Nollaig na mBan 2024

As I write this Christmas has not started. The Twelve Days of Christmas are not upon us yet – such is life in publishing – getting ahead of the readership. Christmas is a time for reminiscing and spending time with families and friends. In this article I would like to take you on a particularly Irish historical journey surrounding the last day of Christmas, the 12th day – The Feast of the Epiphany – Three Kings Day – The Three Wise Men or in Ireland – Women’s Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan.

Traditionally, throughout the Christian world, the twelve days of Christmas are counted and couched in tradition. They span the days from Christmas Day to January 6th, with each country having its own particular traditions and nuances surrounding foodstuffs, when to put up the Christmas tree, when to take it down, when to remove the decorations and how to celebrate the last day of Christmas. The last day of Christmas is day twelve. According to the song / poem titled the Twelve Days of Christmas – depending on which version one reads, the person would receive 12 Drummers Drumming or 12 Fiddlers Fiddling, either way it has musical connotations. The song itself was first written down in the 1780 book, Mirth Without Mischief, and was likely created as a game for children—where a child sung until a mistake was made and the game forfeited by paying the price with a sweet or other token. Historians believe that this poem/ song actually originated in France before transferring over to England, as evidenced by the inclusion of partridges (which were native to France, and didn’t arrive in England until the 18th century). No one knows for sure the origins of this song –poem, authorship is usually referenced as anonymous.

So, in Ireland, this musical – party tradition – has become more celebrated in recent years with concerts having a target audience of the ladies as we celebrate – Women’s Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan. Everything from Abba-esque Bands to fancy dinner parties are organised for the female audience.

Where then did this tradition come from in Ireland? The 6th January is the Feast of the Epiphany or the Three Kings, The Arrival of the Magi, various terms are used across the world to describe the arrival of the Three Wise Men to the child, Jesus. In Ireland, as in other countries, the three wise men are placed into each Crib /Nativity scene on the 6th January. Being the last day of the festive season, we in Ireland seem to have chosen this date as the day to support women. A day when, traditionally, the women of Ireland, put down their aprons and spent the day celebrating with their female friends and relatives. This was a thank you for all their efforts in the run up to Christmas and the other eleven days of the festive period. Often, in rural Ireland the women reared the turkeys, geese and were constantly involved in both agricultural and domestic preparations for Christmas from December 8th. Therefore, the last day was designated as a day for the women to put their feet-up – or let their hair down so to speak. It was a day for appreciating the efforts of the women and housekeepers of Ireland.

Nollaig na mban – three wise men cupcakes displayed with a small gift box and the date January 6th on wooden blocks

The Irish folklorist, Kevin Danaher in his book The Year in Ireland suggests that while “Christmas Day was marked by beef, whiskey, men’s fare” – on Women’s’ Christmas “the dainties preferred by women – cake, tea, wine were more in evidence.” In the earlier years, visiting was mostly undertaken in the afternoon as women did not stay out late and in those days did not drink. However, as time passed women would meet up in public houses. There they would gather in the snug which was a small private room inside the front door. It was an unwritten law that women were not seen in pubs, an idea which still prevailed even into the nineteen-sixties. https://www.stmartin.ie/little-women-and-wise-men/. When the ladies did venture into the public house for Little Christmas, the usual tipple in the early days was a glass or “drop” of sherry.

Nollaig na mBan, though celebrated throughout Ireland, seems to have had a greater following in counties Cork and Kerry and also in Gaeltacht communities. Traditional meat served on this day was usually goose and also the ladies sipped tea and dined on other left-over cake and treats. In some parts of Ireland, 12 candles were lit on the eve of Nollaig na mBan and other traditions of Irish folklore linger, such as ensuring that no Christmas tree or decorations are taken down until the 6th January, lest some ominous event occur. Steeped in folklore and piseogs, Irish traditions continue to present day. Another is the use of holly, Irish homes traditionally used copious quantities in decorating the tops of presses, sideboards and picture frames with sprigs of this red berried bush. However, a traditional method of disposal of the holly was to remove it on the 6th January and to dry it until Lent and to use it as a fire on Shrove Tuesday to cook the pancakes, prior to the commencement of Lent on Ash Wednesday. As with all things folklore, it seems to link the cycles of the various religious seasons.

A report on RTÉ mentioned a few other customs around Little Christmas. On this day in some parts of the country, mothers rubbed the tail of a herring across the eyes of their children to give them immunity against disease for the rest of the year. It was also believed that one should have the floor swept and have a bucket of clean water ready before going to bed that night, and that the water from that bucket should never be used in the morning. The power of the supernatural and divination practices also permeated January 6th traditions. One such practice was arranging candles in clay , one for each person gathered and waiting to see which candle for which person burned out first and such would be the order of the deaths of the persons with whom each candle was associated. Such rituals were commonplace in Ireland around Hallowe’en also and these rituals were also referenced in notable literary works such as James Joyce’s short story the “Dead” from Dubliners (1914). Joyce sets the story as the 6th January. According to Marion McGarry’s, Irish Customs and Rituals – the water in the wells of Ireland would turn into wine at midnight on Little Christmas. However, if one were to taste the water or attempt to view the transition from water to wine then bad luck would follow the observer.

Little Christmas – Nollaig na mBan – appears to have declined by the mid twentieth century. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence, with restaurants and advertising tapping into a very “Irish” concept. Last year around Little Christmas, I remember seeing a social media post regarding how only in Ireland could the Three Wise Men be the Three Wise Women! I wonder………should we consider exporting this tradition as we did with Hallowe’en?

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year from OM History Consultant.

Sources:

Michelle O’Mahony is passionate about history, she has a great interest in Ireland’s Famine history and in particular its Workhouse Legacy. Her professional qualifications include a BA (Hons) in both History and English, a Higher Diploma in Education and a Research Masters M.Phil in History awarded by UCC.

Her professional affiliations include membership of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Royal Historical Society together with local history groups. She has published many articles and books and her mission is all about “Unlocking The Past” for her clients.

For more information visit her website.

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