Christmas in Ireland
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
A Brief History
Some of Ireland’s earliest inhabitants were the Celts, their language and many of their traditions still influence Irish culture today. Christianity came to Ireland in the 4th century and many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christianity. Thus Celtic Christianity has many unique features. The Celtic cross is a symbol that arose from this merging of beliefs. Tradition is that St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.However, it is more likely it came via trade with England and France and via Briton slaves captured by plundering Irish. A man named Palladius was sent as the first bishop to the Ireland in 341 by Pope Celestine. The pope sent him to minister to the “Irish believing in Christ,” which assumes there were some Christ followers already in Ireland before Palladius’ arrival.
St. Patrick is world famous for being the patron saint of Ireland. Irish as well as non-Irish people enjoy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th--the date of his death. Patrick was born into a Roman British family in the UK. His actual birth date is not known, but generally accepted as the late 5th century. All the stories told about St. Patrick were written well into the 6th century, so everything we know about him is a mixture of history and mythology.
Patrick wrote two letters that survived to the present. The Confessio and the Epistola. From them we find that he was captured by Irish raiders as a teen and made a slave and shepherd for six years. During this time he had some type of spiritual encounter with God and began praying up to a hundred times a day!
In his Confessio, he says the Lord told him to leave Ireland on a ship that would be awaiting him in a port two hundred miles away. When he got to the port, they refused him passage, so he sought the Lord in prayer and before he had finished praying the captain had a change of heart and agreed to allow him aboard. Once Patrick arrived home, he devoted himself to the Christian life. A few years later, he had a vision bidding him to come back and share the new religion with them.Patrick returned to Ireland, but was met with hostility from the locals and had to leave that area. He eventually founded his first church at Saul, which means ‘Patrick’s Barn’ in Irish and it was here that he was brought back to be buried when he died on March 17th, 462 AD (some say 492 AD).
In the 1600s Irish land was taken from Irish landowners and given to English families. This was a systematic British and Protestant settlement of northern Ireland, which was previously strongly Gaelic and Catholic. Oliver Cromwell, one of the most hated men in Irish history, determined to eradicate the Irish Catholics from Ireland. He set about murdering families, priests and burning Catholic churches. The Irish were ousted from their land and sent to the far side of Ireland where the soil was poor. About 1/3 of Catholics died from war, famine and disease. This was the precursor to many violent and chaotic years in Ireland between the Irish and English.
The most famous event in Irish history is The Great Potato Famine. Over one million Irish died, and more than one million emigrated to the US. The famine lasted from 1845 to 1852, caused by a potato blight which affected much of Europe, but hit Ireland hardest because it was their main crop. The high death toll can be attributed to the British. The Irish had other sources of food such as cattle and sheep, but they had to sell them to pay the excessive rents on the land that the English stole from them.
There were many failed attempts at Irish independence, however, the Easter Rising was a touchstone event. As with all the previous uprisings, it failed, but fifteen men who had been leaders of the uprising were summarily executed by firing squad. The men became martyrs and public opinion turned against the British authorities.
In 1922 Ireland finally gained its independence. However, Northern Ireland remained loyal to Britain and therefore did not seek independence. This is probably because Ulster was the region that was settled by Brits, Scots and Protestants. Yet, violence still continued with ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland throughout the 60s and 70s as the Catholics of Northern Ireland protested against discrimination. It reached its height on Bloody Sunday when a peaceful civil rights march was fired upon by British soldiers killing 14 people. This violence continued to the end of the 20th century, but finally after centuries of bitterness, economic and political grievances, an agreement was struck between the warring factions.
In April 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast Northern Ireland. Progress was made through international intervention, chiefly on the part of Bill Clinton’s White House. There are still some tensions at times between Northern Ireland and the British government, but Ireland as a whole is relatively peaceful with the main Catholic and Protestant parties sharing power.
In Ireland the Christmas celebrations begin on December 8th. Although as in every country, traditions vary from family to family, there are some traditions that are common to many Irish families. As Ireland is a predominantly Christian nation, there will be decorations, trees, and nativities. In the past, before Christmas trees were introduced, homes were decorated with holly and ivy. The more berries on the holly, the better luck the family would have in the coming year.
A large candle is placed in the front window of the home to symbolize guidance for Mary and Joseph before Christ’s birth. Children are also told that it helps Santa find their house. As in most western countries, ornaments can be found on trees, fireplaces and tables. They will consist of angels, elves, snowflakes, Santas and anything else that represents Christmas.
As a strongly Christian country, many families will attend church on Christmas day. There is a Vigil Mass at midnight where each member of the family will light a candle blessed by the bishop or high priest. A long standing tradition is to sing carols. One of the oldest, dating back to the 12th century, called The Wexford Carol is usually sung at all Christmas services in Ireland. Wexford in a county in Ireland. It is a beautiful carol that tells the story of the Nativity.
Presents are usually opened on Christmas morning. A more recent Christmas tradition is the Christmas day swim. In the freezing cold water all along Ireland’s coastlines and rivers. It is usually done for charity, there is a risk of hypothermia, but for the most part everyone enjoys the icy cold plunge. Another modern celebration is the 12 Pubs of Christmas. This consists of going with friends to 12 different pubs, and creating pre-set rules for each pub on the route.
Christmas dinner is a huge feast that consists of turkey, ham, chicken, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, vegetables, Christmas pudding and mince pies. Another modern tradition is to give children a Selection Box, which is a selection of chocolate bars. Children cannot receive their box until everyone has finished Christmas dinner. Most families will spend the remainder of the evening watching Christmas movies on television such as Darby O’Gill and the Little People or It’s a Wonderful Life.
The day after Christmas is a public holiday in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. called It’s called St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland, and Boxing Day in Northern Ireland. It’s usually a day of rest, and some will attend church, and also celebrate with another large meal.
January 6th is officially the last day of Christmas and is often referred to as Women’s or Little Christmas. This day all the women are to avoid housework and the men stay home, take down decorations and prepare meals. It’s actually considered bad luck if the men do not take down the decorations.
Although church attendance in Ireland used to be 85%, it has since dropped below 50% and an increasing number of Irish are non-religious. As is common throughout Europe, the rise of social issues such as suicide and alcoholism have plagued the young people of Ireland, and workers are desperately needed to reach this despondent generation. Scandals and secularism have also weakened the national influence of the Catholic Church in the country.
Pray for Irish believers to reach out to the culturally and spiritually diverse immigrants among them.
Pray for the Catholic Church to embrace new expressions of the Christian faith that would result in spiritual renewal.
Pray for wisdom to continue building upon a strong economic foundation without neglecting the poor and needy.
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