Christmas may be a major holiday celebrated all over, but each country has its own unique take on it. In honor of this time of year, we’re spotlighting Ireland’s unique traditions and customs. Sure, Christmas can be magical wherever you go, but there’s nothing quite like when it comes to the Emerald Isle.
The real magic begins at sunset on Christmas Eve with a tradition that dates back for many years. Tall, thick candles are lit and placed on the sill of the largest window in the front of the house. They symbolize a welcoming light for Mary and Joseph, as much of Ireland is a Christian denomination. In the old days, these candles were left to burn all night long. Today, however, they’re lit until bedtime or electronic candles are used in their place. Attendees of midnight mass on Christmas Eve also light candles during the service as a way to ring in the holiday and honor the birth of Christ. They then exit the church, wishing each other ‘Nollaig Shona Dhuit’ (Merry Christmas) in areas where Gaelic is spoken. Similar to North America, children anticipate Santa’s visit and wake up early to open their presents left under the tree.
When Christmas day does arrive, a feast is in order. When it comes to traditional food, Spiced Beef is a must-have for the dinner table. Cooked with sugar, spices and berries, this is the ultimate Christmas dish in Ireland. As is popular in North America, Irish people sit down to a lovely meal and conversation with their friends and family after exchanging gifts. Children are sometimes given what is referred to as a ‘Selection Box’ filled with chocolate that is not to be eaten until after dinner. Other traditional dessert options are a round cake filled with caraway seeds and Christmas Pudding.
The bravest of souls go for a dip during The Christmas Swim. Thousands gather down to the coast and dive into the frigid Irish Sea. It’s quite the entertainment for onlookers who you’ll find wrapped in much-needed scarves, coats and hats. It’s all done in good fun and often, people dive in for charity. Some prime spots to catch The Christmas Swim are Sandycove, Guillamene Cove and Portstewart. A great way to warm up after such a dive comes with another Irish Christmastime tradition of Whiskey Punch. Served hot, this concoction of whiskey, lemon, cloves and a touch of brown sugar helps you feel warm from the inside out.
The day after Christmas, the Irish celebrate the religious holiday of St. Stephen’s Day when the Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ took place.
Not long into the New Year, the Irish celebrate Epiphany on January 6 or ‘Little Christmas’. Years ago, this was also referred to as ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Gaelic or ‘Women’s Christmas’. Back when women stayed home and men went to work, this day was a “day off” and men did the cooking and cleaning. Women would meet in each other’s homes for sewing and conversation. As times have changed and things have progressed, this practice is not so common. However, some women still get together on the Sunday closest to Epiphany for a girls’ day. Christmas trees are also taken down on Epiphany, as is tradition with the Christian faith.