Nollaig na mBan – Women’s Christmas

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | January 8, 2018 0

The 6th January  is known as Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas in Ireland.

For many people in Ireland, 6 January marks the final day of the Christmas season – when the tree and other decorations are taken down. From a Christian perspective, it marks the day the three wise men are said to have arrived at the stable in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. In the Orthodox Canon it is the date under the Julian Calendar when Christmas is celebrated.

Historically, Nollaig na mBan was a day for women to relax after a busy Christmas period while men took over household duties. Women across Ireland will be celebrating “Nollaig na mBan” today, by passing off house work to the men, and saying goodbye to the Christmas decoration. Originally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, the 6th of January is a Christian feast which marks the visit of the three wise men to Bethlehem after the birth of Christ.

The traditional Irish celebration focuses more on the role of the woman in the household, reliving her of the household chores and leaving the work up to the men for the day. It is a day when women would head to the pub and “inhabit this man’s domain without shame.”  Women would chat, relax in each other’s company and enjoy a day without housework. In rural and small-town Catholic Ireland, especially, women would gather in each other’s homes or local pubs for a few stolen hours of gaiety while the men looked after the brood. Irish scholar Alan Titley remarked that the tradition was most common in the west of Ireland in a litany of different ways. “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.”

Many Irish people associate the 6th of January with the end of the Christmas season, and the tree and decorations are taken down for another year. In the modern day where the housework is generally divided more equally, the tradition is celebrated by acknowledging the role and accomplishments of women in our society. On the eve of Women’s Christmas (Oíche Nollaig na mBan – the subject of a famous Irish language poem by Seán Ó Ríordán featured below), twelve candles were often lit in the windows. In some areas, different people lit each candle and the first candle to go out was said to be the first person to die. Rushes pulled, dried and dipped in tallow were used if candles could not be found.

Oíche Nollaig na mBan

Bhí fuinneamh sa stoirm a éalaigh aréir,

Aréir oíche Nollaig na mBan,

As gealt-teach iargúlta tá laistiar den ré

Is do scréach tríd an spéir chughainn ’na gealt,

Gur ghíosc geataí comharsan mar ghogallach gé,

Gur bhúir abhainn shlaghdánach mar tharbh,

Gur múchadh mo choinneal mar bhuille ar mo bhéal

A las ’na splanc obann an fhearg.

Ba mhaith liom go dtiocfadh an stoirm sin féin

An oíche go mbeadsa go lag

Ag filleadh abhaile ó rince an tsaoil

Is solas an pheaca ag dul as,

Go líonfaí gach neomat le liúrigh ón spéir,

Go ndéanfaí den domhan scuaine scread,

Is ná cloisfinn an ciúnas ag gluaiseacht fám dhéin,

Ná inneall an ghluaisteáin ag stad.

Women’s Christmas

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.

The celebration also known as “Little Christmas”, or “Women’s Christmas” has special significance this year, as 2018 marks 100 years since women in Ireland were given the vote after years of suffrage.

2018 is a year which will tackle many issues which concern women in Ireland today, including a national strategy to tackle the gender wage gap. Two referenda concerned with women’s’ rights will be put to the public, the repeal of the eighth amendment which gives equal status to the mother and the unborn, and article 41.2.1 which recognises the woman’s place in the home.

So maybe this Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan  needs to spread more widely. After all, didn’t Christmas begin with one woman, labouring alone in the company of men? 

It certainly doesn’t have to end that way.

The Skibbereen Eagle

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