Report: from cribs and special food to decorating the house and Nollaig na mBan, seven snapshots of how Christmas used to be marked in Ireland

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

In Ireland today, the Christmas season extends to a near month-long celebration of consumerism and partying. This is a sharp contrast to the more subdued and humble way our ancestors celebrated, which mirrored the midwinter festivals of our more ancient pagan ancestors in many ways. The traditional Irish Christmas revolved around Christian celebration with respite from work. Here are seven common Irish Roman Catholic Christmas traditions which were common from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. 

Decorating the house

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from December 1964 on the Christmas lights on Dublin's O'Connell Street

Preparation for Christmas started during Advent with a rigorous clean-up of the house and farm buildings, which included whitewashing. In the days before Christmas, the interiors of houses were decorated, usually holly with red berries and ivy was also popular. The use of such greenery represented the living "evergreen" Christ. The ancient Pagan Irish would have considered plants that did not die in winter to be magical. Instead of a large tree, the top part or branch of an evergreen tree was potted up. This was decorated with homemade paperchains and ornaments. Another important display was the Christmas candle, a thick white or red candle that was lit and lasted over the Christmas period. 

The crib

Most Catholic houses in Ireland had a crib, a small collection of plaster figures representing each participant in the Nativity. The crib figures were displayed in a small wooden stable with straw or moss. The infant Jesus would not be placed in the crib until Christmas morning. The local Catholic Church was decorated for Christmas with a much larger crib, and people visited especially to see this spectacle. It was thought that strands of straw taken from that crib would give good luck to the household for the coming year.

From RTÉ Six One News, a report on global Nativity crib exhibition in Dundalk in 2013

"Getting in the Christmas"

In an era before online shopping (and large shops and shopping centres), many families would travel to the local village or town to "get in the Christmas" prior to Christmas Eve. Rural people would bring farm products such as vegetables, butter, geese and eggs to sell and the money they made would be used to purchase their Christmas provisions. The local shopkeeper would give an annual gift for loyal customers only, known as the "Christmas box", a custom of that continues in some form in parts of Ireland.

Christmas Eve

As Advent was a time of fasting for Catholics, fish was eaten (hake was popular on Christmas Eve) and Midnight Mass attended at the local church. According to tradition, the Christmas candle is placed in a window on Christmas Eve night to welcome the Holy Family into the house. It was also thought that the Blessed Virgin would pass through the house on Christmas Eve. 

It is wonderful to see so such traditions associated with the Irish Christmas remaining with us, as many are worth remembering and reviving. 

Before electric light, the Irish countryside at night was a place of absolute blackness.  On Christmas Eves past, one can only imagine how beautiful the scene of flickering candles placed in every window must have been. This must have added to the excitement of children awaiting Santa Claus. By the early 20th century, he had become an annual visitor who filled children’s stockings with toys, ribbons and fruits such as oranges. Many of the toys were homemade of wood, or were sewn or knitted.

Christmas food

In the 19th century, most foods on the Christmas table of the rural smallholder was homegrown and cooked over an open turf fire. On Christmas Day, pot roasted goose was accompanied by a bread or potato stuffing made with butter and onions and flavoured with seasonal herbs, perhaps accompanied by sliced boiled ham. Spiced beef was part of the main Christmas meal in some parts of the country. Meats were accompanied by potatoes and winter vegetables. A large Christmas cake, made using spices and dried fruit soaked in alcohol, was considered a wonderful treat.

From RTÉ Archives, a Newsbeat report from 1964 on buying the Christmas turkey

St Stephens Day and New Year’s

In Ireland the day after Christmas is known as St Stephen’s Day, a national holiday. However, the celebrations on that day have little to do with the saint. Dinner would be of leftovers from the day before and houses expected a visit from the "wren boys". They would visit houses in the local area playing music and singing in exchange for money and drinks. 

READ: "I'll see you the Wran's Day in Dingle"

Between St Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Eve things returned to some normality with farm and other work resumed. New Year’s Eve celebrations were marked simply: people stayed up until midnight and opened doors to allow the air from the new year in and the old year out. There were many superstitions around New Year’s Eve which foretold events for the coming year.

Little Christmas

The 12th day after Christmas Day is traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, but was known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas) or Little Christmas. It was a day when roles were reversed in the home: men did the women’s work in the house while the women socialised and took tea and cake.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, Brenda Donohue on Nollaig Na mBan celebrations in Listowel

Recently Women’s Christmas has been undergoing a renewal (with prosecco replacing the tea). It is wonderful to see so such traditions associated with the Irish Christmas remaining with us, as many are worth remembering and reviving. 

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