Christmas in Ireland is a traditional holiday in both parts of the island, and very much a family and religious celebration! As in French Canada, Roman Catholic families attend Midnight Mass together on Christmas Eve. Christmas is the important celebration, rather than the New Year, which has more emphasis in Scotland. The festivities last from Christmas Eve until January 6th, when decorations are put away.
Most homes have fireplaces and mantlepieces that are decorated with holly and ornaments. People also clean their houses thoroughly, and in the past it was whitewashed as well as a means of purification.
In many areas on Christmas Eve a lit candle is placed in the window, though nowadays an electric one is usually the case. This goes back to traditions of hospitality in ancient times.
In terms of other decorations, usually the most elaborate kind is found in shops, restaurants and hotels around towns. In residential areas, the spirit of Christmas is felt more than the glitz and glitter.
In Ireland, Santa Clause or Father Christmas leaves gifts for children at the foot of their bed rather than under the tree. The tree is where you may find gifts from friends and family.
Another common tradition is that of mistletoe. Since Victorian times, it has been a cherished Christmas decoration. Kissing under the mistletoe is as much an Irish Christmas tradition as it is anywhere else. But for centuries before that custom came into practice, this custom was actually banned in Christian Ireland...anything held so dear by the "pagans" (Druids) was thought to be evil.
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.
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.
Irish Christmas traditions draw to an end on January 6. The 12 days of an Irish Christmas mark the twelve days between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the "Three Wise Men". January 6 is called "Little Christmas" in Ireland, Nollaig Bheag in Gaelic. It 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.