How The Irish Influenced Christmas In The UK & North America

Christmas candle
Christmas candle | © Simon Lee/Flickr
Kate Phelan

You may not know it, but Ireland’s contribution to the festival of Christmas goes far beyond the much-loved singalong ‘Fairytale of New York‘. In much the same way that the modern interpretation of Halloween descended from the Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain, several important pre-Christian Irish traditions have been incorporated into the winter holiday season.
Prior to the introduction of Christianity during the early 5th century, Ireland was home to the Celts, a pagan civilisation which worshipped many gods and goddesses. Animism – the belief that all elements in nature contain a spirit – was an important part of Irish Celtic culture. Their lives were governed by nature and the seasons, with four annual festivals marking the beginning of spring (Imbolc) and summer (Bealtaine orMay Day), and the beginning (Lughnasadh) and end of the harvest season (Samhain).

From the Jack in the Green Festival, a modern May Day celebration

The yearly solstices and equinoxes were also scared days in the Celtic calendar, as is evident through structures like Newgrange, County Meath – a prehistoric passage tomb built to align with the winter solstice sunrise. On that day every year, the tomb’s chamber fills with light as the sun comes up.
As the Roman Catholic faith prospered and early Irish monasteries grew in influence, many significant pagan events were simply adapted into new religious feast days. For example, the spring festival of Imbolc, originally associated with the goddess Brigid, became Saint Brigid’s day. It is widely theorised that the date of Christmas may have been chosen for its proximity to the winter solstice date in the same way. December 25th was also a feast day in pagan Rome, a celebration of the sun god Sol Invictus.

Christmas lights outside the GPO, Dublin

Ancient Irish traditions now recognisable in the ways Christmas is celebrated in the UK and America include decorating doors with holly and ivy wreaths, which were hung outside the house in Celtic times to welcome visitors and ward off evil spirits, and the ritual of hanging mistletoe, which derives from Celtic priests or druids. The druids believed this plant had healing powers and granted fertility, so in winter, they performed a ceremony which involved cutting down mistletoe, before sacrificing two white bulls.

Christmas wreath

The influence of Celtic winter celebrations on the Christmas festival is clear. As the first site of major European Christianisation, Ireland played an important role in blending the existing cultural traditions of that time with newfound monotheism. Irish missionaries then spread these new traditions to Britain and Continental Europe. The adoption of pagan rituals into the Christian religious event of Christmas was so successful that many today aren’t even aware that when they hang a holly wreath, they are engaging in a custom that dates all the way back to ancient Irish civilisation.

Christmas candle
landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article