Jo O'Donoghue. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp. 83–85, 167. ISBN 0-304-36334-0. OCLC 57213976.
  9. ^ a b c McGuire, Peter (21 December 2020). "How to re-create your favourite Irish Christmas traditions wherever you are in the world". The Irish Times. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  10. ^ a b c Loftus, Valerie (24 December 2017). "15 old customs Irish people used to follow at Christmas time". Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  11. ^ Elkin, David (13 December 2016). "'Santy' is the correct name for Santa Claus and we should all just agree this Christmas". Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  12. ^ a b c Byron, Susan. "Christmas in Ireland lasts from the 8th of December until the 6th of January!". Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  13. ^ "Christmas swim". Gorey Guardian. 16 December 2009. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 23 December 2009.
  14. ^ "Christmas swim". The Sligo Champion. 9 December 2009. Retrieved 23 December 2009.
  15. ^ Morahan, George (24 November 2019). "1m Jacob's biscuits, 839,682 bags of Tayto: the brands we're buying this Christmas". Retrieved 24 November 2019. Ireland's largest wholesaler forecasts sales of 20,000 tins of Jacob's biscuits, including a million individual biscuits, with Afternoon Tea Tin (351,658 biscuits), Chocolate Kimberleys (133,200) and USA biscuits (227,000) the most popular.
  16. ^ a b Santino, Jack (1998). The hallowed eve : dimensions of culture in a calendar festival in Northern Ireland. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 4, 37–39. ISBN 978-0-8131-4994-3. OCLC 606994436.
  17. ^ Green, E. R. R. (1946). "Christmas Rhymers and Mummers". Ulster Journal of Archaeology. 9: 3–21. ISSN 0082-7355. JSTOR 20566492.
  18. ^ Ní Laoire, Caitríona (1 July 2007). "The 'green green grass of home'? Return migration to rural Ireland". Journal of Rural Studies. The Changing Faces of Rural Populations. 23 (3): 332–344. doi:10.1016/j.jrurstud.2007.01.005. ISSN 0743-0167.
  19. ^ Calder, Simon (26 November 2020). "Northern Ireland air fares soar by up to 600% ahead of 'Christmas Ease'". The Independent. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  20. ^ Brennan, Cianan. "The average Irish person will spend almost €600 this Christmas". Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  21. ^ Bradley, Lara (9 December 2018). "December 8th no longer sacred for festive shopping". Irish Independent. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  22. ^ "Christmas in Ireland". Christmas guide to Ireland. Retrieved 20 November 2012.
  23. ^ O'Sullivan, Claire (8 December 2012). "Busiest shopping day 'now like any other'". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  24. ^ Mullally, Una (8 December 2019). "December 8th: The day when people 'from the country' came to Dublin to shop". The Irish Times. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  25. ^ "That time of year: Irish Christmas traditions past and present". Newstalk. 19 December 2017. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
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  27. ^ "RTE seeks new deal for Late Late Show". The Sunday Business Post. 18 May 2008. Archived from the original on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 24 November 2008.
  28. ^ "'Late Late Toy Show' tops annual ratings". 3 December 2007. Retrieved 24 November 2008.
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  30. ^ "Magical Figures for Ryan's first Late Late Toy Show". RTÉ Press Centre. 30 November 2009. Retrieved 2 December 2009.[permanent dead link]
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  32. ^ Hogan, Louise (2 November 2007). "Children's world is pink and blue, says survey". Irish Independent. Archived from the original on 2 August 2012. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
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  36. ^ Hanafin, Will (14 December 2006). "Party through the pain". Irish Independent. Archived from the original on 3 August 2012. Retrieved 15 November 2008.
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  40. ^ "Joe Duffy's Christmas Eve on Grafton Street". RTÉ. 24 December 2009. Archived from the original on 18 January 2010. Retrieved 24 December 2009.
  41. ^ "U2 hit is still the One to top Dave's Fab 50". Evening Herald. 22 December 2009. Archived from the original on 18 February 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2009.
  42. ^ "Christmas FM to air holiday tunes for Dublin". Hot Press. 3 December 2008. Retrieved 19 December 2008.
  43. ^ "Christmas FM to be launched by Shakin' Stevens". Evening Herald. 21 November 2008. Archived from the original on 3 August 2012. Retrieved 19 December 2008.
  44. ^ a b Peter Woodman (21 December 2009). "Fairytale of New York tops list of drivers' Christmas songs". Evening Herald. Archived from the original on 17 February 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2009.