Click on a holiday to learn more about how it is celebrated in Ireland:
Though the red heart has
become the traditional symbol of Valentine's Day, there may be reason to also
consider the shamrock, for there is an Irish connection. St. Valentine is known
as the "Patron Saint of Lovers." And in Ireland ~ this love is honored in a very
While there's no definitive written account of St. Valentine and his life in the third century, his Irish connection is more recent - and documented. In the year 1836, Pope Gregory XVI sent a gift to the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street, Dublin, in recognition of the work of the church's former prior, Father John Spratt, who was widely recognized as a very holy man.
The gift was a relic of a Christian martyr: a small gold-bound casket containing the earthly remains of St. Valentine. The relic had been exhumed from the cemetery of St. Hyppolytus on the Tiburtine Way in Rome, placed in a golden casket, and brought to Dublin, where it was enshrined in the little church with great ceremony.
This year, on February 14th, as it has in every year since, the casket containing the Saint's mortal remains will be carried in solemn procession to the high altar of the Carmelite Church for a special Mass dedicated to young people and those in love.
For those wishing to visit St. Valentine's Shrine in Dublin, the church is located between Aungier Street and Wexford Street, just a few minutes walk west of St Stephen's Green. If you're lucky enough to be there, this little known Dublin church also sells Valentine's Day cards. Truly, it can be said - these are the genuine article!
For the most part Valentine's Day is celebrated the same as it is the world over, with candy hearts, chocolates, flowers and cards.
Saint Patrick's Day
Saint Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland and the one credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. The celebration of his Day is the only national holiday in Ireland. It is celebrated by morning mass, then parades and partying with lots of music into the night. While American's traditionally cook corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day, in Ireland it is bacon and cabbage. In the end they both taste about the same!
There are parades in many cities and towns throughout Ireland on this national holiday, and the only businesses you will find open are the Chemist’s (drug stores for us Americans…) and of course The Pubs.
Many of the parades may take on an international theme as tourism from America and other countries around the world is always increased around this time. If you plan to visit Ireland around St. Patrick’s Day, make your plans early as most hotels in prominent cities fill very quickly!
For the Irish, it is truly a day to celebrate. You will see many dressed up for the day with men in ties and sport coats, women in nice dresses and pinned to the lapel of their outer coats will be a small bunch of fresh shamrocks. The “wearing of the green” is traditionally done in this fashion in Ireland. In America and other locations around the world the same phrase takes on a different appearance with plastic green hats and buttons saying “kiss me I’m Irish” and many other versions of green apparel, but the spirit of celebration is the same.
For more about St. Patrick, see the Saints of Ireland section of this site.
Easter is named after the
Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring (Eostre), and is originally a pagan
(non-Christian) festival. Eggs were used as symbols of fertility; this has led
to traditions such as eating chocolate Easter eggs, egg races, egg hunts for
children, and egg painting. The Easter bunny (baby rabbit) is also another
symbol of spring and fertility.
Every year at this festive time shops, restaurants and bars tend to decorate their premises to bring the Easter spirit to the streets. The decorations are brightly colored, heat warming and full of powerful meaning for many. The streets are full of bright greens to symbolize the shamrock and yellows to convey the new lease of life that begins in Easter. Many shops put up Easter bunnies and eggs, which are the true meaning of Easter for many young children.
Pancake Tuesday occurs on the day before Lent starts. It is a day were all the best food is consumed before going on a fast-diet for the 40 days of Lent.
Lent commences with Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days, until Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics receive ashes on their forehead from the priest. This is to remind people that they are ashes and to ashes and they shall return. It is also a day of Fast, where you can have only three meals and no meat can be eaten. People usually eat fish instead. During Lent people are supposed to give up something important to them, such as sweets or meat, as a means of penance.
Palm Sunday occurs the week before Easter Sunday. On this day, it is said that the Lord entered Jerusalem and people threw branches of the palm tree in his path to welcome Him. In memory of this, palm is blessed on this Sunday and people bring it home and hang it up.
Near the end of Lent, on Good Friday, prayers are said and the Stations of the Cross are done. On this day, the Lord dies and at 3pm. Statues in the Church are covered.
Good Friday was an extremely solemn day in Ireland and even to this day it the only day of the year when all the Pubs across Ireland are closed. Most people ate nothing at all until midday, and went about barefoot. No one killed animals, no wood was burned or made into things, and no nail was driven. No one is allowed to move house, or begin any important enterprise. No one fishes. Eggs that are laid on Good Friday were marked with a cross, and everybody ate at least one of these eggs on Easter Sunday.
On Easter Saturday they used to hold herring processions. These were mock funerals of herrings, and these processions were often held because people became so sick of eating herring during Lent. The processions were often organized by butchers, because they had very little business during Lent.
The earliest celebrations of
Halloween were among the Celtic who lived in the areas which are now Ireland,
Great Britain and Northern France.
The Celts were people who worshiped the beauty of nature. They worshiped the Sun God and believed that without him, they would not live. They also worshipped Samhain (pronounced sow-in) who was the lord of the dead and of the cold, dark winter season. They believed that on October 31 Samhain would call together all of the dead and these souls would take on the shape of an animal. They believed that all creatures wandered the Earth on that night. This was called the Vigil of Samhain.
The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. As already mentioned the Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated the festival of Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The Celtic people feared the evening of October 31 more than any other day of the year.
The day itself was a time for paying homage to the sun god Baal who had provided the people with ripened grain for use in the upcoming winter.
