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.