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Christmas in Ireland

What are the enduring Christmas traditions of Ireland? Christmas as observed in Ireland has its roots in pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations of the ancient Celts and Druids; in fact, ancient calendars marked December 25 (and not December 21) as the date of the winter solstice. It was an easy matter and a logical transition to equate celebrating the day of the sun's rebirth with celebrating the day of Jesus' birth.

Christmas, however, is but a single day of the protracted Irish Christmas season, which commences on December 8 and lasts until January 6. During this month-long season, choral groups sing on the sidewalks, and street musicians regale passersby with traditional carols arranged for harp, flute, or fiddle. In contrast to the holiday scene in the States and elsewhere, you won't see over-the-top displays of Christmas lights and animatronics gracing private residences; in Ireland, it's far more common to see a simple festive wreath of holly mounted on the front door. The Druids valued holly as a decoration during the Solstice, as its evergreen leaves stayed fresh for a good long while; later, the Christians revered the red berries as symbolic of the blood of Jesus.

One of Ireland's favorite traditions involves the candle in the window. On Christmas Eve, candles burn in windows throughout Ireland, welcoming Mary and Joseph as they seek a warm place for Mary to give birth to the Christ child. The candle in the window is lit by the youngest household member and, if practicable, should be put out only by a girl named Mary. After the family finishes eating on Christmas Eve, the kitchen table is set anew, and bread and milk are laid out. The door is left unlocked, should Mary and Joseph see the candle in the window and require a snack after their long journey.

Christmas trees, a Christmas tradition imported from Germany, have made their way into some Irish homes. Gifts, however, are not placed beneath the tree, but at the foot of each child's bed. Empty stockings or pillowcases are hung awaiting Santa's arrival. Since Irish families commonly attend midnight religious services on Christmas Eve, Santa's sleigh does not arrive until the wee hours of Christmas Day.

After the feasting and gift-exchanging of Christmas Day are but a memory, it is time to celebrate St. Stephen's Day on December 26. Costumed men and boys parade through the streets in the Wren Procession, carrying a long holly-topped pole and extorting money from the townspeople. According to the pleas of the parading men, the money will supposedly be used to feed a starving wren, but if the truth be told, the proceeds are duly misappropriated to subsidize a lengthy drinking session in the local pub.

The official Christmas season extends to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, a day also known as Little Christmas. Woe be unto the family that takes its holiday decorations down before this date; it's considered quite bad luck.

If all of this puts you in the mood for a little Christmas shopping, visit our shopping categories on the left for Irish-inspired gift ideas.

Click here to read our Irish Christmas Menu article.