There’s no place like home during the Christmas season—but there’s no doubt that scenic, welcoming Ireland comes in at a close second. Every year, countless families from all over the world travel to the Emerald Isle during this special time to experience the hospitality the country is famous for, elevated to an entirely new level thanks to the festive spirit that the holiday season brings. Spending Christmas in Ireland also allows non-natives to experience some of the many and varied Christmas traditions that have become stalwarts of Irish culture over many centuries—and it’s never long before they understand exactly why the Irish love Christmas more than St. Patrick’s Day.
Traditionally beginning the moment Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas Day, the late-night affair that is Midnight Mass has been an important feature of Irish Christmas celebrations for as long as anyone can remember. This is because the practise has actually been in place since the year 430 AD, though it began not in Ireland, but in the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore under Pope Sixtus III. Since then, its practise has been widespread in Christian communities all over the world, and is in fact so popular that even denominations that don’t usually employ the word “mass” will use it annually in this context.
That said, in recent years in Ireland, “Midnight Mass” has become something of an inaccurate term. Though nothing about the celebration itself has changed, it’s now very often held at 11pm on Christmas Eve rather than midnight, the better to accommodate mass-goers of a greater age, as well as families with young children. Still, perhaps simply by virtue of its catchiness, the name has stuck—and the tradition, despite subtle shifts with the passage of time, shows no signs of dying out any time soon.
During the Christmas season in Ireland, small-scale nativity scenes are in abundance in homes, churches, and even community gardens. This representation of the birth of Jesus Christ is erected at the start of December, and, in the case of local parishes, often remain publicly visible until the first Sunday after January 6th, or Little Christmas.
In family homes, the nativity scene is usually set up after the rest of the Christmas decorations have been put in place. The family sits together and sets up the small manger, often discussing the important role that each figure placed inside played in the story of Jesus’s birth. It is a tradition in many homes that after Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, angels, shepherds, and barn animals have been placed in the diorama, baby Jesus himself is set aside. His spot in the manger is left vacant until Christmas morning, when, before presents are unwrapped, he is placed between Mary and Joseph, which represents him being “born.” Sometimes, the youngest member of the family will even be asked to wish Jesus a “Happy Birthday!”
There’s nothing that says Christmas quite like the smell of freshly-made mulled wine. Even if you’re not a drinker, it’s impossible not to love the way its sweet, spicy scent floats through a home as the ingredients are being stewed.
In Ireland, mulled wine is plentiful during the winter months. Many families begin mulling their wine early on Christmas morning, the better to allow its warming notes to fill the house with an extra sense of festivity. This drink is also frequently served from the stalls of Christmas markets (think George’s Street Arcade in Dublin, the Glow Christmas celebration in Cork, or the Continental Christmas Market in Belfast), and rightly so—it’s the perfect antidote to the cold air while you peruse the many homemade crafts and foodstuffs for sale.
In Irish tradition, there’s no specific recipe or must-have list of ingredients for mulled wine (besides, well, wine!). This means that the proportions of the typical components—orange, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, cardamom, and ginger—can be increased, reduced, or left out entirely to suit personal taste. Some people purchase a special kind of teabag loaded with a combination of these spices, which is then heated in the wine alongside slices of orange or lemon as a handy alternative to a full recipe. Convenient and delicious? Sounds like all of our Christmas wishes come true at once.
IRISH TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS FOOD
In Ireland, preparation for Christmas dinner is much more than a one-day job. The groundwork is laid before bed on Christmas Eve when the cooks of the family boil the ham in advance. Part of the reasoning behind this tradition lies with the fact that, in Ireland, Christmas dinner is usually eaten early, somewhere between 1pm and 4pm. That doesn’t mean that the day’s eating is at an end after this main meal, however; for dessert, there’s always a fruit-packed Christmas pudding (usually stewed in strong brandy for months before the day itself), and later in the day, it’s not uncommon to see everybody reaching for a plate of leftovers!
Though in older times, a duck or goose was most often served as the focal point of the meal, most people in Ireland now join those in America and England in serving a turkey. Complementing this carefully-prepared bird are generous helpings of potatoes (mashed, roasted, or as part of a gratin, though often it’s all three!) vegetables, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy.
