Tag Archives: Irish Christmas Tradition

Women’s Christmas, January 6 -An Irish Christmas Tradition

 

Womenschristmas_large

Having celebrated Christmas and the New Year, we in Ireland are not done yet! We are still counting the twelve days of Christmas at the end of which we will have the final celebration. This is of course the uniquely Irish tradition of  Women’s Little Christmas when Irish women celebrate the end of the Christmas Season.  Although celebrated mainly in counties Cork and Kerry, it is great to see this tradition being revived and celebrations happening all lover Ireland. This post from 2012 has been read over 12,000 times, and here it is again to wish all female readers a Happy Women’s 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!

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’  (‘Nollaig Bheag’ in Irish) 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.

Some 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, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue!

If you know of other areas where this tradition is celebrated, I would be delighted to hear about it.

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

References

Internet Archive :Gentleman’s Magazine 

bbc.co.uk

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

Wren Boys An Irish Christmas Tradition

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

When I first came to live in Limerick some 30 years ago, I was totally astonished to have dozens of musicians and dancers arriving into my house throughout  St Stephen’s Day, 26 December. From about 10 am onwards, they arrived. The earliest were  small groups of local children with their musical instruments, often as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The great cultural network of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, active across much of Ireland, ensures that there are musicians in abundance of all ages to take part in events. In parts of Ireland, St Stephen’s Day,or Lá Fhéile Stiofán in Irish, is known as ‘Lá an Dreoilín’, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. Announcing their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and of course,Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the(often very wet or sometimes snowing!) night! The last person to leave carries a bough of holly to which is attached some red and white streamers and an effigy of a dead bird, plus a bag or box for donations, singing as he goes

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trait’)

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)

The Wren, (An Dreoilín) King of All Birds, depicted on Irish postage stamp.

The tiny wren has been prominent in legend and folklore for centuries. The story of the election of the wren as of King of the Birds is to be found all over Europe, first mentioned by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C as being one of Aesop’s Fables from the 6th Century B.C. The story goes that the title King was earned in a contest between all birds to see who could fly the highest. The eagle managed to soar highest of all, but then the wren, having concealed itself in the Eagle’s feathers and ‘hitched a ride’ flew out and soared even higher. And so the wren became king. Irish versions of the tale go on to say that because of the deceitful manner in which the title was earned, the wren was placed under a ‘geis’ or taboo and this is why it is hunted.

In the 1940s the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a survey of the rituals of St Stephen’s Day across Ireland from which it is shown that the wren was usually hunted on Christmas Day. The dead bird was tied to a bush, usually holly, and on the following day was paraded by the Wren Boys (usually bachelors) from house to house as they sang the wren song. Money and food collected was then used to put on a wren dance some days later at which it was hoped that young unmarried people might meet and find a spouse.

Other stories of the killing of the wren are to do with its role in betrayal –  whether betraying the Christian martyr, Stephen, or betraying Irish soldiers by alerting the enemy  in the Viking invasions of the 8th century or by warning the Cromwellian army of the approaching Irish in the 17th century. Whatever the origins, the Wren Boy tradition has changed down the ages – the wren is no longer killed, and the custom of visiting each home has died out in many areas, musicians now go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds, and money is often collected for charity.

The St Stephen’s Day procession is alive and well in parts of Ireland, most notably in Counties Kerry, Clare and Limerick as well as in some other areas.

Dingle Wren Boys

Dingle Wren Boys. Dingle in County Kerry hosts a world famous Lá an Dreoilín’

Men, women and children of all ages now go on ‘The Wran’. In recent years the tradition was revived in the city of Dublin where troupes of musicians singers and dancers take to the streets to give traditional entertainment for the feast of Stephen. While  it is no longer a ritual  to ensure fertility and prosperity in the community for the year ahead, it adds a colourful and enjoyable diversion in the Christmas season.

This is an edited version of a post from 2011.

References

An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society

The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature, Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas  pp131-169 1996/1997.

Comhaltas

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions

Women’s Christmas, January 6 -An Irish Christmas Tradition

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!

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’  (‘Nollaig Bheag’ in Irish) 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.

Some 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, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue!

If you know of other areas where this tradition is celebrated, I would be delighted to hear about it.

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

References

Internet Archive :Gentleman’s Magazine 

bbc.co.uk

26 Comments

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