I scoured the web gathering information related to Irish Christmas Traditions. Ireland, like most countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own. Many of these customs have their root in the time when the Gaelic culture and religion of the country were being suppressed and it is perhaps because of that they have survived into modern times. As it turns out, there are a lot of American traditions that have there origin in Ireland. Below is a summary of what I found.
The Introduction of Christmas to Ireland
Between the introduction of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, and the infiltrations from the English in the late middle ages, there is little written about Christmas in Ireland.
In 1171, the English King, Henry II took Christmas festivities to Ireland. He essentially went there to get the Irish chiefs to swear allegiance to the English Crown, and on finding them very agreeable, so history tells us, he had a huge hall built, in traditional Irish style, in a village near Dublin, called Hogges. There he laid on a sumptuous feast, introducing the Irish to the customs of tournaments, Christmas plays, mumming and masking etc.
Most of the references are in annals recording visits of Kings and nobles, and tell us little about the people and their customs. The 19th and early 20th century writers have done more to build a picture of Irish Christmas than anyone. Stories which invite the reader inside the homes and farmsteads of Irish families, and share with them the preparations for |Christmas, which have been a part of this hidden Ireland for centuries.
Merry Christmas in Gaelic
Nollaig Shona Duit (‘null-ig hun-a dit’)
The Christmas cooking would start early with the making of the plum pudding, breads and spiced beef. A traditional Irish Christmas meal might consist of roasted goose, potatoes, cranberry sauce, vegetables, sausages, and puddings. Spiced beef is often eaten sliced cold with fresh bread in the days after the main feast.
A Candle in the Window
The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas eve is still practiced today. It has a number of purposes but primarily it was an symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they traveled looking for shelter. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as, during Penal Times this was not allowed. A further element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name ‘Mary’.
The Laden Table
After evening meal on Christmas eve the kitchen table was again set and on it were placed a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveler, could avail of the welcome.
The glossy-leaved holly with it’s clusters of red berries, popular as a door decoration in North America can be traced to early settlers from the south of Ireland. They came to the United States during the Great Potato Famine. Holly grows wild in the south of Ireland and at Christmas time houses are lavishly decorated with holly.
The Boy Wren Procession
There are different legends about the origin of this custom. One is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the 700’s, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. A wren began to eat breadcrumbs left on the head of a drum, and the rat-a-tat-tat of its beak woke the drummer, who sounded the alarm and woke the camp, leading to the defeat of the Irish soldiers and the continuing persecution of the wren.
On St. Stephens day a procession takes place where a pole with a holly bush is carried from house to house and families dress up in old clothes and with blackened faces. In olden times an actual wren would be killed and placed on top of the pole.
This custom has to a large degree disappeared but the tradition of visiting from house to house on St. Stephens Day has survived and is very much part of Christmas.
St Stephens Day
In Ireland, the day is one of nine official public holidays. Although now mostly a discontinued tradition, in certain parts of Ireland persons carrying either an effigy of a wren or an actual caged wren [live or dead], travel from house to house playing music, singing and dancing. Depending on which region of the country, they are called Wrenboys and Mummers. A Mummer’s Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway and Dingle County Kerry.
St. Stephen’s Day honors the first Christian martyr, stoned to death shortly after the Crucifixion.
Poem to Celebrate St Stephen
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy–sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wren boys at all.
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. All decorations are traditionally taken down on Little Christmas (January 6th.) and it is considered to be bad luck to take them down beforehand.
Here are a few of the sites that I found the information on: