Ireland and the Twelve Days of Christmas

Twelve days of Christmas: you might be thinking that these are twelve days leading up to Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas, though, are the days between Christmas and Epiphany, Three Kings Day, which is celebrated on 6th January.

winter trees twelve days of christmas

If you are in Ireland during this time of year, you will find several things going on specific to the season. There will be holiday sales in the shops, of course, and fireworks at the new year. There will be other things too, though. some of them having to do with wrens, housecleaning, holiday visits, and bonfires.

Saint Stephen’s Day, 26 December, is also known as Lá an Dreolin, Day of the Wren, in Ireland. Especially in the west part of the country, you may find people dressed in costume and playing musical instruments going from house to house. There might be figure of the wren bird carried along on a stick, and the people in what now may have turned into a parade might be singing a song asking for a few coins donation to them for catching the wren. A party might be had at the final house on the journey, too.

wren boys in costume Dingle courtesy National Library of Ireland

What is all this about? Several stories attempt to tell the tale. The most well known one has Saint Stephen hiding from those who sought to do him harm. A chattering wren, though, spoke up when Stephen disturbed his bush, and so led pursuers to find him — and stone him to death. It is likely that the tradition of costumes and going from house to house near time of solstice began long before Christianity reached Ireland. The stories and customs have become intertwined over the centuries, though.

Here’s a bit of the celebration from a few years ago in Dun Chaoin, West Kerry:

There is a tradition common in Irish homes and in homes where Irish emigrants have settled of ‘redding up the house,’ that is, doing a cleaning of the house just before new year’s day. Less common but still practiced, on new year’s day itself some folk go about hitting the walls of their dwelling with pieces of Christmas cake. That’s said to drive out evil spirits. Also at the new year, you find people observing the custom of entering by the front door and leaving by the back door, said to bring good luck.

ireland twelve days of christmas star lights carlingford

Christmas in Ireland is a time for celebration of family, and especially during the twelve days of Christmas, reconnecting with friends. This warmth of connection during the twelve days may be one reason that it is common in Irish households, and in those of the Irish diaspora too, to leave Christmas decorations up until Epiphany, and sometimes through the octave, the week after Epiphany. This happens not only in private homes. You may enjoy holiday lights, trees, and garlands up in public spaces well into the new year when you travel the island of Ireland.

christmas ireland tree twelve days

Taking down those decorations could be considered housework, so you may find some men in Ireland doing that, as well as cooking and other household work, on 6th January. Though this too is a tradition from an earlier time, the idea of men doing the household work and women having time off — and perhaps taking a night out together — lingers in the idea of Women’s Christmas, Nollaig na mBan as it is in Irish. On 6th January now, you are more likely find events and gatherings celebrating the role of women in Irish history rather than freedom from housework. You’ll find many eating places and pubs in Ireland promoting the idea of a women’s night out for that date though, whatever the reason they are celebrating.

Another tradition you may find in Ireland and in Irish homes across the world is a bonfire on the night before or the evening of 6th January — twelfth night. Christmas trees may fuel that fire, and a festive meal could be had.

bonfore ireland twelth nigh

Then there’s the song, which you have likely heard and sung yourself. It was first published in France in the 1600s. The first English version was printed in 1790. Scholars think, though, that the origins of the song go far back in time, perhaps as a memory game for children. Some also point out that it may have been used as a memory aide in Ireland for a more serious purpose, too. During the time when Catholics were not allowed to practice or teach their religion openly, the counting of items in the twelve days said to remind of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the four gospels, the twelve points of belief in the creed, and the like.

The twelve days of Christmas are a time of celebration, of connection, of reflection, of marking the turning of the year and the time of winter. In Ireland and elsewhere across the globe, there are many ways to celebrate this time. What are your traditions for the new year? Let us know in the comments.

Photo of wrenboys in costume courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

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