It isn’t easy to say exactly what a traditional Irish Christmas is because every family has their own traditions, but there are some distinctly Irish ways to mark the season and make Christmas in Ireland magical. Everything in Ireland slows down in December, even in professional offices.
An Irish Christmas has its own vocabulary. Happy Christmas is heard as much if not more than merry Christmas, and the Irish version ‘Nollig Shona Duit’ is used often even by those who do not speak Irish the rest of the year. This is an informal culture, and Santa Claus is called Santy. Irish gifts for Christmas, birthdays or any other occasion are called ‘pressies’. Nativity sets, which are standard for most homes, are known as ‘cribs’.
While it isn’t official, the festive season usually swings into high gear on December 8th. This is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and traditionally country folks would attend mass in the morning and then head to Dublin to start their Christmas shopping. Even now, Dublin commuters are wary of the day and try to avoid the extra crowded trains and busses going home from work. Towns and villages are lit up with festive decorations, arches of lights spanning the streets. Dublin’s Georgian doors sport wreaths. Churches put out large, often life sized, cribs, but often the baby Jesus does not appear until the 25th.
Houses are decorated too. While the universally popular light-up Santas and reindeer and the strands of colored lights are popular Christmas decorations in Ireland, what really makes a traditional Irish Christmas is an electric candle or a set of three electric candles in a window. This is to show welcome to travellers, in honor of Mary and Joseph, and a home without a candle was traditionally compared to the innkeepers of Bethlehem who told the couple there was no room at the inn. Hospitality has always been one of our most famous Irish gifts, and Christmas showcases that with the candles in most windows and joyful greetings at Dublin and Shannon airports. The insides of homes are well decorated too, with not only Christmas trees but boughs of holly and cribs. Fancy tins of chocolates and biscuits (aka cookies) start appearing in shops and homes well before the big day.
While he tends to leave pressies under the tree these days, Santy used to be more inclined to leave them in children’s bedrooms at the foot of the bed. Irish children often include a request for ‘a surprise’ on their Christmas lists.
Around the country, Christmas Day is often celebrated now with a group jump into the sea. The most popular spot for this is a beach on the south side of Dublin called The Forty Foot. Hundreds of people from all over the area assemble here every Christmas Day to take the plunge. Some do it to raise funds for various charities.
While Irish people around the world might not be able to replicate all of Ireland’s Christmas traditions, anyone can embrace the hospitality shown this time of year by the traditional candle in the window and by choosing Irish gifts for their loved ones and Irish Christmas decorations for their homes.