Many of the customs that we now associate with a traditional American Christmas are neither traditionally American nor very old. Christmas celebrations were frowned upon in colonial America. In fact, the Puritans of New England considered Christmas celebrations to be pagan and idolatrous, a common view in New England that did not change until the late 19th century. It was not until after the Civil War, when the Irish gained political clout in America, that Christmas became widely celebrated and was made a federal holiday in 1870.
Some of the traditional American Christmas customs that originated in Ireland:
Candle in the window – The custom of placing a candle in the window on Christmas Eve began in Ireland during the time when Catholics were being persecuted by the English in order to denote a safe house for priests to perform a Christmas mass. The candle in the window symbolized a welcome to Mary and Joseph as they looked for shelter on Christmas Eve. In Ireland, the candle was traditionally lit by the youngest member of the household and extinguished only by a female named “Mary”.
Christmas wreath on the door – The Christmas custom of placing a holly wreath on the door also originated in Ireland. Holly plants flourished in Ireland around Christmas time, and provided the poor with an ample and colorful source of Christmas decorations. In Ireland, it was considered bad luck to take down the decorations before January 6th, known there as “Little Christmas Day”.
Milk and cookies for Santa Claus – The American custom of leaving a plate of milk and cookies for Santa Claus began in Ireland as the “Laden Table”. After the evening meal on Christmas Eve, the kitchen table was cleared and then set again with a lighted candle, a pitcher of milk and a loaf of sweet bread filled with raisins and caraway seeds. The door to the house was left unlocked, so that Mary and Joseph (or any other travelers in need) could enter and have something to eat. The association with Santa Claus is an American adaptation.
Door to door Christmas caroling – The custom of walking from door to door singing Christmas carols began in Ireland as the celebration of “Wren’s Day” on December 26th, also celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day. There are several traditions in Ireland linking Jesus and the wren bird. Originally, the celebration involved people carrying either an effigy of a wren or an actual caged wren, travelling from house to house playing music, singing and dancing. These celebrants were called “wren boys” and “mummers”.
“Merry Christmas” – This traditional American Christmas greeting began in Gaelic Ireland as “Nollaig Shona Duit”, pronounced “null-ig hun-a dit”, which literally means “Happy Christmas”.
To help put you in the Irish spirit of Christmas, watch Moya Brennan’s “An Irish Christmas” video: