In Ireland, people celebrate Christmas in the same way as people in the United Kingdom and the United States, but they also have many of their own Christmas traditions and customs.
Christmas for the Irish, who are Catholic, lasts from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which some Irish call “Little Christmas.” The epiphany is not now widely celebrated in Ireland.
There is an old tradition that in some Irish houses (although there are not many now), people put a tall, thick candle on the windowsill after the sun goes down on Christmas Eve. The candle is left on all night and represents a welcome light for Mary and Joseph.
In Irish (or Gaelic) Christmas is ‘Nollaig’, Santa Claus is known as ‘San Nioclás’ (San Nicolás) or ‘Daidí na Nollag’ (Santa Claus) and Feliz / Feliz Navidad is ‘Nollaig Shona Dhuit’.
The children expect Santa to visit Christmas Eve and leave gifts for them.
The day after Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day (known as Boxing Day in the United Kingdom and some other countries), is also very important in Ireland. As in the United Kingdom, football matches and horse races are traditionally held on St. Stephen’s Day.
A very old tradition is the Procession of Wren Boys that takes place on the day of San Esteban.
This goes back to ancient times when a true wren was killed and carried on a holly bush. Some processions still take place, but no wren is hunted or used.
The young men and women dress in homemade suits and go from house to house carrying a long stick with a holly bush tied to its top and singing a rhyme about a bird bird. Sometimes they are accompanied by violins, accordions, harmonicas and horns.
The rhyme that is often used is:
‘The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds
The day of San Esteban was caught in the furze.
People also ask for money ‘for the hungry child’!
The wren is one of the smallest birds in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but it has a very loud song and is sometimes called the “king of all birds”. This is due to the legend of a small boy who rode on the head of an eagle and boasted that he had “flown higher than an eagle”. The Wren were hunted for many years throughout Europe in medieval times.
The procession of Wren Boys was extinguished mainly at the beginning of century XX, although still it takes place in some cities like Dingle, in Country Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland.
The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) was also celebrated in some cities of Ireland as ‘Nollaig na mBean’ or Christmas for Women. Traditionally, women had the day off and men did housework and cooking. The women met in their houses to sew and chat. Although the majority has become extinct, some women still like to gather on the Sunday closest to the Epiphany, drink tea and cakes, gossip and enjoy each other’s company.
The traditional and historic Christmas food in Ireland includes a round cake, filled with caraway seeds. One is traditionally done for each person in the house. Now it is more common to have a Christmas cake like the ones in the United Kingdom, a rich fruit cake covered with marzipan and decorated with icing.
And they eat an addition to the turkey for Christmas dinner, sometimes spiced beef (seasoned for several days, cooked and then pressed). This can be served cold or hot. The dessert is commonly a Christmas pudding.