Irish Christmas traditions abroad

From women’s Christmas and midnight mass through to the wren boys knocking door-to-door, Ireland has many unique Christmas traditions at home. But over the decades, many have also been brought abroad by the emigrants who left.

Here are three Irish customs that can be seen around the world today.

Placing a candle in the window

As the nativity story goes, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem where there was no room for them at any of the town’s inns – and so Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable.

On Christmas Eve, many Irish households place a candle or light in the front window as a symbolic sign of welcome to Mary and Joseph, as well as other travellers who may be passing.

It is believed that this tradition may have originated during the 16th century when the Penal Laws banned Irish Catholics from practising their religion. Those who continued in secret placed a candle in the window as a sign of welcome to priests or to indicate the location of mass. Years later, in 1828, when Daniel O’Connell was the first Catholic elected as an MP since 1688, Catholics throughout Ireland placed candles in their windows to celebrate.

Source: Tom Baker / Getty Images

Today, this Christmas tradition is common in North America too, but it has come to have different meanings. Some see it as a way to welcome home estranged children, while others say it is an invitation to weary soldiers without a place to stay.

Custom dictates that the light be left glowing throughout the night. In the past, many households took the ritual even further by leaving their front doors unlocked too.

Holly wreaths as decoration

While the Germans can be credited with bringing Christmas trees to homes throughout the world, the Irish are largely responsible for the holly wreaths hanging on doors at Christmastime.

Traditionally, Ireland didn’t have fir trees. But it was covered in an abundance of other evergreens, like holly and ivy, which were used to decorate homes, doorways and graves.

The use of holly dates back to pagan times when the Irish and other ancient Europeans placed it around their homes, doorways and windows in the hope that it would provide a veil of protection against evil spirits.

Source: Pexels

According to lore, choosing sprigs of holly with lots of bright, red berries would bring greater prosperity to the household for the coming year. Today, holly wreaths can be seen on Christmas cards, doorways and churches around the globe.

Christmas in January

In Ireland, Women’s Christmas or  is celebrated on January 6th each year. The tradition dictates that women take the day off, while men take over the housework. The idea is to give women a rest after working hard at home over the festive season. Though the tradition is somewhat outdated today, it is still marked by many.

In some places, January 6th also marks Little Christmas or Old Christmas, because this was originally the date that Christmas fell on in many parts of the world. It wasn’t until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar that the year was shortened and most of the world began to celebrate Christmas on December 25th.

Most Catholic countries were quick to adopt the new calendar, but Protestant countries, like England and Scotland, were slower to take it up. Although they eventually followed suit almost 200 years later.

However, some continued to resist the change, including many Scots-Irish. Around this time, many of them were also emigrating to North America and they took the tradition of celebrating Old Christmas in January with them.

That’s why in Appalachia, West Virginia, some continue to celebrate it in rural and mountainous regions. Though their numbers are now dwindling. According to Appalachian Magazine, it is likely that in another generation or two, celebrating Old Christmas will die out completely and become a forgotten part of Appalachian history.

Want to know more about Irish emigrant experiences and the impact they had around the world? Visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum this Christmas.