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What It’s Like To Celebrate Christmas In Ireland

What It’s Like To Celebrate Christmas In Ireland

I’ve spent the last 33 years in Ireland. In this guide, you’ll discover what Christmas in Ireland is really like.

We celebrate Christmas in Ireland in a big way. However, there isn’t one standard version of an ‘Irish Christmas’.

From the many weird and wonderful Christmas traditions in Ireland, like ‘Wren Day’, to chilly swims, the 12 pubs of Christmas and more, there’s plenty involved in an Ireland Christmas celebration!

Some quick need-to-knows about Ireland Christmas celebrations

Christmas in galway

Photos with thanks to Chaosheng Zhang

Before showing you the ins and outs of an Ireland Christmas celebration, let’s answer the most frequently asked questions about Christmas in Ireland:

1. What do they call the Christmas holiday in Ireland?

The word for Christmas in Ireland is ‘Nollaig’. If you wanted to wish someone a ‘Happy Christmas’ you would say ‘Nollaig shona dhuit’, pronounced ‘Nul-egg hunnah gw-itch’.

2. How does Ireland celebrate Christmas?

An Irish Christmas varies from family to family. For many families, the day begins with gift-giving followed by Mass. People then visit friends and family before eating Christmas dinner at home or at a loved ones.

3. What holiday is celebrated the day after Christmas in Ireland?

The day after Christmas Day in Ireland (December 26th) is St. Stephen’s Day. It is a public holiday and a day of rest. In Northern Ireland and the UK it is called ‘Boxing Day’.

13 things we do at Christmas in Ireland 

Certain Christmas in Ireland facts tend to surprise people, while others aren’t exclusive to Ireland.

Below, you’ll find a mix of Ireland Christmas facts to whip out over the holiday season.

1. In Ireland, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th

Galway at Christmas time

Photos courtesy Milestones Inventive

Arguably the most notable of the various Ireland Christmas facts is the date – Christmas is celebrated on December 25th in Ireland and it is the highlight of the Christian calendar.

No-one can be sure of the date of the birth of Jesus, which Christmas celebrates, but a Roman historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, dated his conception to March 25.

His birth was nine months later, hence the 25th December was chosen as the official date.

We all know that Santa delivers his presents during the night of December 24th ready to be opened by excited kids the following morning.

2. While St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated on the 26th

yulefest Kilkenny Christmas market 2023

Photos courtesy Yulefest Kilkenny via Fáilte Ireland

December 26th is known as St Stephen’s Day in Ireland, although over the border in Northern Ireland, it’s known as Boxing Day (see our guide to the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland).

It’s also referred to as the “Feast of St Stephen” as in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”. St Stephens’ Day celebrates the life of Saint Stephen, an early Christian martyr who was stoned to death in AD36.

On St Stephen’s Day, it’s traditional in Ireland, particularly in Dingle, for “Wren Boys” to parade around the streets in straw suits, dancing, singing and making merry to raise funds for charity.

Related read: Check out our guide to 36 of the most interesting and unusual facts about Ireland

3. The Late Late Toy Show marks the beginning of the festive season

For many, the beginning of Christmas festivities in Ireland starts with a TV programme on RTE One – ‘The Late Late Toy Show’!

This is a special edition of the popular chat show ‘The Late Late Show’. It highlights some of the best-selling and most popular toys in the lead-up to Christmas.

This TV show started in 1975 and its strong following continues to grow. It is currently the most-watched programme of the year and is highly influential when it comes to toy and gift sales.

Previously presented by Ryan Tubridy (2009 to 2022), the show is a true Irish Christmas tradition and is always a big event in early December. 

This is one of several fun facts about Christmas in Ireland that tends to spark the interest of many (if you’re interested, you can usually watch this show online!).

4. Although December 8th is traditionally the unofficial beginning

Belfast Christmas market 2023 dates

Photos by Brian Morrison via Tourism Ireland

One of the best-known Ireland Christmas facts is the unofficial beginning of the festivities, which takes place on the 8th.

Most Christmas plans and preparations are drawn up well ahead of December, and December the 8th is traditionally when things kick-start.

It is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and is a day when practising Catholics attend mass.

The religious holiday became a big pre-Christmas shopping day with many people from smaller towns and villages in Ireland travelling to the various cities in Ireland to pick up gifts.

However, online shopping and the significance of the American “Black Friday” shopping day in late November have changed things a bit.

5. Nollaig Shona Duit means ‘Happy Christmas’ in Ireland

happy Christmas in Irish

Photo via Shutterstock

If you’re looking for fun facts about Christmas in Ireland to share with friends and family, show-off at the dinner table with this little nugget!

If you want to wish someone a Happy Christmas in Irish, practise getting your tongue around this phrase: “Nollaig Shona Duit” (it sounds like ‘NO-lihg HO-nuh ghwich’).

This traditional Irish greeting translates as “Happy Christmas to you” and you’ll hear it everywhere in the days leading up to Christmas.

However, you should only use it to wish one person a Happy Christmas in Gaelic. If you want to offer the greeting to a group, try “Nollaig shona dhaoibh!” which sounds like ‘Null-eg hunna gheev’.

