Friends, bad singing and Love Actually: Miriam O’Callaghan, James Kavanagh, Marian Keyes and more on their Christmas traditions

We asked a range of people – including refuseniks – to tell us about the moments that make their season bright

Christmas traditions come in many forms. That pub you always meet your mates in on Christmas Eve. The song your dad always butchers after too many brandies. The melancholy moment that creeps up when the turkey sandwiches are demolished and your mind wanders to old friends who aren’t around any more. We’re thinking of Christmas morning breakfasts, freezing cold swims, Baileys-fuelled family gatherings. The rituals you perform every December on repeat, happenings that remind even the most bah humbug of us why it’s such a special time of year.

We asked a range of people – including a couple of Christmas tradition refuseniks – to tell us about the traditional moments that make their season bright.

Marian Keyes

Author and podcaster

For as long as I can remember, I kick off December by not writing or posting any Christmas cards. As the month progresses, I don’t put up any decorations, not even a string of tinsel and a much cherished tradition of my husband’s and mine is not buying or decorating a Christmas tree. Sometimes we say to each other, “What day will we not buy the tree this year? Saturday week? Lovely, we’ll do something nice instead.”

No time is spent in overheated shops, panic-buying useless shite, then having to wrap the wretched stuff. (Wrapping is my absolute worst thing.) No Baileys ever crosses my threshold.


On the day itself I don’t rise at 5am to put the turkey in. Because there is no turkey – or roast potatoes or parsnips or Brussels sprouts or mince pies or plum puddings. It’s a shame about the roast potatoes, but you can keep the rest. Especially the mince pies, peculiar yokes that they are.

Inevitably, when I’m out and about, anonymous shouts of “MONSTER” follow me, and younger visitors to my sparkle-free home become anxious and weepy. Being a Christmas refusenik is a lonely road. But I wake up on December 26th not exhausted, not resentful and not beset with a queasy guilt.

(The most distressing part of Christmas is how it highlights the gap between those who have and those who haven’t, so my only other tradition is donating to a couple of charities who “do” Christmas for those who don’t have the resources themselves.)

Paul Howard

Creator of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly

Writing Christmas cards is one tradition that I just can’t let go of, even though they’re going the way of Fuji film and VHS cassettes. I send literally hundreds of them, working from a list of people, some of whom I haven’t seen for 30 years or more.

The list grows every year and it’s as long as Santa’s now. Whenever someone is nice to me during the year, my wife says to me, “Are they getting a card?” and I say, “You better believe they’re getting a card.”

I start writing them just after Halloween – I buy them a year ahead of time – while watching one of the Christmas music channels, one or two of which start on November 1st. I like to have all my cards written and ready to post by the start of December.

Then I spend the next three weeks watching the slow trickle of cards come through our letter box and the flood of environmentally conscious e-cards – which I despise – drop into my inbox.

We have a giant, snowflake-shaped card holder, which we hang every year on the wall in the hallway. It’s usually half-empty and, by Christmas Day, I end up putting my own unwritten cards in to fill it out.

And as I’m doing so, I say, “I’m not sending a single card next year.”

But then November arrives and so it starts again.

John Boyne


We have a late Christmas dinner in the extended Boyne household before retiring to the living room, where my nephew and I take turns hogging the piano and demanding that all attention is now focused solely on us. Jamie is the better pianist but I’m the better singer, so the jury’s out on who should be locked in the utility room and who should be allowed entertain the troops.

At some point, I play The Fall of Troy by Tom Waits, a song recorded for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Those who’ve seen that film will recall that it’s not exactly a joke fest, and neither is the song, which tells the tale of two brothers, one of whom is shot dead in a robbery, leaving the other to go to hell and to ruin.

It’s utterly miserable but quite melodious and I always put my heart and soul into it. When I sing the opening lines – “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die” – three generations of Boynes rise up in protest, trying to shout me down, but they’ve never succeeded and never will. I ignore the outcry and continue to the end, when I stand, take my bow, and bask in their muted applause.

Miriam O’Callaghan

RTÉ presenter

I am blessed to come originally from a large enough family, five siblings and our parents. When we all left home and started our own homes and families, we began a tradition which remains to this day, where we all go to one sibling’s house on Christmas morning to give out presents and catch up.

