Ireland, Christmas in

Ireland, Christmas in

In Ireland families prepare for Christmas by baking cakes and buying candles. The roads and bus stations are crowded on Christmas Eve as people journey home to spend Christmas with their families.

Christmas Preparations

Women bake the Christmas cake as early as October or November. This rich caramel cake, studded with dried fruits and nuts and fortified with brandy, mellows and improves as it ages. Most people living in Ireland are Roman Catholics, and many observe special devotions during Advent, a four-week period of spiritual preparation before Christmas. In addition, many people give their homes a thorough cleaning and write their Christmas cards in the weeks before Christmas. As Christmas Day draws near, people begin shopping for food and gifts. Nowadays this may include buying a Christmas tree, an imported Christmas custom which became popular in recent years. The Irish also preserve the more traditional Nativity scene. Many families set up their Nativity scene a few days before Christmas.

Christmas Candles

On Christmas Eve most Irish families place a lighted candle in the front window. The largest front window gets the largest candle, a white, red, green, or blue candle as much as two feet tall. Many families illuminate all the windows in their homes with Christmas candles. In past eras most families fashioned holders for these candles out of turnips. Today many people buy candleholders for this purpose.

One old tradition suggests that the youngest child in the house named Mary light the candles. Many families walk about their neighborhood on Christmas Eve, admiring the sight of so many illuminated windows. Legend has it that this custom began hundreds of years ago, at a time when Ireland's stern, English Protestant rulers forbade priests to celebrate the Catholic mass. People placed lighted candles in windows as a signal to Catholic clergy that priests would be welcome to say mass in their home.

Another legend attributes the practice to an old folk belief. According to this belief, each year on Christmas Eve Mary and Joseph once again roam the earth, reenacting their search for shelter in Bethlehem. A lighted candle acts as a beacon, drawing the Holy Family to homes where they will be warmly welcomed. Irish immigrants brought the tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas time to other countries, including the United States.

Christmas Eve in Times Past

In past eras the Irish observed December 24 as a fast day, eating no food except a meatless meal in the evening. They spent Christmas Eve at home, telling stories and singing songs. Many believed spirits walked abroad on Christmas Eve and deemed it wiser not to venture outdoors after dark. At about an hour before midnight, church bells all over Ireland began to ring. This tolling, known as the "Devil's funeral" or the Devil's knell, announced the death of the Devil, who was believed to expire annually on Christmas Eve with the birth of Jesus Christ. On Christmas morning many people attended a very early church service, known as "First Light" mass.

Christmas Eve Today

Today many people still sit down to a meatless meal on Christmas Eve, often some combination of fish, potatoes, and vegetables. Some people also observe an old custom whereby the man of house prepares the potato soup for the family in a ceremonial way. Irish children customarily hang up their Christmas stockings on Christmas Eve. In recent years it has become popular to attend Midnight Mass later that evening. Before going to bed some families put more wood on the fire, place some food on the table, and make sure the candles in the windowsills are still lit. Some may also leave a door unlocked, another symbolic gesture welcoming the Holy Family to enter and refresh themselves.

Christmas Day

The Irish like to spend Christmas Day with their immediate family. The day's events revolve around Christmas dinner, the most festive meal of the year. Before sitting down to their own dinner, many families send hot meals or foodstuffs to less fortunate people living nearby. The Irish view these acts of charity as central to the celebration of Christmas. In past times a traditional Irish Christmas dinner usually featured spiced, boiled beef. Nowadays many families prefer roast turkey or goose. The meal closes with the long-awaited Christmas cake and, often, plum pudding as well.

St. Stephen's Day

December 26, St. Stephen's Day, is a national holiday in Ireland. The wren hunt and forms of mumming, such as mummers' plays, entertain many people on that day. The wren hunters often contribute part of their earnings to fund the St. Stephen's Day dances popular throughout Ireland on the evening of December 26. Other traditional St. Stephen's Day pastimes include sporting events, especially steeplechasing and fox hunting.

New Year's Day

In past times New Year's Day wasn't much celebrated in Ireland. On New Year's Eve, however, many people employed folk charms to ward off hunger in the coming year. Some recommended eating a big meal on New Year's Eve to set a pattern of consumption for the new year. Others suggested knocking a loaf of bread or a cake against house or barn doors, and reciting a bit of verse that welcomed happiness and plenty and rejected hunger and want. Firstfooting, another old New Year's custom, is still practiced in Ireland. In recent years the government made New Year's Day a holiday. Now, more and more people celebrate New Year's Eve by staying up late, drinking, and going to parties.


Epiphany, which falls on January 6, is the last day of the Christmas season in Ireland. Epiphany is also called Twelfth Night, "Little Christmas," or even "Women's Christmas." This last name reflects the old custom of serving a light dinner on Epiphany, featuring sherry and dainties, foods thought to be particularly appealing to women. Many people put three candles in their windows on Epiphany, one for each of the Three Kings, or Magi. The figurines representing the Three Kings finally arrive in Irish Nativity scenes on this day. The next day Christmas decorations are removed and stored until the following Christmas season.

Further Reading

Moran, Rena. Christmas in Ireland. Chicago: World Book, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003