Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

Irish Christmas
by Unknown
Irish Christmas in Olden Times



THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 24-25  was called Oiche Nodlag (the 
Night of Christmas). The following night was known as 
Oiche Lac Nodlag (the Night of Christmas Day). January 6 
was referred to as Nodlaig Bheag (Small, or Little 
Christmas). The festival of Christmas generally was known 
as An Nodlaig, and the period from December 24-January 6 
was called The Twelve Days of Christmas. Little Christmas 
was also referred to as Nodlaig na mBan (the Women's 


Houses were generally whitewashed and cleaned, and often painted and repaired, during, the week before Christmas. This was followed on the day before Christmas by the putting up within the house of sprigs of holly, especially if it had red berries; laurel and bay were also used if available in the local woods. All this was done in honour of the Saviour. Fresh rushes were strewn on the principal floors in olden times. A rude cross of holly was often fixed in the window. The stable and cattle-sheds were also similarly decorated; all these decorations were removed soon after Small Christmas.


Nearly every household saved some money "to bring home the Christmas," which consisted of dainties from the local town, such as currant loaves, fruit, sweets and biscuits, whiskey, wine and porter (the latter in a large jar). The shopkeepers in the towns gave presents to their customers at Christmas: tea, sugar, raisins, fruit, jam, a currant loaf, a bottle of whiskey, or some such gift, according to the importance of the customer. Country visitors brought their town relatives gifts such as a goose, turkey, a bag of potatoes, a flitch of bacon, etc. Country people also sold in the town geese and turkeys, etc., and brought home the "Christmas" with the money thus acquired. A good deal of drink was consumed in the towns on these occasions. Christmas Eve was in olden times a fast day, but at a later period became a day of abstinence only. The wealthier farmers made presents of milk, butter, meat, etc., to poorer neighbours and to their workmen. A late fish dinner of mild cured hake or ling, with milk and butter sauce, was commonly eaten on Christmas Eve. In late autumn many of the farmers got casks of fish packed in salt and brine from the fishermen on the coast. Punch was commonly made and drunk on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day. Tea was also drunk at Christmas --- it was a great rarity in olden times. On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) people in many districts abstained from meat, in fulfillment (they said) of a promise made in olden times to do so if they were preserved from a plague which was then prevalent.


In olden times, as now, the religious aspect of the festival was the most important of all. It was a custom for some time before Christmas to say as many Paters (Our Fathers) and Aves as possible; the younger folk kept a record of these prayers, sometimes ranging as high as five thousand. The family rosary, which was recited each night during the year, was a special occasion on Christmas Night, when members of the family who might be away during the year were generally present. Most of the people, especially those who were to receive Holy Communion (which was the majority), attended the first Mass, about dawn, and a second Mass, if such were said. The older people and those who could not attend first Mass attended the later one. Midnight Mass was not general in country districts. An Irish proverb says: Ajfreann no Geine, Aifreann agus fiche, i.e., The Mass of the Birth of Christ is worth twenty-one Masses: This was to show how much the Christmas Mass was loved and appreciated.


On the eve of Christmas (December 24), shortly after dark, the man of the house set in the principal window a large candle (or one in each window, if available), which had been bought in the town; the candle was fixed in a sconce made from a scooped-out turnip or a vessel filled with bran or flour, and in many cases the main candle was lighted by the youngest member of the family. The candle was decorated with holly sprigs. In some cases there was a candle each for the father, the mother, and for each of the grandparents who lived in the house. The little children had candles (smaller) for themselves. Some households let the candles burn all night, others quenched them when going to bed. Many of these Christmas candles were coloured, generally red; they were about two feet long, and an inch-and-a-half thick. A piece of the Christmas candle was later used to singe the udder of a cow when she had her first calf during the year. In many parts of the country a lighted candle in each window of the house on Christmas Eve added much to the view of the landscape, and it was a common custom to go out of doors about ten o’clock to look at (and even try to count) the hundreds of candles in windows all over the landscape.


Long before Christmas, the young people selected a large log of wood, very often of bog-deal, for the centre of the Christmas fire. This would last for several days, and was called bloc na Nodlag (the Christmas block).