Christmas Traditions in Ireland
Ireland has been known as “the land of saints and scholars” since the fall of the Roman empire, when Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. And saints and scholars alike continue to follow St. Patrick’s example of using a shamrock to explain the holy trinity and the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And so it seems appropriate that the Republic of Ireland, whose 4.5 million people in northwest Europe are overwhelmingly Catholic, would regard Christmas as a solemn and religious time.
Despite their renowned fondness for revelry, the Irish keep Christmas on a low flame, literally, throughout Advent and until January 6, known as Three Kings Day. Advent is an important time of reflection – when Irish churches light one candle per week and prepare to mark the birth of Christ.
On Christmas Eve, low flames take on added significance, when many Irish families place red candles, decorated with sprigs of holly, in their windows. This longtime tradition serves as a tribute to Mary and Joseph, who wandered the streets of Bethlehem in search of shelter. Depending on interpretation, the candles are meant to “light their way” or serve as a symbolic welcome – both metaphorical messages that demonstrate how the Irish revere the Holy Family.
In the most traditional Irish homes, the candles are lit by the youngest member of the household – in recognition of Jesus being the youngest member of the Holy Family – and are extinguished by a girl whose name is “Mary” (a common Irish name).
The family’s likenesses are featured in Nativity scenes in many Irish homes, which also are decorated with Christmas trees, wreaths and garland.
On Christmas Eve, many Irish families attend midnight Mass and often continue to prepare for one of the best meals of the year the next day. This is no small task for many Irish families, who enjoy a main course of spiced beef that calls for the spices to be rubbed into the meat twice a day for a full week – if, that is, the traditional recipe is followed to a “T” and no shortcuts are taken.
Someone who speaks Irish Gaelic might greet family members with “Nollaig Shona Duit” – or “Merry Christmas” – before opening gifts and enjoying either spiced beef or grilled fish or lamb. Irish food is known to be rather plain, but it is filling. And on Christmas, meals are likely to include potatoes, the most popular vegetable in the country and one whose widespread popularity is credited to Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer who lived from 1552 to 1618. He discovered the potato in South America and brought it to Ireland, where it remains as ubiquitous on Irish tables as cabbage.
For Christmas dessert, many Irish families circle the table for scones and apple and barley pudding, which is similar to applesauce and fairly common because barley is one of Ireland’s major crops. Other families might slice into fruit cake or mince pies or spoon up some bread or plum pudding. In fact, just as they do with the spiced beef, many families do advance preparations and make one dish of plum pudding for Christmas, one for New Year’s and one for “Little Christmas,” or January 6.
For all intents and purposes, another “little” Christmas takes place for many Irish families on Dec. 26, or St. Stephen’s Day. On this day, according to Irish folklore, a wren betrayed the Irish army by pecking on a drum in an enemy camp and waking the sleeping soldiers. Another story holds that a wren betrayed St. Stephen while he was hiding from the enemy.
Either way, the “hunting of the wren” called for the Irish to find and kill a wren to symbolize the death of one year and the birth of a new one. People carried the dead wren from home to home, singing carols with horns and harmonicas. Appreciative homeowners would reward the carolers with a treat and get a wren feather in return for good luck. Some Irish families still observe this custom, but they use a fake, stuffed wren instead of the real thing.
The Irish Christmas season comes to a close on Three Kings Day, when the decorations come down and children scramble for any foil-wrapped candies and cookies that may have graced their Christmas tree.
The children may have more competition than they think, for this “land of saints and scholars” is also home to an antithesis band of small, grumpy shoemakers known to the rest of world as leprechauns. With any luck, these cute but cunning fairies will forfeit the candies and cookies for the bounty they really seek: hidden pots of gold at the end of rainbows.