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.
Suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington lighting up the gates of Dublin Castle where she smashed the windows 100 years ago campaigning for women’s right to vote #IlluminateHerstory #NollaigNaMBan #Everywoman pic.twitter.com/AQlFbRovOe
— herstory (@HerstoryIreland) January 6, 2018
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.
— Mairead Sharry (@maireadsharry) January 5, 2016
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 marks the centenary of Irish women getting the vote & the right to stand in elections. @FineGael is planning a year long programme of events & will draft a new Women's Charter. #Nollaignamban pic.twitter.com/CgrsdmUElG
— Leo Varadkar (@campaignforleo) January 6, 2018
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.
One of my all time favourite pictures: “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.” Mary Robinson #December1990 #firstfemalepresident Happy #NollaignamBan to all the great warrior women of Ireland #keeprockingthesystem pic.twitter.com/49BzVdIgiH
— Norah Casey (@NorahCasey) January 6, 2018
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.
— RTÉ (@rte) January 6, 2018