Christmas in Ireland: it is a time of tradition, of family and friends gathering together, of quiet reflection and lively fun. If you are traveling in Ireland at Christmas, there are traditions and celebrations in which you may share. Many of them have traveled with the sons and daughters of Ireland as they’ve settled in other lands, too.
One of my favorite traditions of Christmas in Ireland is the light in the window. A candle, or these days more commonly an electric light, is placed in the window during the holiday season and especially left burning on Christmas eve. This is meant to recall the Holy Family’s search for a place to stay and to let them, and any wanderer out upon the road on Christmas eve, know that they will find welcome within. It was also tradition to leave out a loaf or bread and something to drink, to bank the fire for warmth, and (in safer times than now exist) to leave the door unlatched for travelers. The tradition of the welcoming light continues, however.
Did you know that the idea of the Christmas wreath may have begun in Ireland? That, too, was a way for people to share celebration and hospitality.
Just about every home in Ireland will have a Christmas tree, and there will be Christmas trees out in the community, too in public squares, at businesses, churches, and civic buildings.. Natural trees are most common.
There are are ornaments and garlands, and in many windows of homes and businesses you will see Santa figures and creches or manger scenes. Outsides of houses are sometimes decorated too — I always find that the figures of Santa Claus climbing in a window or landing on a roof top give me a smile. Do you know where Santa first sets foot in Ireland on his Christmas travels?
Out in the community, large and small, in addition to the tree there are lights. Sometimes these are simple strings; swirling star forms and lights in the form or stars with trails (leaping stars, I’ve always called them, as they appear to leaping from the buildings to which they are anchored) are popular.
The days leading up to Christmas are festive, with shopping, parties, friends and co workers gathering for meals, and school and church choirs putting on special programs. There are Christmas markets in Ireland, too, ranging from community based craft fairs to larger international markets.
Christmas in Ireland is at its heart a religious holiday, though, and marked as such across this Catholic country. There are services — midnight mass, perhaps an early evening service for families with young children, and morning services at most Catholic parishes. There are services in other Christian churches too.
If you plan to be in Ireland on Christmas eve and Christmas day, you may want to know that just about everything shuts down, from the local pub to public transport. It’s good to look into what your choices are in advance. If it turns out you will be on your own, a picnic at your lodging can be quite festive if you do a bit of advance planning and purchasing.
If you are invited to a friend’s home or are staying in a place where eating out is possible, what might be on the menu for Christmas dinner? You will usually find turkey and ham both, though goose, chicken, or lamb may appear. If you are vegetarian have no worries, there will be plenty of veg side dishes to enjoy. These will be root vegetables — this is Ireland in winter after all. Expect tasty versions of carrots, brussels sprouts,and parsnips, and perhaps other vegetables. There will be potatoes both mashed and roasted, as well as, perhaps, the mashed potato/cabbage/onion combinations of colcannon and champ. There might be Christmas cake — a spicy cake batter filled with fruit and nuts and seasoned, so to speak, with whiskey. Apple pie or apple tart might be offered too.
What is the weather like in Ireland at Christmas? Variable. You might see highs in the 30s to lower 40s Farenheit, though it can be much colder, and some of that depends on where you are. Expect it to be windy, and prepare to dress in layers. Will it rain? Almost certainly yes. though you may experience bright clear days too. Will it snow? Maybe.
January and February are the coldest months in Ireland and that’s when it most often snows. White Christmas is not unheard of though. As I am writing this a few days before Christmas in 2017, Met Eireann and BBC weather are forecasting blustery wind with showers and the possibility of ice across the island. There has already been a good bit of snow in Northern Ireland and up in the mountains in the republic.
Ireland’s national symbol is the harp — it would not be Christmas in Ireland without music. Many of the carols and seasonal songs you know are familiar in Ireland too, and there are some you may not have heard before. Wherever you are celebrating the Christmas season you will enjoy the music of Ireland at Christmas, though. Take a listen:
Dordan is a group of classical and folk musicians based in the west of Ireland. They almost never tour outisde Ireland, but you may find some of their music on the collections Best of Narada Christmas and Narada Presents Best of Celtic Christmas.
The Wexford Carol, which is traced back to 12th century southwestern Ireland and may be older than that, performed here by Irish American duo Matt and Shannon Heaton. You may find it recorded or their album Fine Winter’s Night.
On a quieter note, Heidi Talbot sings lead on The Castle of Dromore, which you may find on the album On Christmas Night from Cherish the Ladies.
As in other places around the world, every family and every community has its own way of marking Christmas in Ireland. Christmas day itself is most often one for family and home. There are a good many traditions in the days after Christmas in Ireland that you may enjoy observing, being part of, or learning about. More about those to come…
Meanwhile, wherever this festive season finds you at home or on your travels, we wish you a happy and peaceful time.
Photograph of Christmas tree in Bangor, Down, Northern Ireland by Rossographer
Photograph of snowy road near Portadown, Armagh, Northern Ireland by P Flannagan
Photographs of Saints pub sign in snow and snow on stone wall in Carlingford, Louth, Republic of Ireland by Kerry Dexter
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