What is the difference between Irish Christmas traditions and Amercan Christmas traditions?
Like Irish weddings and Irish christenings, Irish Christmas traditions are not that different than American Christmas traditions.
In fact, there are many customs, songs, and decorations that we hold dear in America that were brought to America by our Irish ancestors. In turn, many Irish Christmas traditions are rooted in other cultural traditions, some going back to ancient times in faraway lands.
So many Christmas traditions around the globe are interrelated...it's hard to know what tradition originated where. No one says it more beautifully than Maria Hubert of the Christmas Archives, "The links are so tightly intertwined, it becomes difficult to separate one belief from another, Christmas is like a Tapestry, tightly and colorfully woven. It is almost impossible to find a thread and trace it to its beginning in the picture."
Probably the biggest difference between Irish Christmas traditions and American Christmas traditions is that Christmas in Ireland is more about the spirit of Christmas and less about the glitz and glitter. The sounds of the season are more prevalent...and the most expensive decorations are found on shops, restaurants, and hotels...not the residential areas.
People pile gifts to friends and family under the Christmas tree, just like we do in the states. But the Christmas tree as a central Christmas decoration didn't arrive in Ireland until relatively recently...an imported tradition from Germany.
In Ireland, there may be gifts for the children under the tree from friends and family, but Santa Claus does not place gifts for the children under the tree as he does here in America. Instead, Santa leaves their gifts at the end of their beds as they slumber. Most are sound asleep, since they didn't get to bed until after the Midnight Christmas Mass.
Just like in America, Irish Christmas traditions include children visiting with Santa before Christmas and sharing their wish list with him. No matter how many gifts are under the Christmas tree, though, the children all anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus...as they drift off to sleep after Christmas Mass, they excitedly wonder what he'll leave in their room that night. Instead of expecting their presents under the tree, they leave sacks at the end of their bed for Santa to fill.
One of the oldest Irish Christmas traditions is the "Whitewashing of the House"
Long ago, when the harvest was over and the winter chill set in, the Irish would begin their preparations for Christmas as early as October. Best known as the "whitewashing of the house", they would clean...clean...and clean some more...a symbolic gesture to make the way pure for the savior's arrival...a practical way to prepare for visiting friends and family.
In America, we tend to wait until Spring to clean the house from top to bottom. But for the Irish, Christmas is the best time to do this. The Irish Christmas tradition of cleaning the house in preparation for the day is an ancient custom, predating Christianity and Celtic culture. Many other ancient cultures had some kind of home-cleaning ritual they would perform for religious reasons. Another example of how modern Irish Christmas traditions intermingle with ancient traditions from all over the world.
One of the most longstanding Irish Christmas traditions that still continues to this day, especially in the rural areas of Ireland, is the "whitewashing of the house". To make the way pure for the coming savior, the women scrubbed and polished and the men whitewashed every structure on their property...the house, the barn, even the outhouse.
Nowadays, we clean for the sake of coming guests and to reduce the inevitable chaos of the holiday festivities. We re-decorate to fill our homes with the Christmas spirit. We bring out special decorations, linens, candles, and all manner of trinkets that are reserved for this special time of year.
Are there traditional Irish Christmas decorations common in American homes today?
One of the greatest delights of the holiday season in America is driving through the snowy streets to admire the festive lights and decorations of family homes.
But when it comes time to go out and buy decorations for your own home, it becomes abundantly clear that this American Christmas tradition seems to be all about spending more and more to have homes more festive than the Joneses down the block.
Irish Christmas decorations today are just as beautiful and plentiful...the Christmas tree with sparkling lights, the garland, the ornaments...
It is the public places where you'll find most of the glitz and glitter. Irish Christmas decorations in homes tend to be more in keeping with the spirit of the season...humble, simple, symbolic....
Actually, the mistletoe and holly have been traditional Irish Christmas decorations even longer than the Irish have been celebrating Christmas. They were part of the ancient Celtic rituals celebrating the Winter Solstice.
The Christmas season officially begins on December 8 in Ireland. One old Irish Christmas tradition that few still celebrate is "Women's Christmas", or Nollaig na mBan in Gaelic. December 12 was celebrated as Nollaig na mBan, the day when Irish men would give their wives the day off and take over household duties for one day (Gee, thanks!).
