Ireland may not be guaranteed a snowfall like more northerly European locations, but what it lacks in snow, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Festive celebrations are so eagerly anticipated that they are known to kick in shortly after Halloween, with cheerful decorations, lit-up trees and seasonal markets popping up from November onwards. Here are some distinctly local Christmas traditions in which the Irish partake.
Watching the annual Christmas edition of the national chat show known as The Late Late has become a time-honoured tradition in Irish households. Taking place every year since 1975, The Late Late Toy Show is still a vital part of the season – in 2015 it was the national public service broadcaster of Ireland’s most-watched programme, taking in more than a million viewers. During the live special show – also streamed worldwide online for nostalgic members of the Irish diaspora – the most popular toys of that year are reviewed by children of all ages, along with musical performances. So popular is this annual TV event that the Irish clothing retailer Penneys has even released special Late Late Toy Show jumpers and pyjama sets.
Living up to the drunken Irish stereotype, a recent Christmas tradition that has developed in Ireland is the 12 Pubs of Christmas pub crawl. Involving Christmas-themed outfits, overly complicated rules and a route incorporating a chain of different pubs in your area, the 12 Pubs has been adopted into the Irish Christmas canon with relish. Taking place on different dates in locations all across the country, some people attend more than one of these, with Irish publications creating 12 Pubs ‘survival guides’.
There are those who daren’t even brave the frigid Irish waters during the summer months, yet every Christmas, a certain number of courageous individuals flock to beaches and piers around Ireland and leap in, no matter what the temperature. Christmas Day swims to raise funds for charity have been taking place in Ireland for decades, from places like the famous Forty Foot promontory in Dublin to the Kerry village of Fenit. Every Christmas morning, crowds gather to participate in or just watch their local swim before heading home to warm up by the fire.
A second alcohol-themed Christmas tradition in Ireland is the leaving out a Guinness for Santa Claus. While Americans are known to leave cookies and milk near the tree before bed on Christmas Eve, some Irish families put out a glass of Ireland’s most famous alcoholic beverage to make Santa’s busy night of present deliveries easier. Just another example of the kind of céad míle fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes) hospitality for which the Irish are known.
As if it wasn’t enough for the day after Christmas to have one name in Northern Ireland (Boxing Day) and another in the south (St. Stephen’s Day), in some locales, it’s known by a third title: Wren Day. Centred around the idea of ‘hunting’ for a fake wren, the exact origins of the festival aren’t known, but one theory is that it was one of many Celtic traditions passed down to modern Ireland. During a Wren’s Day Parade, people dress in straw suits and sing songs – a tradition which is still a highlight of the Christmas calendar in Dingle, County Kerry.
The January 6th end-of-Christmas Epiphany celebration is known in Ireland as either Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan, meaning Women’s Christmas. The latter derives from an old Irish tradition that the men of the household were responsible for all the chores and duties that day, giving women and girls a rest day. In Ireland, this is also the day when Christmas decorations are traditionally meant to be taken down.
Though it isn’t sung by many people regularly, the Irish are proud of the fact that one of the oldest surviving religious Christmas carols in the European tradition, ‘The Wexford Carol’, originated in Enniscorthy in the 12th century. This song about the nativity story was once only ever sung by men, but 20th-century female performers such as Julie Andrews thankfully broke that limiting custom. In 2014, the carol was given a revival, when Caitríona O’Leary sang it with Tom Jones and others on her album The Wexford Carols.
Although Catholicism isn’t the cultural force it once was in Ireland, attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is still relatively common, especially in the countryside. According to the Roman Catholic tradition, mass can be celebrated three times on Christmas Day, beginning with a service at midnight the night before. Mindful of preparations needing to be made for the following day – and possibly due to falling numbers – some parishes have moved their midnight mass up to as early as 9pm.