Irish Christmas Traditions

Irish Christmas traditions, like festive customs all around the world, do not remain immutable over time; rather they develop over time – though not necessarily over many generations at once.

My Nana Tierney wasn’t exactly known for being long-lived; so all of my memories of Christmas, which should have been pleasant experiences, instead include her playing songs like ‘Oh come all ye faithful’ by The Bachelors mixed in with “I Believe”.

Nana insisted that, as far as Irish Christmas traditions were concerned, The Bachelors topped them all. Even now, when I hear one of their songs (or anything by Brothers B), a large nostalgic lump forms in my throat and I envision Nana standing before the fireplace with skirt hitched tight around her thighs to stay warm from the fireside and singing along to “Every time a new-born baby cry…”.

No one ever dared point out that listening to records by The Bachelors could never have earned them Traditional status during the early 1960s.

This memory illustrates an intriguing aspect of Irish Christmas traditions (and likely other customs as well): they may only be traditions to individual families rather than communities or nations as whole. Tradition often simply means what was done when young. Therefore, only those family customs which bring back warm memories tend to remain; others should likely fade into history.

As December 25th (and, in Ireland, St Stephen’s Day on December 26th) approaches, families worldwide celebrate in their own way; yet most Irish households observe certain seasonal traditions to some extent or another.

This page primarily discusses pre-Christmas customs – traditions that help create the magical atmosphere of this magical season. However, you can follow any of the links provided to discover specific day traditions or learn how to prepare some delicious seasonal dishes!

Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, began for many of our ancestors with an intense cleaning spree involving buckets of whitewash and the painting of outhouses, an annual tradition among rural Irish Christmas celebrations that was typically carried out by men while women cleaned interiors of dwellings.

Cleaning dates back to pre-Christianity and can generally be thought of as the ancient equivalent to spring cleaning, usually conducted prior to Winter Solstice when daylight hours drop to approximately seven and a half. With Christianity’s arrival, however, this practice was adopted into homely preparation for Mary and Joseph arriving with Jesus as new-borns.

Some have claimed that whitewashing traditions still continue in some rural areas; if this is indeed the case, I don’t know the family! Perhaps they survive only in spirit through a desire to ensure a home is clean and welcoming for family and guests who will visit during holiday celebrations.

Candle at the Window One of Ireland’s longest-held traditions, placing a single lit candle in a window as an offering to Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve used to be sufficient; now however it’s increasingly common to see lit candles – usually electrical or battery powered ones – lit all throughout Christmas season in street-facing windows; in some homes this tradition may even extend up into upstairs windows as well.

Holly wreaths remain an ever-popular front door decoration and date back centuries ago when many of our ancestors would decorate their homes with this readily available plant.

My dear cousin Mary had lived through many difficult years and did not overdo Christmas decorations.

At first, all that reminded her of the holiday season was one holly sprig covered with shiny red berries strategically arranged atop her stove at home near Bantry.

My Mother always managed to come up with an impressive Christmas crib design.

As a child, it was an enjoyable task to help my grandmother set up the Nativity scene and place shepherds, sheep and donkey (though we never managed to include all three wise men!).

Setting Mary, Joseph and Jesus up didn’t require much creative direction – they took center-stage on the straw-strewn miniature stable with ease.

Cribs may be one of the Irish Christmas traditions that is slowly dying off; not because its religious aspect has been completely compromised; Christmas remains fundamentally religious holiday in Ireland.

At Christmas time, homes may seem overrun with people, gifts, decorations and food – and that may include the crib itself! But this shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement that it must remain empty!

Though crib-at-home traditions may be on their way out, larger scale cribs with illuminated lighting still provide an atmospheric feel in town centres and Roman Catholic churches, including Dublin Airport’s Arrivals Hall where passengers arrive for their flights.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is one of the most widely practiced Irish Christmas traditions, often boasting one of the largest single congregations of the year and providing a wonderful social opportunity as families who have come together for this festive occasion meet up with old acquaintances they may not have seen since last Christmas Day.

Though midnight mass is traditionally associated with religious practices, non-religious folk often attend it out of enjoyment of singing carols accompanied by live music, exchanging Christmas greetings and taking an active role in their community.