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Home / Think / Past Lives: Irish Christmas Traditions

Past Lives: Irish Christmas Traditions

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The celebration of Christmas has evolved, with some traditions lost, some changed, and some maintained. What traditions are particular of an Irish Christmas, and how well have they endured?

Nollaig na mBan

Also known as Women’s Little Christmas, this traditional celebration held on the feast of the Epiphany harks back to the days when women were responsible for the bulk of the work in the home, particularly around the Christmas period. Women would gather together in their homes, social clubs and pubs – though not until 1958 with the latter, as women were not allowed to go to the pub unless accompanied by a man before then – and take the opportunity to have a break and enjoy some merriment. In these more equal times, the tradition has died out somewhat, though many still mark the occasion and hotels and restaurants, particularly in southern parts of Ireland and even abroad in the US have special Women’s Christmas afternoon teas and lunch promotions.

Candle in the Window and the Laden Table

With all the lights and décor many of us put around and outside the house, it’s not hard to see how this tradition got a little bit lost. It was customary for people to leave a single lit candle in the window at Christmas as a welcome signal to those outside in need. Another custom centred around welcoming those in need into one’s home was the laden table: after the evening meal on Christmas Eve, the table would be set again, this time with bread, raisins and milk, and a large candle. The door would be left on the latch so Mary and Joseph or any other wandering traveller could avail of the welcome. This tradition has also more or less died out in our more security conscious society.

Wren Day

A very old tradition that has been revived in some parts of modern Ireland, Hunt the Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín takes place on St Stephen’s Day. A wren (usually a fake, though at its origin it would have been real) is ‘hunted’ and once captured is placed on top of a decorative pole. A crowd of mummers, also known as strawboys or Wren boys, then celebrate the wren by dressingup with masks and straw suits and parade through the town playing music and singing the Wren Song. Wren Day is said to have descended from Celtic Mythlogy, however there are Christian and Nordic stories connected to the day too. From the Celtic side, wrens are said to symbolise the past year and centres around a Celtic hero winning his name by killing a wren. The Christian story tells of a treacherous wren who cheats in a flying competition by travelling on an eagle’s wing, and the Nordic tales claims a wren betrayed Irish soldiers fighting the Vikings. The celebration takes in modern Ireland in Dingle and Middleton, among others.

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