Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas – a Christmas tradition with an Irish twist.

Muiredach's cross

The Adoration of the Magi on the 9th or 10th century Muiredach’s Cross in Monasterboice in County Louth. Four Magi are depicted venerating the Christ Child and the Holy Mother. Note the star of Bethlehem over the child. This scene, like the others on the cross was almost certainly painted in brilliant colours when first unveiled.

Nollaig na mBan is the name given in Irish to the important Feast of Epiphany, which is celebrated by the Church on the 6th January. In the English tradition the term Twelfth Night is used – as immortalized by Shakespeare in his eponymous play. The evening of 6th January was twelve days after Christmas so it was the last chance to have some serious merriment before serious work began again on Plough Monday. The first Monday after Epiphany was the day the fields were ploughed in anticipation of the spring planting.  That is, if they hadn’t been ploughed already following the autumn harvest – a very sensible idea in case of a long hard frost or snow. Sometimes it was necessary to plough the land a second time to break up the soil following freezing weather.  Another name for Epiphany was Little Christmas – for it marked the end of the Christmas season in the Church liturgy.  Admittedly some places ended the Christmas season on the Feast of Candlemas on 2nd February – or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Ardmore sculptures

Ardmore in County Waterford was founded by St Declan prior to the coming of St Patrick. It bacame a diocese briefly after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. The small ruined cathedral has stonework dating to the 9th century but the west front may date to the early 12th century. This contains a very important sculpture cycle including this depiction of the Magi venerating the Virgin and Child. Menacingly placed above it is the Judgement of Solomon. Curiously, the Virgin and Child are flanked by an ox, symbol of St Luke, who doesn’t mention the Magi in his gospel. Again, there are four figures for the Magi – but it is possible that the fourth figure is actually the angel who warned them to return home by a different route. This figure could also stand in for the angel that symbolizes St Matthew, who gives the story of the Magi in his gospel.

Epiphany celebrated two events – the arrival of the Magi to venerate the Christ Child and the Baptism of Christ.  It is probably more important than Christmas Day in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.  When I was a schoolchild, Epiphany marked the last day of the Christmas school holiday – we returned to class on the 7th January.  This has now changed with the centralization of the Irish school calendar – the kids went back to classes today (5th January), and they no longer get the Church holiday off.

However, back to Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, as it translates into English.  Nowadays the name is translated as Women’s Little Christmas – which is incorrect, for they are two different terms.  Little Christmas would be An Nollaig Bheag.  This is basically a straightforward reference to the last day of the Christmas season proper.  But what is this business of Women’s Christmas?  Surely Irishwomen celebrate Christmas on 25th December like all the men?

Well, Women’s Christmas was a way of saying that traditionally women had the day off, or rather the evening off, to enjoy themselves and the men were left guarding the home fires.  It seems to have originated as a reward for doing all the cleaning, cooking and organizing of the main Christmas festivities. On the evening of 6th January (in some places 5th January) the women of the community would prepare a meal for themselves to which no men were invited.  The women would gather in a selected house from which the men were evicted for the evening to have this meal and they would spend the evening singing, dancing, playing cards, storytelling and generally enjoying themselves.  And yes, drink would be available.  In reality this was probably the only day of the year in which women could let their hair down, forget the housework and enjoy a girls’ day out.

So today in Ireland, some women take the evening off, and head out with the girls – their sisters, friends, and adult daughters.  They might go for a meal in a nice restaurant, take in the theatre, a trip to the cinema or join someone at a party.  It can be an important source of business for restaurants and pubs, since January can be a lean month due to over expenditure at Christmas. Because Epiphany can fall in the middle of the week and is not a public holiday, this imposes some restraint on the modern observance of Women’s Christmas – especially if the women concerned have to work the next day. Nowadays, the tradition of Women’s Christmas is most widely observed in counties Cork and Kerry – but it is spreading again.  I think we should also rename 6th January as Irish Women’s Day, just to be logical.

Unfortunately, 6th January 1839 was also the Night of the Big Wind – when a hurricane swept through an unsuspecting Ireland and caused immense damage throughout the country.  Some Irish follklore claimed that 6th January would be the Day of Judgement – so on that particular night some people actually believed that the world was about to end. Humorously, when the old age pension was introduced in 1906, one question asked of applicants who could not supply documentation of age was whether or not they could remember the Night of the Big Wind….and they say ’tis an ill wind that blows some good!

Night of the Big Wind

The hurricane of 6th January 1839 – the Night of the Big Wind. This record is from the Armagh Observatory. It reads – Tremendous gale in the night.  I imagine it was the understatement of the year.

And what of the men on Women’s Christmas?  They probably had to make do with bread, cold cuts of meat and strong tea for one night.   Nowadays they resort to readymeals – unless they learned something from all the cookery shows on TV. Oh, and one more thing – the men probably had to take down and pack away all the Christmas decorations that the women had so carefully put up! Tough!

Women's Christmas

To all the women following this blog – A happy Women’s Christmas to you.

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