Feature: Ireland’s fascinating Christmas traditions

Wren Boys from Athea, County Limerick 1940s. Photo: Sligo Heritage.

How much do you know about the origins of Irish Christmas?

By Alison Barry

With Christmas Day fast approaching, it can be easy to forget how we ended up with certain festive practices that have become an integral part of how we celebrate the season. With worldly traditions becoming more intertwined every year, many of us may not be aware of how the traditions we call our own evolved to where they are today.

Putting up a Christmas tree, for example, which many would consider an integral part of decorating for Christmas, was previously a niche tradition. Introduced to Ireland in the 1840s, Christmas trees were originally privy to just wealthy families.

On Christmas Eve, a big candle known as a ‘Coinneal Mór na Nollag’ was left burning in the window. This was to represent the welcoming of visitors to the home.

With more people making the switch to ‘alternative’ types of Christmas dinner, such as vegan options, it is interesting to note that the ‘traditional’ turkey was not always the centrepiece at an Irish Christmas feast. Spiced beef was originally the staple of the Irish Christmas dinner, not turkey, which is a relatively new addition to Irish festive activities.

Nollaig na mBan, otherwise known as Women’s Christmas or Little Christmas, originated from the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas Day. Now a drastically modernised celebration, it was traditionally a day when men in a household did what were considered ‘women’s’ jobs, while ladies took the day to socialise.

On St. Stephen’s Day, local musicians or ‘Wren Boys’ would play music through the local town or village while donned in straw suits and masks. This tradition involved hunting a fake wren before attaching it to the top of a pole and parading it around!

Lastly, while we are all aware that Nollaig is the Irish word for Christmas, in medieval Irish the word was spelled Notlaic and originated from natalicia, the Latin word for birth.

So however you are planning to celebrate and decorate this Christmas, there are certainly a wide variety of national traditions to draw your inspiration from. Nollaig Shona Duit!

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