January 6: Women’s Christmas in Ireland

Jan 6, 2014 by

For most Christians in the western world, January 6 is celebrated as Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany,  which commemorates  the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles.  In Ireland, Epiphany is also known as Little Christmas (Irish: Nollaig Bheag) or “Women’s Christmas” (Irish: Nollaig na mBan)–it’s a day for Irish women to eat, drink and be merry, while the men take care of the household chores. What a great tradition!

Irish Woman

Nollaig na mBan: Irish Women’s Liberation, At Least For A Day  image source


The tradition, still observed in parts of southwest Ireland such as Cork and Kerry, grew out of the days when families were large and the women did all of the household chores. Men worked on the farm or in a trade, but were never expected to cook or clean. As you might imagine, Christmas time was hectic for Irish women–cooking all the special foods for the big meal, plus food to share with neighbors and family, cleaning the house thoroughly and then decorating for the holiday, sewing holiday clothing for the adults and children, all in addition to the everyday household chores women needed to do.

Nollaig na mBan gave all those tired women of Ireland a chance to sit back, relax and let the men take care of the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing for one day, on January 6. As time passed, women began to go to pubs and hotels for dinners out, often drinking their stout or whiskey in small “snugs”, essentially small cubicles walled off from the rest of the drinking establishment,  that allowed the ladies to enjoy themselves without having their delicate feminine sensibilities offended by the rough lads who usually came in for a pint or two. Today, women are welcome  in any part of the pub, but many of the snugs still exist and are quite charming in their own way.

By the mid-twentieth century Ireland, barkeeps were serving mostly female patrons on the evening of Women’s Christmas, and bars were crowded with Irish women having a night on the town.


It's Nollaig na mBan--Drink Up, Ladies!

It’s Nollaig na mBan–Drink Up, Ladies!    image source

Importantly, Women’s Christmas is a rare ALL female, just-us-girls holiday, unlike Mother’s Day, which involves men and children and excludes women who aren’t mothers.

As one Irish blogger notes in her reminiscences of Nollaig na mBan when she was growing up, the day was a special one for all the females in the family, young and old alike:

I remember the women gabbing all day and in the heel of the evening getting into the stories and songs of which I never, ever tired. My female cousins and I would sense the privilege of being included in all of this, there was a respect in us and never did we exemplify more the ideal of children being seen and not heard than on that day. Unasked, we poured the drinks and ran outside to boil another kettle to make a fresh pot or brought in the sandwiches and the fairy cakes and the chocolates and exotic biscuits in the later part of the day.

I remember the hoots of laughter as my aunts dipped their ladyfinger biscuits into their sherries, letting us have a small sample of the incredible taste. This was the one day in the year that I could get a sense of how the older women in my family were when they were young girls themselves. Full of fun and music and stories. I learned about their old boyfriends and who courted them, how one of my uncles had dated all four sisters before settling on my aunt. How wild he was and how she tamed him.

I’d learn of the sad miscarriages and the stillbirths, the neighbours who went peculiar from the change or the drink, the priests who got spoiled in Africa and became pagan; or who had the failing, the old great grandaunt who took on fierce odd after her son married. I didn’t know what a lot of it meant then but I stored it all away to ponder on in later years…

A moment would come in the midst of all the hilarity when the time for a spot of prayer came. Out of the big black handbags that never left their sides would come the rosaries. These would be threaded through their fingers and all the heads would bow in unison. I never knew the prayer and haven’t heard it since but it was to St Brigid, the women’s saint of Ireland, and it involved her taking all the troubles of the year before and parking them somewhere in heaven and thus they were never to be seen again. This was followed by a minute of silence (while St Brigid did what she was asked, I have no doubt), then a fervent “Thanks be to God and all His saints” and a reverent kiss on the cross of the various rosaries which were all tucked away carefully into the handbags again. Then the glasses of sherry or the cups of tea were refilled and the whooping and carrying on would begin afresh, the bothers and griefs of the past year now permanently banished and forever.

Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas), by The Other Side of Sixty, January 5, 2009




To Great Celtic Women: May We Be Them, Raise Them and Empower Them!
image source


Contemporary Irish women observe Nollaig na mBan by having lunch, brunch or tea with sisters, aunts, mothers and friends, and perhaps doing some shopping or going to the movies.  Gender roles in Ireland aren’t as rigid as they used to be, with many women working outside the home and men taking more of an interest in cooking and taking care of the children, but the tradition of Women’s Christmas lives on.

I, for one, would love to see the custom of Nollaig na mBan jump the pond to America (or at least to Irish-America).  Our lives in the 21st century are filled with the go-go, stressful nature of putting food on the table and raising a family, checking emails, tweeting and posting and blogging—STOP! My eye is starting to twitch just thinking about all that craziness.

Taking a day off to chat about our Celtic and family heritage with the women in our lives, to help each other carry some of life’s burdens and to just have  a good old-fashioned hen party (with no gifts to buy, food to cook or cards to write)  seems a PERFECT kind of holiday.


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