Merry Christmas! And happy holidays to anyone who celebrates another winter holiday! With the majority of people living in Ireland being Catholic, Christmas in the country is a largely religious time of year. Celebrations in Ireland begin on the 6th of December and last until the Feast of the Epiphany, which is on the 6th of January. Although celebrations can seem pretty similar to those in England and the United States around major cities in Ireland, many rural areas still hold on to holiday traditions that have been passed down for centuries.
The supposedly “American” tradition of hanging a wreath made of holly actually originated in Ireland, and these wreaths are kept up until the Feast of the Epiphany. Another decorating tradition is the welcome light. On Christmas Eve, some houses will place a think, tall candle on the window sill of a large window facing the front of the home, after sunset. It is allowed to burn for the entire night and is supposed to symbolize the star that Joseph and Mary followed to the barn in Bethlehem, which guided and welcomed them. Christmas trees are put up in homes either before the first day or on the first day of the Advent Calendar. They are either topped with a star, or more commonly an angel. There is also an old custom that is still practiced in certain rural areas of Ireland that calls for the whitewashing the outside of stores and other important buildings. This is a sign of purification in preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ.
As Ireland is a Catholic country, the majority of practicing families will attend Christmas mass together. A Vigil Mass is commonly held at Midnight Mass, and involved every member of the congregation to hold a lit holy candle during the mass.
Christmas Day brings even more traditions, starting with the Christmas dinner. A traditional dinner menu will usually consist of turkey, ham, chicken, stuffing, potatoes, brussel sprouts and various vegetables, among other things. Christmas pudding or Christmas cake will usually follow for dessert, not to be confused with the seed cake that Irish women bake for every member of their families. After dessert, a more modern tradition includes a Selection Box. A mandatory practice, it occurs after dinner and is when children are given chocolate or a selection of chocolate bars. Usually following all of this (or in some towns following Christmas Eve dinner), the table is reset, the door is left unlocked, and sitting on the table will usually be freshly baked bread and milk. This practice of the “Laden Table” is a sign of welcoming traveling strangers, as well as the new family of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus.
But the celebrations do not stop there! The day after Christmas Day, also known as Boxing Day, is another important holiday in Ireland called St. Stephen’s Day. Similar to the United Kingdom, football matches and horse races are traditionally held on this day. More so than that, the day is also when the very old tradition of the Wren Boys Procession takes place. Most families regard the day as a day of rest, and celebrate by visiting their local church and with another large meal. It is also customary to bring relatives together once again for Christmas-like celebrations. In a more traditional celebration of the day, a special procession takes place where people go from house to house. Wrens, as the name of the procession mentions, are one of the smallest species of birds found in the United Kingdom and Ireland. They have a very loud song and are sometimes called the “king of all birds” because of it. The story behind the procession is how wrens awakened soldiers centuries ago before villagers could rise up against them. In earlier times it used to be a much more dramatic practice. Participants would blacken their faces and dress in tattered clothes. Real wrens used to be killed and mounted to holly wreaths, which would be attached to poles and paraded from house to house. A traditional rhyme sung while this is happening reads as follows:
‘The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.’
Finally, Irish celebrations will usually end around the Feast of the Epiphany, which is on January 6th. It is also celebrated as Women’s Christmas. This means that the men in the family are supposed to carry on household chores such as cooking and cleaning, while women have a chance to take a holiday and visit neighboring houses and spend time with friends.