Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On the Eve of Christmas: Traditions in an Irish family

As you and your family settle in on this Eve of Christmas to enjoy your own traditional Christmas customs, consider for a moment just how your ancestors might have celebrated in the same or in a similar fashion. How far back do some of your Christmas traditions go?

Many traditional Irish Christmas customs are rooted in the ancient past when the Gaelic culture was suppressed by the spread of Christianity, as well as in the relatively recent past with the 17th century ban on Catholic religious practice.

The placing of a lighted candle in the windows of homes on Christmas Eve is still done in Ireland today, as it was during Penal Times, when practice of the Catholic faith was completely outlawed. The lighted candle signalled to priests a safe place in which they might celebrate the Catholic mass.

Symbolically the candle also represents a welcome to Mary and Joseph, as they travelled looking for shelter, demonstrating that although there was no room for them in Bethlehem, in the homes of the faithful, there is always a welcome. Tradition holds that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household, and at day's end be extinguished by a girl who bears the name Mary.

In some Irish households, after the evening meal on Christmas Eve, the table is again set and on it is placed a loaf of soda bread made with caraway seeds and raisins, along with a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle, as symbols of hospitality. Although done less often in urban centres, in some homes in the countryside, the door to the house is left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, might benefit from this welcome.

It is said that the placing of a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland. Holly in Ireland is in full flourish at Christmas time, and the proliferation of holly edging farmer's fields meant the poor might have the means with which to decorate their humble homes.

On Christmas Eve, with all in place and welcoming at home, Catholic families head out for midnight mass. For my parents in Dublin, this usually meant setting out around 11:15pm in order to arrive on time at the church of my mother's family — the church in which my parents were married: St. Patrick's Church, Ringsend — to offer prayers in memory of their deceased family members, and to enjoy the carol singing of the choir for the half hour prior to mass.

After Christmas has come and gone in Ireland, the tree and holiday decor are traditionally taken down on 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Old Christmas Day. In our home my mother was always most insistent about this being done, since it was considered bad luck to take down the tree and decorations either before or after that day.

6 January also marks the date of ‘Nollaig na mBan', which literally translated into English is ’Christmas of Women’, but which is traditionally called Women's Christmas or Women's Little Christmas. On this day, women all over Ireland honour the long held custom of gathering together for their own little celebration. You can read more about that day here.

May you and all of your family enjoy your traditions while the time is nigh, and on this Eve of  Christmas,

'Nollaig Shona Dhuit', Happy Christmas to You!


  1. Many of these traditions are still celebrated today, though I've only heard of Women's Christmas in recent years - we always celebrated the 6th as Little Christmas - the Three Kings were placed in the crib and the children would get a small present, sweets, if they were lucky.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments, Dara. I certainly meant for it to be a contemporary account since it's based on the experiences of my aunties, uncles, cousins and friends who still live in Ireland. This morning I was 'talking' on FB to my cousin in Thurles, and she has lovely recollections of the same sort of Little Christmas as you, with the Three Kings being placed in the crib, and receiving a small present, so I'll have to add that one to our list. It all makes me long for my childhood all over again.

      Happy Christmas to you and yours!
      Wishing you all the best in the new year,

  2. Dara, my great aunt told me that, as the youngest in the family, she lit the lights on Christmas Eve to welcome the Baby Jesus. It is nice to read your post to learn more about these traditions. Merry Christmas!

    1. Thanks very much for your comments, Colleen. How lovely that your great aunt has that recollection. As the youngest in the family, I was always allowed to place the baby Jesus as the last addition to the crib on Christmas Eve. It's lovely to think about all of the traditions kept by our family members then and now.

      Happy Christmas to you and yours!
      All the best to you in the new year,


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