It’s a truly wonderful gathering, especially as down the years, the numbers have grown. I am the biggest contributor as I have eight children, plus now one adorable granddaughter. It’s a truly energising, life affirming, full-of-love gathering.

I always say we’re a ready-made gang – but we are, of course, just a family. It’s a really special moment especially as all the nieces and nephews get together. It’s a moment that matters, so we also always make a point of doing one big photo of us all at the end.

My sister-in-law Carol from Belfast comes too, making it an all-Ireland gathering. My husband, Steve, and Carol – who is his sister – lost their mum to cancer when they were children. Steve was just four years old, so our gathering on Christmas morning is full of absent loved ones.

My adored sister Anne died aged just 33 of cancer, and my dad, Jeremiah, dropped dead eight weeks later heading out of the family home to get Anne’s Mass card printed. It has made us all realise how precious life is. This family tradition on Christmas Day makes us all even more aware of that. The icing on the Christmas cake is that my mum, Miriam – the real Miriam, as we all say – is still alive, well and hearty, at the fabulous age of 95. As ever, she will be at the very heart of our traditional gathering.

Manchán Magan

Author and broadcaster

Tnúthán is the word for hopeful expectancy or yearning, and for me that’s what Christmas Day is about, that deep hankering for some special moment. All of us have our own focus of tnúthán; for me, it’s an early-morning swim out to a primrose-yellow buoy anchored in Schull harbour. It’s been my little ritual for the last five years, and it’s what I find my mind returning to when I think of think of An Lá Mór.

It’s only a short, 15-minute swim and I always wear a wetsuit, but the elation I feel striking my way through the water all alone between Mount Gabriel and the Fastnet Rock is precious. The ostentatious summer yachts are long gone, and the water is crystal clear. It’s just me and the odd cormorant in the quiet harbour.

On the way back I get excited about the long languorous breakfast with people I love. And then, once I’ve warmed up again, I’m ready to join the tumult of the crowded Christmas Day dip on Schull Pier. In theory it’s a sombre charity swim, but the reality is a raucous jamboree of whiskey and brandy shots with mince pie chasers, and gleefully shrieking children. It perfectly sets the tone for the feasting and fun ahead.

James Kavanagh

Broadcaster, podcaster and co-owner of the Currabinny food caravan

In early December my partner, William, and I host an event we like to call Friend Christmas. No offence to our families – we love the family Christmas dinners, which alternate between Cork and Dublin – but it’s probably my favourite, most chilled-out part of the festivities. It’s just a special night at home celebrating Christmas with our friends, the family we get to choose.

William invites four or five people to our house in Dublin 7, and I do the same. We have quite different sets of friends, so this is the one time of year when we merge.

I love how Americans do Christmas, all that Home Alone excess. I made eggnog one year, which is surprisingly good. We’re lucky to have a Georgian house with high ceilings, so it can take a 7ft tree.

People start arriving around 4pm. We’ll have the Christmas tunes going, a welcome cocktail and lots of Champagne. It’s all very relaxed. The food is in the middle of the table, family style. We do spiced beef, which is William’s Cork influence, and the usual turkey and ham and Brussels sprouts. We make a really good sausage stuffing and carrots. Potato wise, there’s always mashed and roast potatoes. (William famously doesn’t see the point of more than one type of potato but I usually manage to convince him that we need both.)

After dinner we play a board game and settle by the fire for the first of several Christmas viewings of Love Actually. For me Love Actually is Christmas, we watch it with our full hearts, not ironically, even though people can be very down on that film. At the end of the night, everyone helps clean up so we don’t wake up to a messy house the next day – another great thing about Friend Christmas.

Róisín Ingle

Irish Times journalist

Who knows how it started but for many years now, a few days before Christmas, my mother, her children, their partners and all her grandchildren have come together for what we call the Cousins’ Kris Kindle. This is really just a cover, a Santa’s beard if you will, for our annual family rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas.

The cousins, some now well into their 20s and 30s and others still small enough to be in full Father Christmas mode, take turns getting their gifts while the rest of us look on, voicing “oohs” and “aahs” and “there’s a gift receipt in there if you need it” where appropriate. It’s always held in the morning in one or other of our houses. In the pandemic we did it socially distanced, outside a Wetherspoon’s, in the rain.

