A trip to Ireland is the ultimate of Irish gifts for many, but if you can’t be here, we’ll try to bring a bit of Ireland to you by explaining a traditional Irish Christmas. In some ways it is the same as in most places. Houses decorated. Excited children awake at the crack of dawn, eager to see what Santa Claus brought. Family gathering for a special meal, some relatives grinning and bearing certain other relatives. Religious services. Polar plunges. But an Irish Christmas as a few differences that make it very special.
For starters, it isn’t only homes that are decorated. Cities and towns go all out, not just the stores. Even small villages have lights strung across the main street and a huge tree in the square. Life slows down across the country from mid-December. Between the intense prep for the big day and short winter days, it feels natural to ease off some areas of life. Solstice is just a few days before Christmas, so people are leaving for work in the dark and returning home in the dark. Those festive lights really help keep everyone’s spirits up!
Candles in the window are one of the most touching Christmas light traditions is seen at homes – including the presidential residence Áras an Uachtaráin in the Phoenix Park. They represent the welcome for loved ones returning home – and the longing for those who can’t make it. They link into Ireland’s long history of emigration and express our collective yearning to be with those who aren’t here.
Christmas takes its time in Ireland. The 24th and 26th of December are not business as usual here, although retail and pubs can be very busy on Christmas Eve. The 26th is St Stephen’s Day, a public holiday rich in tradition. Once, boys literally hunted wren and went around collecting coins for a party, but today the ‘wren hunt’ is symbolic and any collecting of funds is usually for charity. It’s also a day to visit those loved ones we didn’t see on Christmas and enjoy some leftovers together.
Irish Christmas Foods
Turkey is the star of the Christmas dinner, as it is in other places. But if your Christmas dinner includes more than one type of potato, you might be Irish. Why decide between roast and mashed when you can have both? Brussel sprouts rear their little green heads, with the same controversy they generate elsewhere. Cranberry sauce and stuffing (aka dressing) play a smaller role in Ireland, possibly due to being upstaged by the spuds.
The biggest differences in festive food show up after dinner. Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, made months before or purchased at the last minute in a shop, are dense delights chockful of raisins, dried fruits and brandy. Mince pies actually appear weeks before Christmas. While ‘mince’ usually refers to ground beef in Ireland, mince pies are made of minced raisins, apple and dried citrus peel. Selection boxes are popular Irish gifts at Christmas and Santa even leaves them in children’s stockings. They are simply a box of chocolates.
Christmas crackers are not food. These wrapped tubes are set on the table, and after dinner everyone pairs up to pull them. Each person takes an end and gives a tug. The cracker breaks with a loud pop, and the person who got the biggest end gets the prizes inside: a paper crown, a printed joke and some small toy or item such as an eraser or a hair clip. Like Christmas cards, crackers began in Victorian England and spread.
Irish Christmas Decor
Irish gifts under the tree are wonderful, and embracing these Celtic Christmas traditions can also bring you closer to your roots.