Related read: See our guide to the most popular Irish Christmas blessings

6. Many people head for a swim on Christmas morning

forty foot dublin

Photos via Shutterstock

Next up in our guide to fun facts about Christmas in Ireland is the Christmas morning swim. Although there are Christmas swims all over Ireland, it has been happening at Forty Foot in Dublin for over 250 years.

Although we couldn’t find a clear reason behind why this started, a dip in the chilly waters of the Forty Foot is a Dublin tradition.

Throngs of hardy Dubliners strip off and take a dip in the freezing waters of the Irish Sea at this popular bathing spot near Sandycove.

This swimming spot was once for male bathers only and even had a mention by author James Joyce in his novel Ulysses. 

7. ‘Little Christmas’ takes place on January 6th

Little Christmas Nollaig na mBan

Photo via Shutterstock

One of the more unique fun facts about Christmas in Ireland is Nollaig na mBan. Following the main event, Ireland has a traditional “Little Women’s Christmas”.

It takes place on January 6th, the Twelfth Night or Epiphany. 

Back in the day, housework in many homes in Ireland would have been exclusively done by the women of the household.

Women’s Little Christmas was traditionally a day when the men were tasked with all of the chores and the women got together and enjoyed a well earned day out.

8. Many people light a candle and leave it in the window on Christmas Eve

Candle in the window during Christmas in Ireland

Photo left: Igor11105 top right: JayDeeSweden. Bottom right: helovi (Canva)

Candles are part of any traditional Irish Christmas as it’s a sign of welcome and a symbol of warm hospitality.

Window candles are symbolic in Ireland as they show that the family would welcome the Holy Family, unlike the innkeeper in Bethlehem who turned them away from his inn.

Candles in the window were also used by Catholics at times of religious intolerance. They showed that it was safe to say mass in the home.

9. Many groups of friends attempt the 12 pubs of Christmas

Doolin Pubs

Photos by The Irish Road Trip

Now, although this is in a guide to fun facts about Christmas in Ireland, it comes with a disclaimer – we 100% would not recommend that you try and have 12 drinks!

Although many are familiar with the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, there’s a drinking version that’s popular in Ireland.

Although it’s not as big as it once was, the ’12 Pubs of Christmas’ challenges participants to visit 12 pubs in one night.

There’s a variety of rules that accompany the 12 pubs, like only being able to drink using your ‘wrong’ hand. Those that break a rule generally have to knock back their drink or a ‘penalty’ shot.

10. There’s now many Christmas markets in Ireland each year

Christmas markets Ireland 2023

Christmas markets used to be the reserve of Germany and Italy, but they are now several Christmas markets in Ireland (Galway, Belfast, Waterford etc.).

Traditional wooden huts are decorated with fairy lights and sell Christmas food, hand-crafted gifts as well as hot food and drinks.

They’re bustling hubs with live seasonal entertainment, carol singing and Christmas trees. Find one near you and join in this heart-warming tradition.  

11. Christmas dinner is a big celebration with plenty of traditional food thrown in

Irish Christmas foods

If you read our Irish Christmas foods guide, you’ll know that the traditional Christmas dinner is a key part of Christmas in Ireland.

Christmas Day, December 25th, is when extended families sit down together. The table is laid with crackers at each place setting and once pulled, paper crowns are worn and jokes are shared.

Diners tuck into a tasty cooked meal usually of turkey, roast potatoes, vegetables and all the trimmings.

After a brief respite, the Christmas Pudding is then served with custard, brandy butter or white sauce.

Hot Irish coffee and mince pies may follow and the Christmas cake will be cut – if anyone has any room left for more!

12. The Wexford Carol is one of the world’s longest Christmas carols

Also known as the Enniscorthy Carol, the Wexford Carol is named after the town of Enniscorthy and the county of Wexford where it was composed.

The carol is known and sung throughout Ireland at Christmas and it tells the story of Christ’s birth and the Nativity. It has 5 verses of 8 lines each and has English and Irish lyrics.

The carol was originally written in the 15th century (possibly earlier) but was made popular by William Grattan Flood, organist at St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy.

Related read: Check out our guide to 11 of the most popular Irish Christmas songs

13. On Christmas Eve some of Ireland’s best-known musicians busk on Dublin’s Grafton Street

Grafton Street

Photos left and top right: Tony Pleavin. Other: Fionn McCann (via Failte Ireland)

The last of our fun facts about Christmas in Ireland is a mighty one. Since the 1980s, Grafton Street has been the hub for street music and busking.

In recent times it has become the centre for famous singers, pop stars and musicians to gather and sing traditional Christmas carols.

Past years have seen Bono, Sinead O’Connor, Hozier and Glen Hansard providing an impromptu concert on Grafton Street.

Christmas in Ireland facts FAQs

We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What are some good Ireland Christmas traditions facts?’ to ‘What’s something people generally don’t know?’.

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

What are some fun facts about Christmas in Ireland?

‘Little Christmas’ takes place on January 6th, Christmas Day is December 25th St. Stephen’s Day is December 26th, many people head for a swim on Christmas morning and more (see above).

What are some unusual Irish Christmas facts?

A Christmas morning swim is common in many towns and villages. Nollaig na mBan is a ‘little Christmas’ that takes place on January 6th. And Nollaig Shona Duit means ‘Happy Christmas’ in Ireland.

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