The Irish Twelve Days of Christmas

More Than Just Partridges in Pear Trees

Merry Christmas - in Irish
© Bernd Biege 2014

Maybe you can sing along to the twelve days of Christmas song starting with a partridge in a pear tree, or know about the traditions from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night". However, what really happens during those twelve days in Ireland? This guide explore the Christmas traditions in Ireland, day by day. Though the first surprise should be that it all lasts more than 12 days, and the full count for this festive season is actually 14 days, from Christmas Eve to the feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

December 24th - Christmas Eve

Though you will see them in nearly every home and shop now, the Christmas tree was only imported quite recently into Ireland. Christmas Eve was traditionally the time when candles were lit. After sundown, several candles, one for each member of the household, were put into the windows and this practice has links to old pagan traditions as well as a more modern idea that the lights would help "to guide the Holy Family". The largest candle was known as coinneal mór na Nollag ("the great Christmas candle"). Then it was off to church for midnight mass (usually followed by a drink with the neighbors afterwards). You will still see many Irish homes decorating windows with imitation candles during the Christmas holidays.

December 25th - Christmas Day

If you are in search of peace and quiet, this is your day - almost nothing happens in Ireland on Christmas Day. The day is spent with close family, barricaded into the home, eating brussels sprouts and watching the annual re-run of "The Sound of Music" on RTÉ. Only around 11 am do the streets become crowded, with even the unbelievers heading for mass. After church, this may be the most boring day of the Irish year for visitors because everything else is closed. Head for natural attractions if you are looking for something to do.

December 26th - St. Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day)

Also known as "Wren Day", the day of the mummers and "Wren Boys" - traditionally disguisd young men go around, reciting nonsensical poems, begging for treats and carrying a dead wren (these days generally in effigy). Similar traditional activities, though at a slightly more sophisticated level, are connected with the mummers. They are becoming less common but are still active in Ulster, Dublin and Wexford, keeping folk theater alive. For most, this is another day spent at home with the family.

December 27th -The Sales

This is the day shops go into overdrive - the post-Christmas sales start and queues begin to form as early as seven o'clock in Dublin. Avoid major department stores and shopping centers around opening time unless you want to be amongst the mob hunting for the best bargains. By the way, December 27th is also the feast day of John the Evangelist.

December 28th - Feast of the Holy Innocents

On this day Herod apparently ordered the slaughter of all first-borns - making "childermas" one of the unluckiest day in folk custom. Don’t start any business ventures or journeys, to avoid the superstitious bad luck that is supposed to come along with the day. December 28th is also the day that "boy bishops" were de-throned, but this medieval tradition has died long ago. In today's Ireland, you find no young adult taking over a bishop's throne over the Christmas period.

December 29th and December 30th

There are no specific traditions connected to these days - today they are used for shopping (mostly stocking up on alcohol for New Year's Eve parties) or taking the kids to the zoo, also a time-honored tradition, especially in Dublin.

December 31st - New Year's Eve

Ireland doesn't do New Year's Eve in a style to rival New York's Times Square, London's Trafalgar Square or Edinburgh's Hogmanay - so its end of year parties and celebrations are a scattered affair. Though whether you go out or attend a party in someone's home, you should expect plenty of alcohol and singing. If you are visiting over this period it might be a good idea to pre-book one of the organized festivities, unless you want to join the masses trying to get a pint at the pub.

January 1st - New Year's Day

The Irish band U2 once sang that "All is quiet on New Year's Day" and they were right - the morning starts off the new year seems with what seems to be a deathly quiet. This is mainly due to the revels of the night before. Nobody remembers that this is the "Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ". In Roman times, this was also was the feast of Janus, the two-faced god of doors and openings. To celebrate, why not visit the ancient Janus-like figures on Boa Island. You'll be most likely the only person there.

January 2nd (Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus) to January 4th

These are days generally used to visit more distant friends and relations, mopping up the left-overs so to say. There is no set agenda. Schools and some businesses remain closed.

January 5th - Twelfth Night Eve and Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night was traditionally the time when Christmas proper ended - hence the "Twelve Days of Christmas" (starting on December 25th). It was a night of feasting, merriment and also practical jokes. These days school starts again around this time, marking the end of the "Christmas holiday" for everyone. The last wild party will, however, more than likely be thrown on a convenient weekend, not necessarily on 12th night.

January 6th - Epiphany

This day is the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, traditionally connected to the Adoration of the Magi, or Old Christmas Day (according to the Gregorian Calendar and still observed by some orthodox churches). In Ireland it is better known as Nollaig mBan - Little Christmas or "Women's Christmas". This was the day when women were cherished, could put their feet up and (after twelve or more days of slaving away to keep the menfolk happy) and enjoy. An almost forgotten tradition but it is still celebrated in many private homes by cooking mom breakfast in bed.

Handsel Monday

We must not forget the Irish tradition of Handsel Monday, the first Monday in January - when children would get small gifts, called (you guessed it) "handsels".

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