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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An Irish Proverb

Jan 5, 2014 by

A cabin with plenty of food is better than a hungry castle.    Irish Proverb

indexcabin proverb

Being “house proud”, as my grandmother used to say, makes you look important, but does little to feed hungry bellies.

~The image is of a small stone cottage in County Mayo, Ireland,  photographed by me on a cold, sunny day in May, 2013.  I was intrigued by the pots of geraniums in the window, placed there by someone, even though the home was abandoned and the roof was gone.  It seemed to me to be symbolic of the will of the Irish people to survive and thrive, in spite of all the hardships and tragedies brought to their doorsteps throughout the centuries.

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Dec 18, 2013 by

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Kilted Up 2014 Calendar on sale now
Kilted Up 2014 Calendar on sale now

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Top 5 Celtic Food Gifts Under $25

Dec 4, 2013 by

  • Top 5 Celtic Food Gifts Under $25

  • Looking for a Celtic food stocking stuffer or gift under $25? 

Click the blue links to find treats to satisfy any Celtic gourmand, without putting a dent in your holiday budget


1.  Scottish smoked salmon  St. James Scottish Reserve Gravelox- Unsliced Seasoned Smoked Salmon, Cured with Brandy, Fresh Chopped Dill, Salt & Sugar–smoked salmon with capers, cream cheese and cucumber slices are a New Year’s Eve tradition at our home–simple dee-vine!
2.  Irish Breakfast tea  Bewley’s Irish Breakfast Tea in decorative tin,  30 loose tea bags, no tags or strings.   Bewley’s is an old Irish company that has won numerous awards for its wonderful tea blends.  Their Breakfast Tea  is a deep golden brew that is a long-time favorite of mine.
3. Welsh Sea Salt Jar     Halen Môn Mon Pure Welsh Silver Finishing Sea Salt from Isle of Anglesey, Wales White, crunchy flaky crystals add an extra something to almost any food. Described by Henry Harris (former Head Chef at Harvey Nichols’ Fifth Floor Restaurant) as ‘…tasting of the cleanest oceans’, Halen Môn is a Soil Association Certified Product.
4. Cornish Gingerbread  Furniss Cornish gingerbreads in traditional old tube. These cookies are made to an original recipe from the company’s founder, John Cooper Furniss, dating back to 1886.   Crunchy, spicy and very, very tasty, it’s a gingerholic’s dream.
5.Breton Crepes  Gavottes Crispy Lace Crepes From France covered in Milk Chocolate–delicate, thin Breton lace crepes by Loc Maria are a fine crispy biscuit that has been made following a French traditional recipe handed down since 1920.  These crepes are covered in a fine layer of gourmet milk chocolate.They are perfect with coffee or tea.

5 Foods For Celts

5 Foods For Celts

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Get Kilted Up For the Holidays!

Nov 27, 2013 by


Kilted Up 2014 Calendar on sale now

Kilted Up 2014 Calendar on sale now

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Men in Kilts-No Use Putting Up a Fight

Men in Kilts-No Use Putting Up a Fight

Support independent publishing: Buy this calendar on Lulu.

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Whisky: The Original Celtic Curative

Nov 25, 2013 by

It is an old and commonly accepted Celtic maxim that if whisky can’t cure it, there is no cure for it, whatever it may be.  Wise words for the holiday season…

Whisky Drink for Surviving  the Holidays

Whisky: The Celtic Cure for What Ails Ye    Image by Jamie Chung http://ti.me/1fEkDvt


We all know that big family holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas bring on stress, and stress, in turn, makes us more susceptible to coughs and colds and other icky illnesses.  Our Celtic ancestors played host to visiting relatives, too, and knew full well the perils of gathering the clan all in one confined space, especially when those clansmen and women were packing heat, or at least swords and axes.
Luckily for you, beautiful Celtic people, your ancestors created a magical elixir to settle frayed nerves and ward off potential nasties brought by relatives on their holiday visit.  I’m speaking, of course, about uisge beatha,  the water of life,  better known as whisky (Scotland) and whiskey (Ireland and the US).  In fact, the word “whisky”(with or without the e) is an anglicization of the Scottish Gaelic word  “uisge” and the Irish Gaelic word “uisce”, meaning water.  Uisge beatha roughly translates as “lively water” or ” water of life.”

When I’m feeling ” a mite peaked “, as we Southerners say, I add just a little hot water to my Lagavulin  and sip it in front of the fire or while I’m reading–always make me feel better. If you aren’t in the mood to take your whisky neat, however, try this clever cocktail created by New York bartender Sam Ross. It combines the curative properties of lemon, honey and ginger with the bracing properties of a good single malt.

Sláinte–to your health!

The Penicillin:

Muddle fresh ginger in a cocktail shaker, add 2 oz of scotch (lightly peated, such as Bunnahabhain ), 3⁄4 oz. fresh lemon juice, 3/4 oz. honey syrup(I use pure honey with equal parts hot water), and shake with ice.

Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, and pour 1/4 ounce of Islay single malt scotch (such as Laphroaig or Lagavulin) over the back of a bar spoon so that it floats on the drink.
 Garnish with candied ginger.