Come evening evil spirits
were everywhere. Charms and spells were said to have more power on the eve of
Samhain. The Druids, or Celtic priests, would build fires on the hilltops in
belief that the large fires would help to strengthen the Sun God, and give him
power enough to overcome the lord of darkness so that the sun season could
continue. They believed that the fires were sacred; therefore they burned dried
crops and sacrificed animals to help strengthen the Sun God. At midnight they
stop worshipping the Sun God and start to worship Samhain because he will be the
ruler for the next six months.
This is the starting of the new year (1st November). They would perform ceremonies through the night to ask the spirits to tell the future of the upcoming year. For clans entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter. In the morning each household receives an ember from the fire, this ember is used to start fires in their own homes with the belief that it will ward off evil spirits in the New Year.
In the 7th century the church celebrated All Saint's Day in May but by the 9th century the date had been changed to November 1. The original festival for the pagen Lord of the Dead became a festival of Christain dead. Still, people went on expecting the arrival of ghosts on October 31.
Another name for All Saint's Day was All Hollow's which later became shortened to Hallowe'en.
Today in Ireland children dress up in costume and tick or treat and Jack-O'Lanterns are seen lighting the way for the witches and ghosts.
Merry Christmas in Gaelic is: Nollaig (Christmas) Shona (happy) Duit (to you) pronounced: null-ig hunna ditsh.
Traditionally the Christmas season begins on 8 December in Ireland and lasts until 6 January. Christmas is a wonderful time to be in Ireland. In Ireland there is still a deeper sense of the meaning of the season here. As you walk through the streets of cities like Cork you may hear choir’s large and small singing on the sidewalks, street musicians with flutes, harps, violins or guitars playing the strains of familiar carols or favorite Christmas recordings wafting from the shops. While few private homes decorate outside beyond the festive wreath on the door, the towns, cities and shops go all out. The Christmas season doesn't really get into full swing in Ireland until December when streets are lined with lit decorations and live Christmas trees are often mounted like flag staffs from building fronts. Larger department stores and shops fill their windows with animated scenes and figures.
Gifts for friends and from family members to each other pile up under the Christmas tree in the days before Christmas and as everywhere a lot of squeezing, shaking and guessing goes on, but in the back of everyone's mind is what Santa will bring on Christmas morning. And there is no peeking or opening any gifts until Christmas morning!
Santa Claus is a very popular fellow in Ireland too. He and his helpers can be found arriving at many malls and department stores by helicopter or fire engine to take Christmas wish lists or for the very lucky children a trip to visit his workshop in Lapland (the North Pole) can be arranged!
In Ireland, Santa works a little differently than in the United States. Instead of leaving everything under the tree he leaves each child's gifts in their room, often in a pillow case at the end of the bed, though sometimes a large gift may be left unwrapped under the tree. Christmas stockings are a tradition with some families and are hung Christmas Eve for Santa to fill. He arrives quite late as Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is still a strong tradition for many families and the chimney is his main entrance into most homes.
As with holiday traditions everywhere, food plays a big part of celebration in Ireland and, just like else where, there is some variation from family to family. A fairly traditional menu for Christmas dinner includes either a Goose or Turkey with stuffing (usually a sage and onion type), ham, roasted and boiled potatoes (Irish meals often include potatoes prepared several ways), brussell sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, parsnips and any other family favorites, followed by Christmas cake or a Christmas pudding. A favorite treat throughout the Christmas season are small mincemeat pies (in the states because of the size they would probably be called tarts). Candy canes are not very popular in Ireland nor wide spread but tons of chocolates is a must for Christmas.
Ireland, like most countries, has a number of Christmas traditions that are all of its own. Many of these customs have their root in the time when the Gaelic culture and religion of the country were being suppressed and it is perhaps because of that they have survived into modern times.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
This old and beloved carol is Ireland's very own. 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 hung.
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.
in the Window
The placing of a lighted candle in the window of a house on Christmas eve is still practiced today. It has a number of purposes but primarily it was an symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they traveled looking for shelter. The candle also indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass as during Penal Times this was not allowed. A further element of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be extinguished by a girl bearing the name 'Mary'.
After evening meal on Christmas eve the kitchen table was again set and on it were placed a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a large lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could avail of the welcome.
The placing of a ring of Holly on doors originated in Ireland as Holly was one of the main plants that flourished at Christmas time and which gave the poor ample means with which to decorate their dwellings. All decorations are traditionally taken down on Little Christmas (January 6th.) and it is considered to be bad luck to take them down beforehand.
St. Stephen's Day
During Penal Times there was once a plot in a village against the local soldiers. They were surrounded and were about to be ambushed when a group of wrens pecked on their drums and awakened the soldiers. The plot failed and the wren became known as 'The Devil's bird'.
Other lore suggests that a wren betrayed the hiding place of St. Stephen before he was stoned to death and became a martyr.
On St. Stephens Day (the day after Christmas) a procession, known as The Wren Boy Procession takes place. A pole with a holly bush would be carried from house to house and families dressed up in old clothes and with blackened faces. In olden times an actual wren would be killed and placed on top of the pole. There is a famous song called “The Wren Boys” that was known to be sung as part of this procession. The Chieftains sing this song on their “Bells of Dublin” Christmas CD for those of you interested in hearing this catchy tune.
This custom has to a large degree disappeared but the tradition of visiting from house to house on St. Stephens Day has survived and is very much part of Christmas.
St. Stephen's Day is a national holiday in Ireland and most businesses remain closed until 27 December.