Christmas really brings out the best in Ireland and the Irish, from cheerful festivities to wild acts of machismo, happy reunions, musical celebrations in church, and partying for weeks. In Ireland, Christmas lasts for about two weeks and is joyfully celebrated as a respite from the winter, although the weather has not been too bad the last few years. Here are just a few of Ireland’s favorite things at Christmas – some old, some new, but all activities and aspects that make Christmas in Ireland particularly special.
Christmas Day Swim:
Christmas day swims take place all over Ireland on Christmas morning. On Christmas Day, hundreds and hundreds of people can be seen jumping into the Irish Sea wearing only their bathing suits. The water in the Irish Sea on Christmas Day is usually around 50F / 10C. Unfortunately, the temperature outside the water is usually far below that, making the experience pretty intense. This is certainly not for the faint of heart but is a proven hangover cure, and participants often receive sponsorship for charities.
This started off with aunties, grandmothers and relatives handing over hideous jumpers as presents for Christmas, but somehow Christmas jumpers have turned into a competition on the streets of Ireland. The woollier, hairier, and more ridiculously decorated the better.
The Wren Boys:
During penal times, a group of soldiers was about to be ambushed. They had been surrounded, but a group of wrens pecked on their drums and woke them. The wren became known as “The Devil’s Bird.” To remember this, on St. Stephen’s Day people have a procession and go door-to-door wearing old clothes, blackened faces, and carrying a dead (now more often fake) wren on top of the pole. Then, crowds of “strawboys” dressed in straw suits and masks march to celebrate the wren. This later evolved into a caroling event. Although this door-to-door tradition is mostly found in small country villages, carolers can be heard on many main streets over Christmas raising money for charity. It there’s one thing the Irish love doing is making music and Christmas is the perfect excuse to make some noise.
Christmas decorations in Ireland traditionally were just a wreath of holly on the front door of the house. However, National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” seems to have been a blue print for many Irish households as they are now lit up like Rockefeller Center. Also traditionally, decorations would go up on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and come down on Little Christmas, January 6. A tradition that was very widespread in the 1970’s but which seems to be dying out somewhat and especially in urban areas is the ‘candle in the window’. Symbolically the candle represented a welcome to Joseph and Mary as they wandered in search of lodgings. The candle indicated to strangers and especially to the poor that there may be an offering of food in the house within.
The Irish pantomime is now a traditionally popular form of theater incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines and a fairly well-defined set of performance convention. This is one of the most popular Christmas traditions usually most enjoyed by parents and children.
Also known as ‘Women’s Christmas’ or Nollaig na mBan this falls on the 6th of January, and marks the official end of the Christmas season. Traditionally the men of the house take over for the day, preparing meals and allowing the women to have a rest.