Need to know how to pronounce all those glorious Scottish whisky brand names?  Scots actor Brian Cox and Esquire magazine created a group of very short videos to help you speak whisky with the best of them.  Here’s Brian’s pronunciation of Lagavulin, one of the best and most famous whisky brands:

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Guinness Chocolate Pudding–Luscious Irish Goodness

Nov 20, 2013 by

The Celtic Holiday Treat of the Day:  Chocolate Guinness Pudding

Chocolate Guinness Pudding Cups

Chocolate Guinness Pudding Cups image: http://bit.ly/I5muLK


This easy dessert is luscious Irish goodness designed to look like a glass of Guinness stout, the most famous drink to come from Ireland.  Guinness is an acquired taste, especially for Americans who are not used to drinking the darker, more robust stouts and ales that are popular abroad.  For those of you who don’t usually like the black brew, don’t be put off by the use of Guinness in this recipe– I promise this pudding will win you over to the dark side, at least in desserts, if not drinks.

I adapted this recipe from one I found years ago on Epicurious.com ;  there are several other versions out on the web that are similar.  It makes a perfect Christmas dinner dessert or St Patrick’s Day treat, but it’s so delicious, you may find yourself making this pudding  for any occasion or no occasion at all!   You can serve it in any glass–martini, half pint Mason jars, old fashioneds, etc– but it really looks cute in half pint glasses, if you have them.  I found a nice set on Amazon.com: British Half Pint Beer Glass – 10 oz – Set of 12  You’ll need six glasses for a single batch of the recipe.

8 large egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
One 14.9-ounce can Guinness Draught or Extra-Stout
3 cups heavy cream
7 ounces high-quality bittersweet (70 to 72% cacaoor higher, to taste) chocolate, finely chopped( I like Green & Black’s Organic brand, but any high quality, bittersweet chocolate will do)
1-3 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted(depending on taste)

In large mixing bowl (copper or glass, preferably chilled), whisk together egg yolks and 1 cup sugar.

Open the can of Guinness and SLOWLY pour the contents into a 4-cup measuring cup–tilt the cup at a slight angle as you pour the stout down the side of the cup to reduce foaming.  If you’re  a Celt, you probably already know how to pour a proper pint, but  non-Guinness drinkers might need this little tip about how to reduce the foam.

Pouring a Guinness Properly--It's All in the Tilt.

Pouring a Guinness Properly–It’s All in the Tilt.

After it settles for a minute or so, pour half of the Guinness (about 7/8 cup) into a heavy-bottomed 3-quart saucepan( I have also used enamel-coated cast iron, like Chantal or LeCreuset ). Add 2 1/4 cups cream and whisk to combine. Set over medium heat and cook, whisking frequently ( but not continuously), until bubbles just begin to form at edges. Remove from heat, add the chocolate, and whisk until smooth.

SLOWLY pour a thin stream of the hot chocolate mixture into eggs, whisking constantly to prevent curdling–this process is called tempering.   If you pour too fast, you’ll scramble the eggs and have to start over from scratch–a big ol’ waste of time, Guinness and chocolate. Return the mixture to saucepan and set over a moderately low heat–everyone’s stove heats differently, so I recommend you start on low heat and move up if needed.  If you scorch the mixture, you’ll have to throw it out.  Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon(it should not run off spoon); this process usually takes at least 15 minutes. The pudding will look separated–don’t worry.

Pour the pudding into a blender or food processor and blend on high for 1 minute. Divide pudding among  the glasses, leaving at least 1 inch of space at top of each for the whipped topping.  Cover each glass with plastic wrap (push the wrap right against the top of pudding to keep “skin” from forming on the pudding) and refrigerate until chilled and set.

Guinness Chocolate Pudding Topped With Guinness Whipped Cream

Guinness Chocolate Pudding Topped With Guinness Whipped Cream

While the pudding is chilling, pour the remaining Guinness into small saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Immediately reduce the heat to moderately low and simmer, uncovered, until the Guinness is reduced to 1 tablespoon, which takes about 20 minutes. What you’re looking for is a lovely stout syrup, with the consistency of honey, in a deep amber-black color.   Pour this reduction syrup into small bowl and let it cool. Do not be tempted to eat it. You could make your own little batch, if you want, maybe add a little sugar, choco–but I digress.

Next come the whipped topping for the pudding,  the crown jewel of this recipe.  I prefer the topping to be sweet, but I know others who prefer a non-sweet topping that imparts the full, slightly bitter taste of the Guinness. I listed the powdered sugar component as 1-3 tablespoons so that you can decide how you’d like the topping to taste–use all of the sugar(asI do) if you want it sweet, or zero to one tablespoons if you prefer a little bite to the topping.    Beat the remaining cream and whatever amount of powdered sugar you choose until soft peaks form.   Add the Guinness syrup and fold in until combined.   Top each glass of pudding with a dollop of cream and serve.

~The higher the cacoa content of the chocolate, the more you’ll taste it, rather than the Guinness.
~Do NOT substitute half and half for heavy whipping cream–the pudding and topping won’t set up correctly.
~ You can omit the sugar from the whipped topping, but as I noted above,  it will be slightly bitter. The pudding is so rich, some people think the slightly bitter topping compliments it well, but you can decide based on your own tastes. Some folks like just plain whipped cream–no sweetener, no flavoring–or pre-made toppings such as Cool-Whip or Redi-Whip.

~I usually sprinkle a pinch of cocoa powder, espresso powder and/or ground cinnamon on top of the whipped cream; for St Patrick’s Day serving, I recommend green candy or sugar sprinkles.

~ You could substitute Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur for the Guinness syrup in the whipped topping.  If you do, just use one tablespoon of the sugar because Bailey’s is already fairly sweet.

~ because the pudding is so rich, you can use smaller glasses and divide it into 8-10 servings.

Making Guinness Chocolate Pudding

Making Guinness Chocolate Pudding image: http://bit.ly/1bDDJLa

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