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 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.
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 children can drop off their letters to Rudolf at one of the post boxes located in the park. The spirit of Christkindl will take over Downpatrick, as St Patrick’s Square is overrun with characters from Christmas Past, Present and Future.
The Christmas lights on Dublin’s Grafton Street shine 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.
You’ll find no end of killer stocking fillers in Ireland. There’s the beautiful crystal from Waterford’s Irish Handmade 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.
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.
But, of course, there are some things that Ireland just does REALLY well at Christmas.
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 St Stephen’s Day in the Republic of Ireland and Boxing Day in Northern Ireland, 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 to mark the Day of the Wren (Lá an Dreoilín). Expect live music, straw costumes and a sense of a tradition defying the sands of time.