Here are five ways to spend the festive season in Ireland.
1. Rock around the Christmas markets
There’s no better time than December for mixing mulled wine (and cocoa for the kids), mince pies, fairy lights and shopping. Ireland’s Christmas markets promise a magic atmosphere, with carol singing and general merriness.
One of the prettiest is Belfast’s Christmas Market, perfectly placed in front of a festive and perennially handsome City Hall. In Kerry, Killarney hosts an open-air affair while Waterford’s Winterval hosts a traditional Christmas market in the city.
In Galway, Eyre Square turns winter wonderland for the Galway Continental Christmas Market. Bring comfy shoes for the dancing, and an appetite for food chalets. Come for the gifts, stay for mulled wine, hot chocolate and live music.
2. Meet Santa – and his reindeer
Did you know the Mourne Mountains is Santa’s official residence in Ireland? You can meet him in this secluded cottage and even see the elves working away in the workshop. In Mount Stewart, Santa (or Santy, as we sometimes call him) has kindly put together a woodland trail for excited children to burn off some energy.
What of Santa’s helpers? Dublin’s Phoenix Park is a playground of deer, and each Christmas the park offers the chance to meet some members of Bambi’s herd and hear a talk given by the park’s keepers. The spirit of Christkindl will take over Downpatrick, as St Patrick’s Square is overrun with characters from Christmas Past, Present and Future.
3. Get crafty for shopping
The Christmas lights on Dublin’s Grafton Street shines like so many Christmas wishes, and shopping underneath them is a treat. For crafts and design in the city, steer your deer to Powerscourt Townhouse Centre’s loft market and design centre. The centre is also home to a magical Father Christmas Work Room, where you can meet Santa in an 18th-century style den.
You’ll find no end of killer stocking fillers in Ireland. There’s the beautiful crystal from Waterford’s Irish Glass Company, or Louis Mulcahy’s cutting edge pottery in the Dingle Peninsula. It doesn’t get more original than an Aran sweater direct from the Aran Islands, while the quaint surrounds of Enniskillen’s Buttermarket is where you’ll find Angela Kelly making jewellery to die for.
4. Race through the outdoors
After dinner is done and presents are presented, horseracing is the next Christmas tradition to try. The St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day fixtures are an event themselves, and the ideal spot for post-Christmas get-togethers. Don a glamorous (and warm) outfit and join the crowds trying their luck. Leopardstown and Limerick declare festivals for the occasion, while Down Royal’s Boxing Day Races is a tradition.
5. Try something traditionally Irish
But, of course, there are some things that Ireland just does REALLY well at Christmas. Families in Dublin make sure to get a peek at the Christmas windows of Dublin’s prestigious Brown Thomas department store.
On the evening of Christmas Eve, the pub is pretty much the centre of small villages, towns and even cities, and is usually bursting with reuniting friends and families wrapping hands around hot whiskeys and cosying up beside the fire. It’s off the charts for Christmas spirit.
The 26th is known as Stephen’s Day in the Republic (Boxing Day in the north), and it’s traditionally the time to get outside. If it’s not a lengthy walk, people are jumping into the Atlantic or the Irish Sea for a shivering but refreshing swim (also a big tradition on Christmas Day).
In Dingle, it’s the time of year for the Wren Boys who mark the day as Day of the Wren (Lá an Dreoilín). Expect live music, straw costumes and a sense of a tradition defying the hands of time.