Irish Christmas tradition lives on

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

On Monday next, January 6, thousands of women across Ireland will gather to celebrate Nollaig na mBan or Womens Christmas.

All over Ireland, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season – it is the day on which the fairy lights, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas cards are taken down and put away for another year. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! January 6 has many titles – Epiphany, Little Christmas, 12th Night, Women’s Christmas,  Women’s  Little Christmas, and Nollaig na mBan. Such an important day to have 6 different names!

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’ is one of the traditional names for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the new-born baby Jesus, the day on which Jesus is revealed to the gentiles. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that originated in the Eastern Church and was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’ is so-called because under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January, whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Twelfth Night, which coincides with Epiphany has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season for centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Twelfth Night was one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. Twelfth Night parties were common where participants enjoyed food and drink and games. A special Twelfth cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: the king, and his entourage” went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense” on Twelfth Night.

21 years ago I found myself in County Kerry on January 6. I was astonished to see hotels crowded with women – and no men to be seen! On enquiring, I was informed that they were celebrating ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. This has been a long-standing tradition in Counties Kerry and Cork, when women celebrate the end of the Christmas season, the decorations are down, the long season of preparation and cooking is over and the women folk have a celebratory meal. It is also celebrated in Newfoundland which has a strong affinity with Ireland and in some states of the United States of America where the tradition was kept alive by Irish immigrants.

The fascinating thing about this tradition is that, rather than dying out like so many other traditions, its popularity has begun to grow and it is now being celebrated across the country. Women in Dublin organize lunches for their women friends, Limerick women are meeting in their own homes for lovely dinners, Galway women are having poetry recitals, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue to grow and grow!

Happy Nollaig na mBan (pronounced null-ag na man) to all readers!

This post was first published in January 2012.


Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland

27 responses to “Irish Christmas tradition lives on

  1. It’s great that Nollaig na mBan is thriving and I can add Tramore to your list!
    For me, one of the big rituals is the burning of the berried holly that has decorated significant photographs and ornaments over the Christmas period. I’m not sure if this is just a family tradition or one which is more universal ~ possibly imported from Scotland by my ancestors ~ on the female line, of course!

    • I had not heard of the burning of the holly before. My Dad was not satisfied until the sprigs of berried holly had been shoved behind every picture in the house at Christmas. Then of course we watched it curl up and shrivel. It seems a natural progression to burn it ( for it would crackle and burn well!) and I love that idea. Must look into that practice to see if it happened anyplace else. I hope you have a great time in Waterford tomorrow 🙂 Thanks so much for dropping by 🙂

  2. Crissouli

    We’ve always taken our decorations down on Jan 6, the twelth night of Christmas, but though I know of it, Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas, hasn’t been celebrated here in Australia to my knowledge. If I had the time, I would certainly like to do so. In some cultures, it is seen as the women’s day off, when the men prepare the meal.. Now that I can work on 🙂
    Thanks for the reminder..

    • I laugh at the idea of men preparing the meal – perhaps ‘new men’know how to prepare a meal, but certainly in my mother’s day, that was NOT the case. My father hardly knew how to boil a kettle of water much less feed the 6 of us! I suspect that women got everything ready before heading out to enjoy themselves. It surely is different now of course with all these men having excellent culinary and parenting skills. 🙂 It’s a lovely tradition Chris – Why not start up a Womens Little Christmas lunch or gathering for poetry reading or whatever among your friends?

  3. There`s also a trend starting for taking down Christmas decorations and not running through to the twelfth day of Christmas. Boo! to that, I say!

    • Hmmm- I have been guilty as charged on that one myself – heading back to work after a long break, it is tempting to get it all sorted while you have the time.It was considered back luck to take them down early or too late ..would love to dig into thi scustom a bit more – the earliest reference I have found is in the 1930s. And wouldn’t it be great if those tacky lights you run past were removed much earlier ???? Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Happy “Nollaig na mBan” to you also Angela. Such a beautiful tradition which is not familiar to me but which I intend to embrace. I do have trouble packing up the “trimmings”, which are such a wonderful reminder of Christmas with family, so this will serve as a huge encouragement. Many thanks…

  5. Have a good night out, I am glad to read that the tradition is returning here in Cork, I have some great fun nights out on ‘Womens Little Christmas’, or ‘Little Women’s Christmas!

  6. I love the idea of a Women’s Christmas although I am ready to take decorations down as soon as possible! My father always insisted that they stay up until after Jan. 1. Thanks for sharing these traditions!

  7. I wasn’t aware until recently of Nollaig na mBan until recently SV. I do know that, 234 years tonight, French forces more or less strolled through a British garrison at La Rocque harbour, Jersey – they had been celebrating Little Christmas and were comatose. The Battle of Jersey followed later next day.

    • I think that the celebration was a well kept secret in Cork and Kerry for years! Thanks for the interesting reference to the Battle of Jersey – had to look it up on Wikipedia!
      As ever, your comment is much appreciated

  8. Very interesting. In our house, all the Christmas stuff has to be put away before January 1st so we don’t bring the old year in with the new.

  9. Reblogged this on In an Irish Home and commented:
    I have enjoyed reading Angela’s posts at A Silver Voice from Ireland for the past two years. This one, in particular, about Little Women’s Christmas in Ireland, is so thorough that it made no sense for me to write my own post about the matter. Thank you, Angela, I’m going to put my feet up {actually, I’m going to go back to bed!}. To women everywhere, I wish you a Nollaig na mBan.

  10. Thank you, Angela. I love hearing of this tradition with the women getting together! Great way to start the new cycle of another year!

  11. I have only celebrated the Christian epiphany but since I have Irish heritage I would love to adopt this tradition. What a wonderful celebration and a way to come together with my female friends, especially since we are too busy in December to spend much time together. Thank you for sharing!!

    • It is indeed a beautiful practice – and just perfect after the hustle and bustle of the season. Do let us know how your first women’s Christmas event goes! Thanks so much for dropping by and for your comment – much appreciated.

  12. I am sorry I didn’t read this earlier. I love the idea of the day for women. Usually I take the decorations down on the 6th or the 7th. Maybe I better get in there and take the tree down now! I have a Puerto Rican friend and she also called it “Little Christmas”.

    Hi, I nominated you for an award, check it out here, but if you don’t ‘do’ awards that is perfectly fine. Joan

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