Christmas really brings out the best in Ireland and the Irish from cheerful festivities to wild acts of machismo, happy reunions, musical celebrations in Church and partying for a week. In Ireland Christmas lasts for about two weeks and is gladly celebrated as a respite from the winter.
Here are just a few of Ireland’s favorite things at Christmas some old some new but all activities and aspects that make Christmas in Ireland particularly special:
1. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve
If you’re looking for a Church packed to the rafters look no further that any Church in Ireland at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This is a huge social gathering where family, friends and neighbors who you may not have seen all year come together and celebrate Christmas. However in some rural towns, you may see Midnight Mass taking place at 8pm!
2. Christmas Markets
There’s no better time than December for mixing mulled wine (and cocoa for the kids), mince pies, fairy lights and shopping. Ireland’s Christmas markets promise a magic atmosphere, with carol singing and general merriness. One of the prettiest is Belfast’s Christmas Market, perfectly placed in front of a festive and perennially handsome City Hall. In Kerry, Killarney hosts an open-air affair while Waterford’s Winterval hosts a traditional Christmas market in the city.
Dublin has a floating market, no less: the Docklands 12 days of Christmas festival is moored over George’s Dock in the city centre. Come for the gifts, stay for mulled wine, hot chocolate and live music. In Galway, Eyre Square turns winter wonderland for the Galway Continental Christmas Market. Bring comfy shoes for the dancing, and an appetite for food chalets.
3. Horse races on St. Stephen’s Day
St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses but I am almost positive that this is not the reason that the horse races in Ireland on St Stephen’s Day have become a tradition in Ireland. The races in Leopardstown, South Dublin attract almost 20,000 every year but I think this has little to do with the old Germanic tradition of racing horses on St Stephen’s Day to honor the saint.
In Ireland heading off to the races is a chance to get out of the house, stretch your legs, perhaps have a flutter on the horses and have a drink with friends.
4. Christmas Day Swim, Forty Foot, South Dublin
Christmas day swims take place all over Ireland on Christmas morning but probably most famously at the Forty Foot Rock, just south of Dublin. On Christmas Day hundreds of people can be seen jumping off the rock into the Irish Sea wearing only their bathing suits.
The water in the Irish Sea on Christmas Day is usually around 50F / 10C. Unfortunately the temperature outside the water is usually about half of this making the experience bracing to say the least. This is certainly not for the faint hearted but is a proven hangover cure and its participants often receive sponsorship for charities.
5. Meeting Santa Clause
Did you know the Mourne Mountains is Santa’s official residence in Ireland? You can meet him in this secluded cottage and even see the elves working away in the workshop. In Mount Stewart, Santa (or Santy, as we sometimes call him) has kindly put together a woodland trail for excited children to burn off some energy.
What of Santa’s helpers? Dublin’s Phoenix Park is a playground of deer, and each Christmas the park offers the chance to meet some members of Bambi’s herd and hear a talk given by the park’s keepers. The spirit of Christkindl will take over Downpatrick, as St Patrick’s Square is overrun with characters from Christmas Past, Present and Future
6. A Light in the Window
One old custom that many continue to observe is the placing of a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, a symbol to welcome strangers and to remember those who are far away from home. Now we have a permanent candle in the window of Aras an Uachtarain thanks to President Mary Robinson who famously re-adopted this custom during her term of office, to remember all of the emigrants that had left Ireland and let them know the candle in the window would always be lighting to remember them show them their way home.
7. Christmas Caroling / The Wren Boy Procession
During Penal Times a group of soldiers were about to be ambushed. They had been surrounded by a group of wrens pecked on their drums and woke them. The wren became known as “The Devil’s Bird”. To remember this on St Stephen’s Day people would have a procession and go door to door wearing old clothes, with blackened faces and a dead wren on top of the pole.
Thankfully this later evolved into a caroling. Although people no long go door to door, or at least very rarely, carollers can be heard on more main streets over Christmas raising money for charity. If there’s one thing the Irish love doing is making music and Christmas is the perfect excuse to make some noise.
8. Boxes of biscuits
At Christmas every Irish household will have at least one box of ‘good’ biscuits!
Although there are the traditional mince pieces, pudding, and chocolates too the biscuits and the rules about the tin are something that everyone remembers. There were about 10 types of biscuits in each layer of the tin but you were not allowed to break through to the second layer without finishing the first layer. This would cause at least one fight a day among the family. The tins are typically filled with biscuits like pink wafers and bourbon creams.
9. Decorations / Holly wreath
The placing of a ring of Holly on doors originated in Ireland as Holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and which gave the poor ample means with which to decorate their dwellings. This is still a very popular tradition along with Christmas trees, fairy lights and other decorations and trinkets.
Also traditionally, decorations would go up on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and come down on Little Christmas January 6.
10. Christmas Dinner
Christmas dinner is traditionally comprised of a roast turkey, potatoes (of course!), brussel sprouts and various other veg. This is followed by mince pies, pudding and Christmas Cake. However don’t be surprised if the woman of the house produces ham sandwiches about an hour after you have consumed your enormous meal – just in case you are feeling peckish!! That is what they call ‘Irish Hospitality!’