Irish Christmas Traditions
Christmas in Ireland is celebrated much the same way as in the United States, but with some of its own unique traditions.
In Ireland, Christmas lasts from Christmas Eve to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, which is referred to as “Little Christmas.” “Little Christmas” marks the official end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, the men of the house take over for the day, preparing meals and allowing the women to have a rest. This is also the day when the tree and all the Christmas decorations are taken down and put into storage.
With Ireland being a predominantly Catholic island, Midnight Mass is a popular choice of Roman Catholics for religious services on Christmas Eve. It is also a time for remembering the dead in Ireland with prayers being offered for deceased at Masses. It is traditional to decorate graves at Christmas with a wreath made of holly and ivy.
Santa Claus, Daidí na Nollag (Daddy of Christmas), is known in Ireland as Santy or Santa. He brings presents to children in Ireland, which are opened on Christmas morning. It is traditional to leave a mince pie and a bottle / glass of Guinness for Santa along with a carrot for Rudolph. Although in recent years, Guinness has been replaced with milk and mince pies with cookies due to American influences.
The lighting of candles in Ireland also has religious significance. Some people would light candles (or one large candle in a window) to signify symbolic hospitality for Mary and Joseph. The candle was a way of saying there was room for Jesus' parents in these homes even if there was none in Bethlehem. Some people even set extra places at their tables as a preparation for unexpected visitors.
Irish women will bake a small seed cake, traditionally made with caraway seeds, for each person in the house; or they will make one large cake for the entire family to share on Christmas day. Three puddings, one for each day of the Epiphany such as Christmas, New Year's Day and the Twelfth Night, are also on the menu. And an addition to turkey for Christmas dinner, sometimes spiced beef (spiced over several days, cooked, and then pressed) is served (either hot or cold).
It is also an Irish tradition to swim in the sea on Christmas morning. This is often done in aid of charity. The 40 Foot in Sandycove in Dublin is a traditional venue for this where hundreds brave the cold temperatures and jump into the frigid sea.
Wren Boys Procession
One very old tradition is the “Wren Boys Procession” that takes place on St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas. This goes back to ancient times when a real wren was killed and carried around in a holly bush. Some processions still take place, but no wren is hunted or used. Young men and women dress up in homemade costumes and go from house to house carrying a long pole with a holly bush tied to its top and singing a rhyme about a wren bird. Sometimes they are accompanied by violins, accordions, harmonicas and horns. An example of a rhyme that is often used is:
"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Pray give us a penny to bury the wran."
The reason for the ceremony is to ask for money 'for the starving wren', that is, for their own pockets.
The wren is one of the smallest birds in the UK and Ireland, but has a very loud song and is sometimes called the 'king of all birds.' This is because of the legend of a little wren who rode on the top of an eagle's head and boasted he had 'flown higher than an eagle.'
A Christmas treat — make sweeter or more savory by adding fruit, nuts, flavored oils or powders.
- 12 Tablespoons butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 Tablespoons caraway, poppy or anise seeds,
plus 1/4 teaspon for garnish
- 8-inch cake pan
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Line an 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper; or if you are making a sweet seed cake, butter and sugar the inside of the pan.
Cream together the sugar and butter until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Sift the flour, seeds and baking powder together. Add these dry ingredients to the butter, eggs and sugar mixture in three parts, beating continually as you do. Add any other flavors or optional ingredients at this time.
Pour the batter into the cake pan, and garnish the top with more seeds. Bake for 45-60 minutes. Seed cake is done when the sides pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.