Although there aren't very many who still carry on this old Irish Christmas tradition, there are still a few that do. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking, but hopefully the reason it's more rarely observed these days is because Irish men and women share those duties more throughout the year.
Irish Christmas traditions continue after Christmas Day...the twelve days of Christmas have just begun.
Although most people think that the 12 days of Christmas end with Christmas Day, they actually begin with Christmas Day Mass.
Legend has it that the "12 Days of Christmas" carol was sung as a way to remember the tenets of the Catholic faith in secret.
Click here for more on the legend of "The 12 days of Christmas".
Christmas Day, like in America, is a time for feasting, celebrating, and exchanging gifts with friends and family. But as American life gets back to business the day after Christmas, Christmas in Ireland is far from over. The day after Christmas is celebrated as well.
According to Irish Christmas traditions, December 26 is also an official public holiday...St. Stephen's Day. It is so named in honor of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Remember the "feast of Stephen" in the traditional Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas"? That is a reference to this Irish Christmas tradition. Another Christmas Carol mystery solved...they are referring to St. Stephen's Day. The day for feasting and celebrating with family and friends.
According to Irish Christmas traditions, it is customary to give small gifts, usually money, to those people in the neighborhood who serve families daily, like the mailman, the milkman, etc. Often, they were invited inside for some traditional Christmas pudding and some Irish whiskey to break their wintry chill.
In Gaelic, St. Stephen's Day is called Lá Fhéile Stiofán. In Britain, and on most American calendars, it is called "Boxing Day". Another Gaelic name for it is Lá an Dreoilín, or "Day of the Wren".
One of the oldest Irish Christmas traditions is "Wren's Day"
Some say this Irish Christmas tradition predates the days of St. Patrick. Others say it originated during Penal Times. Although Irish folklore has many legends linking the wren with times in the life of Jesus, there is also an old Irish folktale dating back to Penal Times, when it was illegal to practice the Catholic Faith anywhere in the British Isles. .
According to the story, a group of wrens thwarted a plot against a group of soldiers when they swarmed all around the sleeping soldiers and awoke them with feverish pecking on the drums. After that, the wren became knows as "the Devil's Bird".
So according to the custom of "Wren's Day", young men go out a kill a wren, then hang it on a pole adorning a holly bush. Similar to American Halloween tradition, the Wren boys dress up in old clothes and blacken their faces, then go door-to-door singing...
People celebrating "Wren's Day" today don't actually kill a wren anymore. They carry a model of a wren on the pole instead and travel from house to house carrying it on the pole, singing, dancing, and gathering children to follow behind them.
These festive young men are called various names, depending on where they are traveling...Wrenboys, Strawboys, Mummers. As they reach each house, they sing:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the penny and down with the pan,
Give us a penny to bury the wren.
They are treated to porter (a dark Irish beer) and pudding. Then the children of the house gather to follow the wren boys onward to the next stop. Soon, a large gathering has assembled at a home at the end of the neighborhood for music, dancing, and festivities.
Although this custom is slowly fading from popularity, it is still practiced in some places. This old custom has evolved in most places where hints of the old live on as people visit from house to house to celebrate on St. Stephen's Day. If you'd like to see this custom at its best, visit the village of New Inn, County Galway for the annual "Mummer's Festival".
When does the Irish Christmas season end?
Irish Christmas traditions draw to a close on January 6. The 12 days of the Irish Christmas season mark the twelve days between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the "Three Wise Men", the Magi. January 6 is the day of the feast of the Epiphany. It is called "Little Christmas" in Ireland, Nollaig Bheag in Gaelic.
Little Christmas, the Day of the Epiphany, is sacred as a celebration of God's manifestation to us in human form...Jesus. Some say that long ago, before Western Civilization adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Epiphany was the traditional day to celebrate the birth of Christ, that this is the reason the Irish still call this day Little Christmas.
One thing is for sure, Little Christmas, the Day of the Epiphany, is observed as the last day of the holiday season. It is the last day of the children's winter school break, and the last day for displaying holiday decorations. In fact, it's very bad luck in Ireland to take down Christmas decorations before Little Christmas.
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Click here to find for traditional Irish Christmas food
Click here for lyrics to many traditional Irish Christmas carols
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