Discover the enchanting Irish Christmas traditions and immerse yourself in the festive spirit with the help of an English language school - perfect for unlocking the cultural treasures of Ireland during the holiday season.
In Ireland, Christmas is an annual festival that incorporates several Christian and pre-Christian customs. From traditional food and drink to decorations and rituals, the holiday season in Ireland is full of unique experiences. Modern phenomena like the Christmas day swim and annual television and radio events add to the festive vibe.
In this blog we outline the main Irish Christmas traditions and customs so you can watch out for and enjoy even more of this special time of year!
Traditionally, Irish people would wait until the 8thof December, the official start of the Christmas season, to put up their decorations, but more recently from mid-November onwards you may start to notice Christmas decorations going up in shops and businesses around the city, as well as people’s homes and gardens. Bright, twinkling lights are hung up, Christmas trees are decorated and displayed, wreaths made from fir or holly tree branches are hung on doors, mistletoe hangs in doorways and stockings from fireplaces and candles are placed in windows.
The local councils of towns and cities also decorate public areas, so you will see bright lights and decorations in the streets and main squares, which offer great photo opportunities! Each church will also display a nativity scene, also called a ‘crib’ or a ‘creche’, and it is tradition for many Irish people to visit these displays in the lead up to Christmas.
In Ireland we like to offer gifts to family and friends at Christmas, so you will see that shops get a lot busier at this time of year. Popular gifts for adults are clothes, jewellery, and beauty products like perfume or aftershave. Irish children write a list of toys and presents they would like from Santa Claus and send it to the North Pole. Many Irish workplaces organise ‘secret Santa’, which is a tradition where colleagues pick a co-worker’s name out of a hat and secretly offer them a small, inexpensive gift. These gifts are usually exchanged during the office Christmas party, which many workplaces organise from the beginning of December on.
Christmas markets are becoming more and more popular every year in cities and towns around Ireland, in Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Cork and Waterford in particular. Galway City’s Christmas market can be found in Eyre Square from 10th November 2023 to the 7thJanuary 2024. At the market you can find stalls with traditional Christmas market foods and drink like mulled wine and hot chocolate, crepes and churros, sweets and chocolate, as well as stalls selling local handmade crafts and produce (a great place to do your Christmas shopping!)
One way you’ll know for sure that Christmas is around the corner is that you’ll start to hear popular Christmas songs playing on the radio and in shops. In Ireland many people like to attend concerts at Christmastime in churches or similar venues to hear choirs singing more traditional festive music. You can see the local group the The Galway Tenorssing carols at St John the Apostle Catholic Church in Knocknacarra on the 20thDecember 2023 at 8pm.
Even if they are not regularly practicing religion, many Irish people attend a Catholic mass ceremony on Christmas Eve, the 24thDecember. This event is called midnight mass, but in many churches it begins around 10pm. Galway Cathedral holds midnight mass every year on Christmas Eve at from 9.30pm, with choir music and a procession.
As well as traditional music concerts, around Christmastime many Irish people like to attend special theatre performances called pantomimes, or ‘pantos’. These plays retell classic fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk or Cinderella with a humorous or musical twist, and audiences can often participate in the show. The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin hosts the country’s most famous pantomimes each year, but you can see a panto in Galway also at the Town Hall theatre and in Irish at the Taibhdhearc theatre.
Christmas Food and drink
Like many countries, Ireland has traditional dishes that are prepared and eaten especially at Christmastime. Irish people usually have their main celebration on Christmas day, the 25th December, when family come together and share a special meal. Roast turkey and roast ham are the most popular main dishes, some families might also cook roast beef, and these are served with side dishes of potatoes, carrots, Brussel sprouts and sauces like gravy or cranberry sauce. Smoked salmon or other seafoods are a popular starter course, and a cheese course, although not traditional, is becoming more and more popular now also. Fruit cakes and puddings are classic desserts, but people also eat biscuits and cakes such as mince pies all throughout the festive season! You may have seen large boxes of biscuits or chocolates in the supermarket in the lead-up to Christmas, and it is very poplar to buy these as gifts to offer your friends, family and neighbours when you visit them over the holidays.
The twelve pubs of Christmas
You may have heard of the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’ in a line from a traditional Christmas song, but in recent years the Irish have turned this into a special event known as the twelve pubs of Christmas. Over the Christmas holidays, when people often return to their hometowns, groups of friends will get together, wear funny, woolly Christmas jumpers and hats and (try to) have a drink in twelve different pubs over the course of the evening. Sounds crazy? That’s exactly what it is!
The Christmas Swim
Speaking of crazy, another popular tradition in Ireland is to get together in groups and attend a Christmas Day swim. Yes- sea swimming in deepest winter! People wear funny outfits and run or dive into the water together and then warm up over a hot drink afterwards. Often these events are organised for charities, and money is raised by the swimmers for good causes. The annual Galway Day Christmas swim takes place at the Blackrock diving tower in Salthill and raises money for the charity organisation Cope.
Television and films
Not every day over the holidays however is spent celebrating and partying! Irish people often use the time between Christmas and the New Year to relax and sometimes spend the day watching TV! In contemporary times, The Late Late Toy Show - which airs on the last Friday of November - is often viewed as the start of the Christmas festive period.
There are also many films that people like to watch – classics like A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life – or more modern movies like Home Alone, The Grinch, Love Actuallyand even Die Hard. Cinemas will often put on special showings of these holiday-themed movies also.
An ancient Celtic celebration still takes place in some villages around Ireland on St. Stephens’s day (the 26th December), most notably in the town of Dingle in the south-west of Ireland. Traditionally, men and boys would dress up in costumes and masks made of straw, parade through the town and go door to door asking for money. Although the tradition has died out in many places, today most Irish people will call to their family, friends and neighbours’ houses on this day for a social visit and bring gifts.
Women’s Little Christmas
In Ireland Christmas time officially ends on the 6thof January, the feast of the Epiphany. In Ireland, it is tradition that women ‘take a day off’ from housework, cooking etc. as they have been working hard in the home over the holiday celebrations. On this day, known as Nollaig na mBan in Irish, girl friends, sisters, mothers and daughters get together and go out to dinner in a restaurant or to the pub.