The best family-friendly Christmas celebrations in Dublin

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Orla NeliganOrla Neligan is a freelance editor and journalist. She contributes a weekly column to the Irish Independent, as well as regular features on travel, business, psychology, interiors and lifestyle for the paper and other publications.
A mother and child riding a carousel bundled up in the cold weather

As small cities go, Dublin packs a mighty punch when it comes to history and culture, and ramps up its free-thinking spirit and good cheer at Christmas time when it’s even more welcoming.

Throughout December pubs are cosy and packed, at any time of the day, streets are buzzing with buskers and shoppers and lights twinkle across the city. Local or tourist, the city has plenty of Christmas traditions and new experiences that will keep the entire brood happy and jolly, whether you feel like skating on ice, hitting an outdoor market or joining the revellers for some Christmas carolling.

Here are some of the top Christmas celebrations to enjoy in Dublin this year with the entire family.

See the Big Man

Once the letters are written it’s time to visit the big man in person – if only to make sure he knows exactly what you want from him on Christmas Day. Luckily, Santa makes his presence felt throughout Dublin right up to Christmas.

Fancy meeting Santa and learning how things work on a farm at the same time? At Airfield urban farm in Dundrum, kids can pen their letter to Santa before meeting him and getting a sustainably sourced gift. Besides the chance to meet the animals on the 38-acre farm, there’s also storytelling with the elves, hot chocolate made with milk from the farm’s Jersey cows, a chance to ride the vintage carousel and a playground to romp around in.

Santa, Mrs Claus and the elves are also on duty at EPIC, where the kids can post their special letters in the express post box before they and the whole family take on the museum trail and sit for a family photo. As an extra incentive there’s also a return ticket for the museum valid throughout 2023.

At the foot of the Dublin Mountains, the Enchanted Forest Walk at family-run Luggwoods sets the appropriate Christmas mood with a twinkling canopy of lights that leads directly to Santa’s cabin. If your young charges are mad for GAA, Santa at Croke Park gives out GAA-themed gifts. Chocolate and Santa combined equals happy kids at the Chocolate Warehouse in Walkinstown, where little ones get a personalised chocolate Santa at the mini chocolate factory.

For a traditional department store Santa visit, the Ilac Centre’s Santa cabin is open to all, while the KidsZone in Tallaght includes a 20-minute play in the KidsZone area as well as meeting the big man and lots of magical Christmas characters. Grab an award-winning coffee and cake at one historic Bewleys Café on Grafton Street and browse the indoor market while your kids get a visit with Santa on Friday 25th November.

And finally, for a full-blown, bells-and-whistles Christmas experience, there’s the Santa’s House Express at Palmerstown House. As well as visiting the man himself, the whole family can enjoy over 2km of spectacular displays along the route to the historical house, a funfair and a food market.

Media captionBe sure to have your Christmas wish list ready when you see Santa.

It’s no ordinary panto

For many, the panto is as much a part of Christmas as turkey and ham, and in Dublin there’s quite a good choice to keep all panto fans happy. There’s no panto like a Gaiety panto (or so the saying goes), and this Christmas it’s the Jungle Book that gets panto-fied – expect some animal mayhem. At the 3Oympia Theatre, Fair City TV star Ryan Andrews and popular TV personality James Patrice will perform Olly, Polly & The Beanstalk, a fun reworking of the classic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.

There’s a ‘whole new world’ of panto at Liberty Hall with Aladdin. TV legend Marty Morrissey joins panto veteran Alan Hughes for Snow White at the National Stadium, while drag star Dame Stuffy returns to take on Peter Pan at the Axis Theatre in Ballymun. Panto favourites Colin Hughes and Aidan Mannion are back for Hansel and Gretel at the Helix, while Dundrum’s Mill Theatre will transform its stage into a magical panto woods for Little Red Riding Hood. The Civic Theatre in Tallaght takes on the story of Sleeping Beauty until the end of December, before the Draoicht Theatre in Blanchardstown offers its version of the classic tale in January. It’s all good old fashion fun.

Get your Christmas market on

Want to really soak up the festive atmosphere? Pay a visit to one of Dublin’s Christmas markets, where the city’s collection of artisan producers and creative craftspeople get into the spirit of the season, helped by tasty snacks, hot mulled wine and lots and lots of Christmas songs.

The biggest one in town takes place in the handsome courtyard of Dublin Castle, where 30-odd traditional alpine market stalls dispensing decorative crafts, treats and mulled wine surround a vintage carousel, all lit up for the occasion. There’s more magic in the stunning Chapel Royal, where an 18th-century style Neapolitan Crib takes pride of place. And, just to sprinkle a little more festive flavouring on the whole occasion,  the Dublin Gospel Choir perform carols and seasonal favourites at various times between December 8-21.

Media captionVisit the Chapel Royal to see the stunning Neapolitan Crib.

