Christmas is a popular annual holiday that is celebrated in unique ways around the world. Religion in Ireland runs deep, and has influenced Christmas traditions that we still celebrate today. However, this holiday was not always present in Ireland, and its origins have a rich history.
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Before they were introduced to Christianity, Ireland was home to the Celts; a pagan civilisation that worshipped multiple gods and goddesses. Irish Celtic Culture revolved around nature and the four seasons, and held annual festivals to celebrate each: Imbolc (spring), Bealtaine (summer), the beginning of the harvest season (Lughnasadh), and the end (Samhain). Yearly solstices and equinoxes were also sacred days for the Celtic people.
When the Roman Catholic faith made its way to Ireland, many of these pagan holidays and festivities were adapted in order to keep up with the region’s changing faith. It has been theorized that December the 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate Christmas due to its proximity to the winter solstice. This same day was also a sacred feast day in pagan Rome, in which they honored Sol Invictus, the sun god.
Decorating doors with holly and ivy wreaths is a Christmas tradition that began in Ireland. In Celtic times, people would hang these wreaths outside their houses to welcome visitors and drive away evil spirits.
The Wexford Carol is one of the longest sung Christmas carols in the world, and is believed to have originated in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. This carol tells the nativity story, and dates back to the 12th century.
Another ancient tradition that is still practiced today is the hanging of mistletoe. Celtic priests believed that mistletoe had healing powers and granted fertility. In the winter, they would perform a ceremony by cutting down mistletoe before sacrificing two white bulls. Obviously, this tradition has been cleaned up a bit since then, but you can see where a “kiss under the mistletoe” came from.
The tradition of lighting a yuletide candle was widespread in Ireland, even prior to the arrival of Christianity. This tradition was then adapted to the lighting of a candle on Christmas Eve, which was a symbol of welcoming to Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s parents.
Leprechauns are very well known mythical creatures that originated in Ireland. According to Irish legend, Santa Claus helped introduce leprechauns to the rest of the world. Irish Santa had invited them to work with the elves in the North Pole, aiding them in toy production. When the leprechauns became troublesome, Santa banished them, and they scattered.
Christmas Eve feasts have been around since the ancient times as well. An Irish Christmas Eve dinner includes but is not limited to: turkey, chicken, potatoes, mince pies, different kinds of vegetables, and stuffed goods. Selection boxes, or boxes full of chocolate for children, have since been added to the Christmas dinner tradition.
Christmas is a big deal in many of the countries it is celebrated in, and this is no different in Ireland. Christmas is one of the largest and longest celebrations that the Irish have. Irish people begin to celebrate Christmas early on December 8th, and the holiday festivities do not end until the start of the new year. While Ireland has its own Christmas quirks, many of its traditions are similar to those of other Western countries, such as: decorations, shopping, and Christmas trees.
In Ireland, the day after Christmas is known as St. Stephen’s Day. Very few cultures celebrate this holiday, and it is known to many of them as Boxing Day. St. Stephen’s Day began in the Middle Ages, when people began to collect boxes filled with items beneficial to the poor. These boxes would be set outside of popular places such as churches, where people could go to bring and collect items. As an American, this is a holiday I was unaware of, but it sounds like a great way to give back to those less fortunate after a day filled with receiving gifts from friends and family.
January 6th is officially the last day of Christmas in Ireland, and it goes out with even more festivities. Women’s Christmas, which began as the Feast of Epiphany, takes place on this day. Traditionally, it is a day of rest for women, and the men in the house are responsible for household chores. While this holiday does not necessarily apply to life today, some women in Ireland take this day to relax and gather with friends.
Christmas has a very rich and long running history in Ireland, and it is important for us to acknowledge its roots. While many of these traditions have been changed over the years, it is interesting to see their origins and how they have evolved into what they are today. While Christmas celebrations will be different this year, I encourage you to do what you can in order to make them as enjoyable and normal as possible.