Irish Christmas Traditions

Nollaig Shona Duit!

You are listening to "Bring A Torch, Jeannette, Isabella" -- This is not an Irish Christmas song....just one of the favorites of the webmistress!

Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night

In the Irish language Christmas is called "Nollaig" which comes from the Latin "natalica" meaning birthday.

Most Irish people are Catholic and Christmas Day is almost entirely a religious festival. Most people go to church (Catholic Mass) and will find the church beautifully decorated and a "creche" or manger scene before the altar.

The next eleven days are set aside for parties and a great amount of visiting. This ends on the twelfth night which is Epiphany.

Lighted Candle Placed in Window

A distinctive feature of Christmas decorations is the very large candle placed near the front window and lighted on Christmas Eve. According to one belief, the candle long served as a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph who sought shelter in vain on that first Christmas Eve. The ceremony of lighting the candle is one of simple ancient rituals during which prayers are said for the departed and the privilege of striking the match is usually given to a daughter named Mary. (Another tradition is that the candle be lighted by the youngest member of the family and snuffed out only by someone named Mary).

For centuries it has been a practice in Irish villages to set the kitchen table after the evening meal on Christmas Eve. On it is a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door is left unlatched. Thus, hospitality is extended to the Holy Family or to any traveler that might be on the road. Also it is said that the candles were "kindled to guide the angels who on Christmas night direct the New Born from the Heavens".

The story of the abiding religious faith to which this nation has clung to so strongly for centuries is reflected in the symbolism of the lighted candle in the window, which spells out the simple beauty of the the Christmas story.

This flickering symbol also served as a signal in times past to any priest seeking shelter and protection that he was welcome in this house and that it was safe to say Mass there.

Irish actress, Roma Downey, who portrays the angel Monica on Touched By an Angel, is in keeping with the tradition of her native land, where families from her hometown of Derry light candles in every window on Christmas Eve as a welcome to friends, Santa and wayward travelers.

Candle lighting at this time can also be traced back to antiquity, to the time when ancient Romans lighted candles at the midwinter festival to signify the return of the sun's light after the winter solstice.

Holly Wreaths

The glossy-leaved holly with it's clusters of red berries, popular as a door decoration in North America can be traced to early settlers from the south of Ireland. They came to the United States during the Great Potato Famine. Holly grows wild in the south of Ireland and at Christmas time houses are lavishly decorated with holly.

Santa Claus/Father Christmas

In some areas, due to English influence, it is Father Christmas who the children wait for to fill their stockings on Christmas Eve. In other areas of Ireland, due to western influences, you will find Santa Claus instead.

The History of the Christmas Carol
"The Twelve Days of Christmas"

During the centuries when it was a crime to be Catholic and to practice one's faith, in public or private, in Ireland and England "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written as a "catechism song" to help young Catholics learn the beliefs of their faith. It was a memory aid-when being caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged.

The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.

A Partridge in a pear tree = Jesus Christ, the son of God.

Two turtle doves = The Old and New Testaments

Three french hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.

Four calling birds = The four Gospels and/or the four Evangelists.

Five golden rings = The first five books of the Old Testament (The Pentateuch).

Six geese a-laying = Six days of creation.

Seven swans a swimming = The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Sacraments.

Eight maids a-milking = The eight Beatitudes.

Nine ladies dancing = The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (sometimes also listed as the nine classifications of angels).

Ten lords a-leaping = The Ten Commandments.

Eleven pipers piping = The eleven faithful apostles.

Twelve drummers drumming = The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

So, how do you say Merry Christmas in Irish, you ask?
Nollaig Shona Duit ('null-ig hun-a dit')

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Last updated April 2003