For a great day out with the chance to pick up some gorgeous handcrafted gifts made in Ireland, head to Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park for their food and craft market which takes place every Saturday and Sunday in December. In December the estate turns its attention to Christmas, with a packed weekend programme of family-friendly events and performances. There’ll be horse and carriage rides, a decorated crib and a puppet show courtesy of Yourmans Puppets in the Cowshed Theatre, as well as performances by a barbersop quartet, carol singing and – specially for the kids – Christmas storytelling throughout the day.

The Stillgarden Distillery in the Liberties is hosting its first family market from 11am-6pm on December 10 and 11. There will be a mix of craft, jewellery, art and literature and a spotlight on charities in the area with a fashion show showcasing the best of charity shop finds. For a great opportunity to shop small, local and Irish pop into the Dandelion Market at The Well on Stephen’s Green every Sunday from 12-5pm until December 18.

Light it up

Everything looks better when it’s glistening in lights. You can’t miss the bulbs that beam over Grafton Street throughout the Christmas season, but for something extra special drop into Dublin Zoo for their annual Wild Lights display – now a key date in many families’ Christmas calendar. This year the Magic of Life theme returns with a focus on biodiversity, so expect to see magical woodland scenes with larger-than-life illuminations. There’s giant bees and the metamorphosis of rainforest creatures including caterpillars, spiders and snakes. The underwater world is also represented, with a host of sea creatures all drenched in jewel colours.

North of the city, Malahide Castle is all lit up for the season, but this is merely a prelude to the Wonderlights ‘Night Sky’ walk, a sensory adventure to the Northern Lights that takes you through the Irish countryside, across the northern seas and into Arctic forests, with plenty of woodland and cosmos encounters along the way.

Media captionDelight in the Wild Lights experience at Dublin Zoo.

A chorus of voices

The sound of an angelic choral choir is a Christmas staple in Dublin, where church singing has been a tradition for over 500 years. The best-known concerts take place throughout December in St Patrick’s Cathedral, whose world-famous choir established in 1432 is the oldest in the country; and in nearby Christ Church Cathedral, whose own choral tradition is only just a few years younger.

But smaller, lesser known churches can be equally atmospheric. You can expect a cacophony of beautiful voices and the occasional Santa sing-a-long at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral just off O’Connell Street, St Bartholomew’s on Clyde Road in Dublin 4, St Teresa’s Carmelite Church on Clarendon Street, St. Ann’s on Dawson Street and St. Andrews on Westland Row.

Media captionTake in the world-famous St Patrick's choir.

Ice, Ice Baby

Is there anything more fun and festive than whizzing around an ice rink with your friends and family at Christmas followed by a post-skate hot chocolate or gluhwein to warm you up? We don’t think so. Dublin may not have the edge on outdoor ice rinks unlike London or New York but there’s still plenty of places where you can lace up your boots and get swishing. 

Now in its 10th year, Dundrum on Ice is a popular spot, especially if you want to eat, shop and go ice-skating all in one-go. Located at Dundrum Shopping Centre, the 500sq m rink has three sessions a day and lots of penguin skating aids for little ones. When you’re done on the ice, hit the shops and one of the many restaurants at the centre. 

Ice skating and shopping seems to be a theme in the city with a rink at the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre and Swords on Ice at the Swords Pavilion. Blanchardstown’s dedicated rink for children, skating aids, fresh ice on the hour and a chance to skate with the big man himself makes it a firm family favourite while kids and teens love Swords for its light show and loud music guaranteed to up the atmos.

It's Showtime!

There’s plenty of Christmas-themed shows throughout December. The Late Late Toy Show is one of the most watched TV programmes of the year, but this year it’s taking to the stage of Dublin’s National Convention Centre as a family-friendly musical, running from December 10-31. It takes all the excitement, magic and tradition of that special evening on the last Friday in November and wraps it up in a heart-warming story of a little girl’s journey to preserve it.

Expect parading nutcrackers, festive tunes and plenty of dancing at the timeless family classic The Snowman, which runs at The National Concert Hall from December 16-18. Humour, friendship and climate change education are the themes of Polar Bear & Penguin at The Ark cultural centre in Temple Bar, which tells the story of polar opposite characters getting to know one another and learning to survive in a world melting beneath their feet.

Media captionTake in a Christmas classic at The National Concert Hall.

You Raise Me Up on New Year’s Eve

Choose from two spectacular midnight moment countdown events as well as a family-friendly matinee show to see in 2023 on December 31 at Dublin’s New Year’s Festival, which takes across six stages along North Wall Quay. The Brighter Futures Midnight Moment is a special event for little ones that starts at 4pm and ends with a countdown at 7pm – just in time for the action to kick off on the main stage. Gavin James and Lyra will perform as warm-up acts for Westlife, who will ring in the new year before continuing their sell-out world tour in 2023.

Even more Christmas fun

Check out the Winter in Dublin page to keep an eye on all upcoming events right through to the end of January.