Ireland is a predominantly Catholic county, with roman catholics accounting for 85% of the citizens in the Republic of Ireland and 41% in Northern Ireland. For the Irish, Christmas and Easter are the most important holidays in the calendar year. Christmas represents a time joy and laughter, with celebrations beginning on the 8th of December on the Feat of the Immaculate Conception and lasting until the Feast of Epiphany, on the 6th of January. A few practices have been carried forward through centuries and are similar to the customs followed in other countries.
In Ireland, Christmas truly begins when the streets are decorated with Christmas trees and numerous lights and decorations are seen in churches, houses, shopping areas and street corners. Nativity scenes are commonly found around the country to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the 3 Kings. Ireland has certain unique Christmas traditions but more importantly, each family has a distinctive way of celebrating it. A main part of the celebration of Christmas is attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
People in Ireland light candles and perch them up on windows, during the Eve of Christmas, to signify the Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. Candles are usually red in colour and adorned with twigs of holly. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as, during Penal Times this was not allowed. Most homes are ornamented with tinsel, lights and baubles. Many people end Christmas Eve by attending Midnight Mass which is held in most churches throughout the country.
The Christmas tree is set-up before the first day on the Advent Calendar (the fourth Sunday before Christmas). The tree is typically decorated with an angel/star on top. Many families place Christmas ornaments such as stockings, candy canes, elves and snowflakes on their fireplace to enhance the festive mood.
Gifts are placed under the tree and remain unopened until the Christmas morning. Santa Claus is popular figure in Ireland; he is dressed slightly different as compared to that of other countries. It is believed that Claus enters a house, on Christmas Eve, through the chimney and delivers gifts. In Ireland children leave gifts of mince pies and whiskey or Guinness out for Santa Claus, before going to bed on Christmas Eve.
The Laden Table
After evening meal on Christmas Eve the kitchen table was again set and on it were placed a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could avail of the welcome.
The Big Christmas Dinner
The feast of Christmas is celebrated in Ireland with a large meal fit for a king. It is the biggest meal cooked in a family house-hold out of all meals through-out the year. Preparations for Christmas dinner usually start on Christmas Eve with the slow cooking of the turkey and preparation of the vegetables and any other goodies that may come with the large feast. An Irish Christmas dinner consists of turkey, ham, chicken, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and various vegetable
Selection Box For Kids
In modern times, children are given chocolates, popularly known as the selection box. This generally happens after the Christmas dinner.
Celebrating St. Stephens Day
St. Stephen Day (also known as Boxing Day in the UK) is another important day during an Irish Christmas, falling on the day after Christmas Day. Most families will treat St. Stephen’s Day as day of rest and celebrate with another large meal. Many relations and friends use St Stephen’s Day as a day to call on friends and family and wish them a Merry Christmas.
Feast Of Epiphany
The Feast of Epiphany which is on the 6th of January and is also celebrated as Women's Christmas or Nollaig na mBan in Gaelic. At this time, the men in the family are supposed to carry on household chores such as cooking and cleaning. Women have a chance to rest, after working hard over the Christmas period, and visit neighbouring houses.
WHITEWASHING THE HOUSE
In many rural areas of Ireland still today the custom of whitewashing the outhouses and stores prevails. At One time, it was the whole farm, inside and out. The women would scrub and polish everything til it shone, and the men would take a bucket of whitewash, or limewash, and purify everything in honour of the coming of the Christchild.
This custom goes back long before christianity or even celtic civilisation. It was a purifying ceremony from the most ancient of times, the ancient Mesopotamians, 4000BC would cleanse their homes, sweep the streets even, in an attempt to assist their god in his battle against the powers of chaos. And in Central European lore, it was believed that the deity, Frigg, would check all the threshholds of each house to make sure they were swept clean.
The Christmas Swim
There are some intrepid people who get out in the open air and away from all the excess on Christmas morning, though it can be fairly miserable out there at that time of year.
One long standing tradition in Sandycove, a suburb of South Dublin is the Christmas Day Swim, or the Polar Bear Club, as it is known by the locals, – in the sea. Yes, in Ireland, in December, they swim in the freezing Irish sea. Crazy, but they say it’s fun!
Quite a crowd of less brave people – wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves – gather to watch the blue swimmers emerge from the water.
The Wren Boy Procession
During Penal Times there was once a plot in a vilage against the local soldiers. They were surrounded and were about to be ambushed when a group of wrens pecked on their drums and awakened the soldiers. The plot failed and the wren became known as 'The Devil's bird'.
On St. Stephens day a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house and families dress up in old clothes and with blackened faces. In olden times an actual wren would be killed and placed on top of the pole.
This custom has to a large degree disappeared but the tradition of visiting from house to house on St. Stephens Day has survived and is very much part of Christmas.
The Irish follow the traditions and customs of Christmas, irrespective of how ancient it may be. This is the probably one of the main reasons why Christmas celebrations in Ireland are such a big deal.
The Wren Boy Procession