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A Little History of Women's Christmas: An Irish Festive Tradition

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on November 23, 2016

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me... the feast of the Epiphany. 

January 6th, known as the feast of the Epiphany, marks the final day of the Christmas season. Traditionally this was the day to take down decorations, indeed it was often seen as bad luck to leave them up any later. While it now mainly serves to mark the end of festivities, January 6th, is itself a feast day, and one that is in fact older than the celebration of Christmas on December 25th.

It was one of the earliest feast days in Christian history and was considered a high point of the year. While most Christian feast days marked one moment of significance in the life of Jesus, January 6th commemorated four: The Nativity, The Visit of the Magi (or Wise Men), The Baptism of Jesus, and The Miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. As a group, they were known as the Epiphany, or Theophany, both of which mean "the revelation of God." It was a day to commemorate the ways in which Christians believe God revealed himself to the world through Jesus.

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Tapestry by Edward Byrne-Jones depicting the Magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus

Since then, the feast has been broken down across several different days, leaving January 6th with a single focus. The Nativity was the first to be moved to its own celebration on December 25th. In Eastern Christianity, January 6th maintains a focus on the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, whereas in Western Christianity the day continues to commemorate the visit of the Magi. This has led to a wide variety of traditions and celebrations across the world.

While many will think of Christmas as synonymous with presents, in many cultures, Christmas Day itself is focused on religious celebration. The tradition of gift-giving instead occurs on this feast on January 6th, to reflect the gifts that the Magi bring the Baby Jesus. A great number of countries mark the day by baking various crown-shaped confectionaries, known as ‘King cakes’ and there are plenty of smaller traditions such as the one found in the Netherlands and in neighboring countries, where children in costume process from house to house, singing songs and receiving sweets.

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Image: rjnagle via Flickr

In Ireland, all of these elements came together to form a particular tradition known as Women’s Christmas (in Irish: Nollaig na mBan, pronounced null-ag nah mon). Here women would take a day for themselves to rest, after all the work that went into the hectic season of Christmas celebrations. The effort that went into these festivities, along with their usual duties in the home, were not disregarded, as The Irish Times noted in 1998 “God rested on the seventh day but the women of Ireland didn't get to do the same until the twelfth and last day of Christmas”. So it was that on this day the men of the house would be left to take care of the family and to carry out their wife’s responsibilities. 

In some areas, they would cook dinner for their wives, while in others, the women would visit each other, taking turns cooking. It was usual that wine would be served at this meal, harking back to the day’s commemoration of the miracle of the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus transformed the water into wine. Despite this, the meal was rarely an ostentatious affair. The feast is also known as Little Christmas, referring the meekness of the food, after all the celebratory food has already been eaten, indeed there was a common phrase ‘Nollaig na mBan, Nollaig gan mhaith’ (Women’s Christmas, no good Christmas) alluding to the bareness of the table. When interviewed in The Irish Times one woman noted:

It was a very simple celebration, just eating a slice of currant loaf in someone's house and having a cup of tea and a chat, but that was the day you'd do something for yourself and have a rest after all the Christmas work.

Regardless of the size of the celebration, the day was a rare moment of independence for Irish women. Away from their household duties, they were also free to engage in activities that were typically the preserve of men. Until the mid-20th century Irish women were not allowed in pubs without being accompanied by a man. Women’s Christmas, however, was the exception. Then women would gather in the pubs unchaperoned for a night to themselves. It was a day where women took a step away from the normal social expectations to toast to themselves for their hard work.

The festivity of Women’s Christmas was most famously the setting of The Dead, perhaps the most renowned story from James Joyce’s Dubliners. It is fitting that such an iconic piece of Irish literature should incorporate this peculiarly Irish celebration.

Even though society and culture have changed, and the roles of women become a lot freer, Women’s Christmas remains a part of Irish culture to present day, particularly in the west of the country. It would seem that a day of recognition for women remains something of a revelation.

Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.