Women’s Christmas in Ireland

Women’s Christmas is known by many names, including the Epiphany, Three Kings’ Day, Little Christmas or the 12th Day of Christmas.  January 6th was first celebrated as a feast day in the 4th century to commemorate Jesus’ introduction in human form. Here in Ireland the day is used to celebrate the women who have worked so hard to make the holiday season memorable for their families and communities.

Shop street at night illuminated with Christmas lights, Galway, Ireland

All over the world, people celebrate some kind of festival at the end of the year. For Christians the celebration is known as Christmas it is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon.  In Ireland, Christmas is a family affair and it is celebrated throughout the country with all of its traditions being honoured. After the traditional Christmas celebrations on the 25th, the Irish celebrate Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas.

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Little Christmas in Ireland candles in the window

Throughout Ireland, the 6th of January is the day that all the decorations come down and are put away for another year. The old tales say it is bad luck for anything to be displayed after this date.

Old Galway city street,Kerwan's Lane,decorated with christmas lights,night scene

Epiphany is the Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the newborn Saviour – Jesus. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’  got its name because, under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January, whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Little Christmas Ireland Nollaig na mBan Women's Christmas

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

Night view of Galway Continental Christmas Market. Detail. Ireland.

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, drink, and games. A special Twelfth Night cake was always baked and was the highlight of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs.

Little Christmas Ireland Nollaig na mBan Women's Christmas

In many areas of Ireland, you will see hotels, pubs and bars filled with women and not a man to be seen. This long-standing tradition (particularly in Cork and Kerry) is when women get to celebrate the end of Christmas and the men stay at home. All over Ireland, the ladies get together with friends and family to have a celebration meal and a bit of wine and company.

Little Christmas Ireland Nollaig na mBan Women's Christmas

Little Christmas is sometimes celebrated in areas that have strong Irish ties like Newfoundland in Canada and some US states. In the Highlands of Scotland, it is New Year’s Day, which is known as Little Christmas.

Little Christmas Ireland Nollaig na mBan Women's Christmas

In some areas of England, January 6th is referred to as Old Christmas Day referring to the Julian calendar. In the Isle of Man, January 1st was known as Laa Nolick in Manx (or Little Christmas) but it is also found in other parts of the world including Slovakia, Galicia and Ukraine. In Scandinavia, for example, the evening of 23 December is called Little Christmas, in Norway and Sweden Little Christmas falls on January 13th.

Some traditions around Ireland’s Women’s Christmas

  1. Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, which is when the three wise men arrived to present their gifts to the baby Jesus on the date of January 6th.
  2. Ireland appears to be the only country where January 6 is celebrated as Women’s Christmas. The tradition became popular as a way for women to recuperate after all the work of Christmas.
  3. In his book The Year in Ireland: A Calendar, Kevin Danaher wrote that while Christmas Day “was marked by beef and whiskey, men’s fare”, on Women’s Christmas ” the dainties preferred by women – cake, tea, wine – were more in evidence”.
  4. The day can be variously referred to as Little Christmas, Women’s Christmas or – especially in Cork and Kerry – Women’s Little Christmas.
  5. January 6th has become the day that the decorations come down and are put away for another year – it is considered bad luck to keep them up after this date.
  6. The tradition of holding a get-together with women friends may descend from the rural tradition of women raising a few turkeys, collecting eggs or creating Christmas fancies to sell off for Christmas. Historians suggest that the small earnings gained by the women selling their products would be used to buy Christmas gifts and food and any leftover monies were spent on themselves on January 6th.
  7. On this night there is a tradition of lighting candles in every room of the house to banish the old year and bring in the new with the light.
  8. Many hotels and restaurants have special offerings for the ladies on this day so they can get together over high tea or a gourmet dinner, relax and enjoy the company of their women friends.
  9. Women’s Little Christmas is now being marked around the country for different reasons: it has become more a celebration of friendship and sisterhood, rather than a customary break from a long period of hard work.

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

Women's Christmas Ireland - Nollaig na mBan

Women’s Little Christmas Nollaig na mBan

Martin O Direain

There was power in the storm that escaped last night,

last night on Women’s Christmas,

from the desolate madhouse behind the moon

and screamed through the sky at us, lunatic,

making neighbours’ gates screech like geese

and the hoarse river roar like a bull,

quenching my candle like a blow to the mouth

that sparks a quick flash of rage.

I’d like if that storm would come again,

a night I’d be feeling weak

coming home from the dance of life

and the light of sin dwindling,

that every moment be full of the screaming sky,

that the world be a storm of screams,

and I wouldn’t hear the silence coming over me,

the car’s engine come to a stop.

Little Christmas Ireland Nollaig na mBan Women's Christmas

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Women's Christmas Ireland - Nollaig na mBan
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