Celebrated 12 days after Christmas, on January 6th, is Women’s Christmas or Nollaig na mBan as it is called in Ireland (pronounced Null-ug na Mon). Some of us might know this date as the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when Christians believe the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ child. But in Ireland, especially in Cork and Kerry, this day is also known as Women’s Christmas.
Although it began in the 18th century, the tradition of Women’s Christmas is still strong in western Ireland. Irish men, realizing the hard work it took their tireless spouses to organize the meals, the gifts, the decorating and the get-togethers with family and friends, took on all the household duties for the day – cooked, cleaned and looked after the children. The mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters then left all the chores behind and went out to celebrate. For some it may have been a house party or a quiet tea with friends. For others, it may have been a night out at a public house. Some choose to exchange gifts, others not. One thing was for certain though, and that is women were expected to rest. An article from the Irish Times in 1998 joked that even God rested on the seventh day, Irish women didn’t stop until the twelfth!
There’s also another very old Gaelic saying: “Nollaig na bhfear, Nollaig Mhor Maith, Nollaig na mBan, Nollaig gan Mhaith” … which, if taken literally, means “Men’s Christmas is a fine big Christmas, Women’s Christmas is a no-good Christmas”. Perhaps a little ‘mean spirited’, but I think there may be some truth to it. Even today, leading up to Christmas, women have been budgeting, baking, wrapping, roasting, decorating and negotiating each and every aspect of the holiday season. After all the days of celebrating, every woman should get to go out for a wee celebration of her own.
According to Irish scholar, Alan Titley, the long-standing tradition of Nollaig na mBan was very common in the west of Ireland. “Most women in west Kerry would have raised five or six turkeys for sale at the Christmas market,” he said. “They kept the money – like egg money – and if there was anything left over after Christmas they spent it on themselves.” Men would brave the unknown and look after the home and children while women would steal away for a few hours in each other’s homes or the local pub to relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Interestingly, it was only after 1958 when women were allowed to go into pubs in Ireland without the accompaniment of a man. Before then, January 6th was the only day of the year when women were allowed into pubs. Previously, a woman had to be chaperoned by a man, be he husband, brother, father or uncle. And God help those who may have dared to enter this male-dominated domain without a chaperone. Their reputation was sullied forever. But one day a year, on Women’s Christmas, they would enter this domain unaccompanied and without shame. Together these hard-working women would pool the few shillings they had been saving and, sitting in “the snug,” they would drink stout and eat sandwiches.
Why have I not heard of Women’s Christmas before? I’ve since learned that it is followed in parts of Scotland, Canada, Australia, and Puerto Rico, wherever large groups of Irish have emigrated. But why hasn’t this tradition been adopted here in the U.S.? We are working as hard as ever. We may be better educated than we were 100 years ago and we may not be cutting the turf, or slaughtering the chickens, but we don’t stop from morning til night. Many of us are single parents, raising a family on one income. Or perhaps we’re taking care of sick or elderly family members while having an all-consuming career. It is a fact that working mothers spend more time on work, household labor, and child care than fathers. I think its about time we strengthened this important Irish tradition, which celebrates women and all that we do.
Let’s get together … sisters, aunts, cousins, mothers … all the women in your family, your town or workplace. Gather together and celebrate Women’s Christmas! It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. It just has to be!