There’s usually no wine at this morning gathering, just coffee and tea and maybe some sausage rolls or smoked salmon on McCambridge’s brown bread. When all the presents have been exchanged and the wrapping paper binned, the tradition is that we all take a number between one and 12 to perform the noisiest, most chaotic, least tuneful version of the 12 Days of Christmas that’s ever been heard.

The most organised siblings always bring little cards to give out, reminding the singers which part of the song they are in charge of. As a pretty consistent vocalist, I’m always number one – the partridge in the pear tree – anchoring the whole thing and making sure the performance doesn’t get completely out of control. The other cards, representing the geese-a-laying, the maids-a-milking, the swans-a-swimming and all the rest, get divvied out between groups of two or three.

The only other constant, apart from me and the Partridge, is my sister Rachael. She always picks the Five Gold Rings card. We will pry that Five Gold Rings card out of her cold, dead hands, so insistent is she on having this show-stopping choral moment all to herself every year.

There’s usually a couple of false starts but we get through the whole thing eventually, and most of the time the neighbours don’t complain. When the song is over, so is the Cousins’ Kris Kindle. And Christmas proper has begun.

Chupi Sweetman

Founder and chief executive of Chupi Fine Jewellery

One of my favourite Christmas traditions began more than 20 years ago when I met my husband. Every year we give each other a decoration that sums up some part of the year that has been: a diamond ring in 2010 to celebrate becoming engaged; two tiny ceramic dogs in 2015, when we adopted our pair of mutts; a glass paintbrush in 2018 as we bought our first house and did nothing but paint; or a tiny vintage photo frame with a picture of the first scan of our longed-for daughter.

We have dated every decoration, using nothing fancier than a sharpie pen, so that every year as we unbox our Christmas tree we get to remember all of the big moments in our life.

We added a new tradition in 2020 when we welcomed our little girl into the world. Now when we choose a decoration for each other, we also add one for her, dated and kept safe for when she is ready to start her own home and her own traditions.

We get caught up thinking Christmas traditions are about the big moments, but the tiny ones are just as precious.

Garron Noone

Musician, comedian, TikToker

We have the Christmas dinner in my mam’s house in Ballina with my siblings, usually extraordinarily early in the day because my mother gets up at five to make it and we eat it when it’s done so if it’s done at 11 o’clock in the morning, we have it at 11 o’clock in the morning. Then we all go to sleep for two hours and then we have the dessert and then we sleep again, that’s about the height of it.

I’m in charge of making the trifle from the box, it has to be from the box - that’s the nicest one, I’ve it down to a science at this stage. Mam does everything else; she doesn’t trust anyone else with anything. There’s no experimentation on Christmas Day.

You’re not allowed to eat anything within a good 12 hours of the dinner because you need to be able to jam as much dinner into you as humanly possible.

The dogs get dressed up, they usually get advent calendars and everything.

Emma Doran


Christmas is Scrabble time. Well, that’s according to my daughter and my fella. They play Scrabble all over the Christmas break but I don’t get involved. Sadly, I’m a terrible speller.

One tradition I am completely on board with is the one that dictates that as a family we never leave our house for Christmas dinner. No matter how enticing the offer – a hotel dinner or a friend who wants to host us – we stay put.

My fella and I have adjusted our traditions over the years, mixing and matching things from our different families. For starters: we don’t have a starter. And we have a turkey crown because the waste with the full big bird is off the charts. We don’t do Christmas pudding either and, even more controversially, we often have Yorkshire puddings as one of our staple sides. My parents think this is strange. We also insist on pulling Christmas crackers before the eating starts because we can’t wait for those paper crowns: we like to wear the hats for the whole meal.

On Christmas morning my mam and dad come up for a visit to see the kids in the morning to say hello and see what Santa brought. I’m crap at shopping but apart from that, I love everything about Christmas. I’m really looking forward to this one because I’ve a 10- and an eight-year-old. Our years with Santa are precious.

Elizabeth Day

Author and podcaster

My Christmas tradition, one that I love, is that I don’t have any tradition. I think it’s because my life has been quite chaotic. I was divorced, and then after that I was in not-very-long-term relationships and then I met and married my lovely husband, who has his own family. We live in London, and my parents live across the channel in France. All of this means I don’t have any consistent family traditions. This is exactly how I like it. I love the liberation of it all. It means I don’t have any hang-ups about not doing things the way they “should” be done.