One tradition hailing from the counties Cork and Limerick concern the serving of spiced beef, an exclusively Irish dish. Spiced beef is made by curing (with pimento, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and black pepper) and salting a joint of rump or silverside beef, which is then boiled, broiled, or semi-steamed in water or Guinness, and occasionally roasted afterward. The result, taste-wise, is something similar to pastrami—salty, sharp, and delicious.
THE WREN BOYS’ PROCESSION
One of the oldest Christmas traditions in Ireland is known as the Wren Boys’ Procession, which takes place on what’s now called St. Stephen’s Day (or, in the United States, Boxing Day). The custom harkens back to a time when the young men of a village would hunt and kill a wren, before carrying it around in the branch of a holly bush for neighbors to see, singing all the while.
Though the tradition died out in the early 20th century, in certain areas such as the town of Dingle, Co. Kerry, children still dress up to carry out a performance every year in homemade costumes, carrying a long pole with a sprig of holly attached to it. Thankfully, no wrens are harmed in the name of tradition nowadays, although the children’s song hasn’t changed to reflect this. Accompanied by the sound of violins, accordions, harmonicas, or horns, they chant: “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds / On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze!” Locals will often give the youth’s money in exchange for their performance, after being asked for spare change “for the starving wren.”
It’s a little-known theory that the Wren Boys’ Procession is actually a custom first established by the Celtic people of ancient Ireland. In Celtic mythology, the wren was considered a symbol of the year just past, and the bird is well known in Europe for its habit of singing even in the coldest depths of winter, making it a popular subject for the rituals of druids at all times of the year.
Another old Irish Christmas tradition is well-loved by many who discover it: the Feast of the Epiphany, falling on January 6, is also known as Women’s Christmas (or Little Christmas, or, in Irish, Nollaig na mBan) in many parts of the country. The origins of this celebration lie in the commemoration of the arrival of the three magi to Christ in Bethlehem. Traditionally, this was a day for the ladies of the house to unwind after the strenuous work that Christmas cooking, cleaning, and entertaining often involved for them. In order to give them a well-deserved break, their husbands and sons would do the housework and make the meals, while they met at the houses of female friends to sew and enjoy each other’s company. This practice was especially prevalent in the counties of Cork and Kerry.
Although the tradition has mostly faded out, some women in Ireland still get together on the Sunday nearest to January 6 to eat, drink, and be merry. In the west of the country, some local venues even plan special events for the day!
Another significant element of Women’s Christmas is that in Ireland (and, interestingly, in Puerto Rico) it is the day on which Christmas trees and decorations are typically taken down. It’s often said that leaving them up any longer than January 6 risks the incurrence of bad luck for the household in the coming year.
THE CHRISTMAS SWIM
For the last 40 or so years, the Christmas Day Swim has been an essential feature of the morning’s festivities, with thousands of people taking to the icy waters all around Ireland to get their annual adrenaline fix—and thousands more coming along just to watch. Each year, event organizers promise the swim’s proceeds to a local charity, making it an excellent way to get into the spirit of Christmas giving for the day.
When the canon is fired, participants rush to the water’s edge, preparing themselves (as best they can) for the mighty shock of the cold waves against their bodies. For some, submerging themselves under the water—and thus showing off their considerable bravery—is the only goal. For more experienced swimmers, the swim is a race, and a consistently impressive one, at that. After the participants have cleared out of the water, hot drinks and mince pies are almost always on hand. Thus begins a rather more cozy segment of the day for all Christmas swimmers.
Perhaps the most famous of Ireland’s Christmas Day Swims is the one held each year at the Forty Foot promontory in Sandycove, Co. Dublin, where the queue of excited swimmers typically lasts from morning until early afternoon. If you’re wondering from where the Forty Foot derives its unusual name, you’re not alone: nobody is sure, although one common suggestion is that it’s related to the amount of fun that swimmers have out there!
Other popular Christmas Day Swim events that take place annually in Ireland include those in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, Locke Bay, Co. Kerry, and Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and Myrtleville, Co. Cork. If you find yourself spending Christmas with family near any of these locations in the coming years, be sure to check them out and watch the excitement unfold—or, even better, participate in the craic yourself!
Initially published on December 20, 2019