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An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part I

An Irish Christmas, Yesterday and Today, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Christmas traditions in Ireland today. What is an Irish Christmas like?

How do you wish someone Merry Christmas in Irish? Nollaig Shona Duit. And that’s a Happy, not a Merry, Christmas!

It wasn’t until St. Patrick brought Christianity to the island in A.D. 432 that the Irish Celts abandoned their pagan ways and even learned about the birth of Christ. Today, Christmas is a big holiday in Ireland, with many interesting and fun traditions, some old, some new. In no particular order, here are a few:

Christmas Whitewashing.

For thousands of years, a December Celtic farm tradition held that families would clean and whitewash every building on their farms. After the coming of Christ, it became a symbol of purifying them for the coming of the Savior.

Holly and Ivy.

Traditionally, families would trek into the country to cut some of the plentiful holly and ivy to decorate mantelpieces, make into wreaths, or fashion into sprigs to grace doorways. Want a harbinger of good luck for the next year? Find a holly bush festooned with berries. Because of its  thorns, holly hunters wear heavy coats to keep from being pricked. Mistletoe is rarely seen, perhaps because in ancient times it was a symbol of paganism.

Yet, traditions do change. One commentator suggests that because of National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation”, many Irish now put up Christmas trees with outside lights and decorations. They go up on December 8, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

“Little Christmas”

Little Christmas comes on January 6 and is also called “Women’s Christmas”. It’s women’s day off. The women who’ve done all the cooking and preparing for the holiday now go out, meet, and have fun while the men stay home, do the housework, and take down the decorations. But don’t remove your decorations before January 6. It’s bad luck.

The Christmas Candle.

Putting a candle in the window is a symbol of hospitality. It says that, unlike the Bethlehem inn that turned away Mary and Joseph, your household would welcome the Holy Family.

A Snack For Santa.

In the U.S., we often put out Christmas cookies and a glass of milk for old St. Nick. Not in Ireland. There it’s a bottle of Guinness and a mince pie. Or, if you prefer, a shot of whiskey and a tin of biscuits.

The Midnight Mass.

Whether Protestant or Catholic, the midnight Christmas Eve service brings out folks who haven’t set foot inside a church since Easter. Churches are packed as people dress up, sing Christmas carols, and listen to live music. Sometimes, the service is candle-lit. It brings everyone back to what the season is really about—the coming of Christ to earth.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

In the U.S., black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the day when some people mob the stores to begin their Christmas shopping. In Ireland, it’s December 8, when schools are closed for this Catholic holiday.

Christmas Presents.

In Ireland, children wake up on Christmas morning to find Santa has left presents at the foot of their beds, often in a sack. One or two gifts might be under the tree, but they’re unwrapped.

On Christmas day, we’ll conclude our look at an Irish Christmas with Part II.

(Parts of this post first appeared as an article by this author in “Celtic Canada” magazine’s winter issue.)

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.