This year we’re having a very quiet Christmas at home, just the two of us and our cat, Huxley. It’s the first time we’ve done that, and I am so looking forward to it. I think the secret to a happy Christmas is having no expectations. It is a day in the calendar and we can make of it what we like. My tradition is having no tradition and enjoying it even more because of that.

Elizabeth Day’s latest book, Friendaholic, is out now and she’ll be talking about it at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on March 13th.

Katja Mia

Presenter of the Six O’Clock Show, Virgin Media

Our family Christmas tradition is having a big Irish fry for breakfast as soon as we get up, around 9.30am. It’s something the six of us – my parents, two sisters and my brother – never do throughout the year, so we really look forward to waking up, blasting out the Christmas tunes and cooking up a yuletide breakfast storm. Without fail my mum always gets the old Superquinn sausages (they are the best) and my dad is always in charge of the baked beans. It’s one of the main reasons why we have dinner so late on Christmas Day: we really love putting emphasis on a full Irish for our first meal.

Rosita Boland

Irish Times journalist

My favourite thing about the run-up to Christmas when in Ireland is the unwritten rule that you must meet most – or preferably all – of your friends before December 25th. There is a particular urgency about meeting up at that time of year that starts to – ahem – snowball around mid-November. Calls are made, texts are sent, bar or restaurant bookings chased.

Back in the days of being more broke than not, meeting people during seasonal evenings rarely involved any food arrangements more sophisticated than a toasted cheese and ham sandwich from the Stag’s Head. The point was just to meet, and gab all evening. The Christmas lights and dressed-up windows all around contributed a heady feeling. I’ve never met a fairy light I didn’t like.

Last year I was out of the country all through December. The only thing I missed about Christmas in Ireland were those many lovely long – sometimes extremely long – evenings with friends, all of us gone mad with the smell of pine needles and the simple joy of each other’s company. This year, I have many December evening dates in my diary; each one a promise of great stories to hear, happy experiences to have and renewed friendships to celebrate.

Keilidh Cashell

Make-up artist and business owner

Every Christmas the whole family get together at our grandparents’ house for chats, sing-songs and a dance. When we were younger we would perform for everyone, as the adults would clap and encourage our terrible dancing. That’s evolved now to us all playing board games. We still sing (badly) but in a shocking injustice we are not celebrated for these performances as much as we used to be.

At Christmas our granny always made a massive pot of soup, which would be our starter meal for the next few days. Both my grandparents always had a great way of keeping the magic alive for us – my grandad once got on the roof mimicking Santa’s footsteps. Now I think about it, he was probably just trying to get us all to go to bed.

Jennifer Zamparelli

2FM and RTÉ presenter

My Christmas tradition is one I started with the kids, but the seed of the idea was planted many years ago when, at 18, I moved out of my childhood home. That first Christmas away was miserable and expensive, mostly because I had to start completely from scratch with the decorating.

I would have loved to have decorations from home. You know the ones. Those special decorations, the baubles and ornaments with a backstory. They mean so much more than an anonymous packet of shiny balls you buy out of necessity.

Because of that experience, I want my children to have decorations when they leave home, memories of Christmas they can take with them when they go. So each Christmas they use their pocket money to buy a small but special decoration for the tree.

They also come home from school with bits they make in arts and crafts. I keep all these in their own special box and when they turn 18 – the year I plan on booting them out – I will give them their own boxes to take to decorate their own trees. This will also mean I get rid of all the many toilet-roll fairies we have accumulated in the box over the years. It’ll be a win-win situation for all.

Zainab Boladale

Reporter with Nationwide on RTÉ

Growing up, Christmas was always celebrated in community and company – my family and our close friends gathering to enjoy a beautiful meal and all the usual festivities.

In the midst of all the celebrations, I stumbled upon my hidden talent – being the Christmas chef. In the run-up to the big day, I enjoy thinking about what special and unexpected dishes should grace our table. My younger brother is my trusty sidekick in the kitchen, he’s almost as passionate about the job as I am.

Our Christmas dinner isn’t what you’d call traditional. Instead, it’s a mish-mash of Nigerian dishes and desserts. My newfound tradition is giving myself the green light to try my hand at recipes I usually wouldn’t dare as they are time-consuming to make. So Christmas has become my cooking playground, and if I say so myself, I’m not too shabby.