Monday, January 05, 2009

Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas)


The following is a copy of a column I wrote several years ago. I realize that not many of you may have heard of this beautiful old Irish tradition and thought it deserved another audience.
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"Little Christmas" - or "Women's Christmas" as my mother used to call it - always fell on January 6 and was a tradition unto itself. Maybe it was just a peculiarity of the time and place in which I grew up - Cork, Ireland in the fifties and sixties in the last century. (And I don't think I ever thought I would write "last century" with such cheerful abandon!)


I was remembering Women's Christmas and wondering whatever happened to it and if anyone in Ireland is carrying on its charm and wonder anymore, or are we all swept up permanently in the Big Day, December 25 itself. I've talked to some Ukrainian friends here and they celebrate their traditional Christmas on that day - Twelfth Night as it is known in England - but I believe that Women's Christmas was unique to a time and place in Ireland now gone forever. But I hope not.


The day of the Women's Christmas women were supposed to take it completely easy after all the hustle, bustle and hard work of the prior months, with the men now taking care of them and cooking and cleaning all day. I can assure you that this never happened in my house as, like many men of his era, my father didn't know one end of a broom from the other and boiling a kettle was the peak of his culinary skill.


However, my mother was the eldest female of her family so consequently her sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts and mother came around on that day and a smaller, daintier version of the Christmas meal was served. On the menu were: a bird (usually a fine roast chicken), a smaller lighter plum pudding and a lovely cake, usually dressed up in the fanciest of pink wrappers with silver sprinkles everywhere on the pink and white icing. The most delicate of my mother's tea sets was brought out, my own favourite, the lavender and pale green set. I would love to hold one of these little saucers up to the light and put my hand behind it, as it was so fragile you would see all your fingers through it.


Gifts were exchanged, usually the most feminine of presents, perfume or talc, bottles of Harvey's Bristol Cream were lined up on the sideboard and the fun would begin. I was encouraged by the grandmothers and great-aunts to always give my mother a little gift on that day for the woman that she was and I did, from a very early age. I would buy something small in Woolworth's on Patrick Street, a little comb or my personal favourite, those fiercely aromatic bath cubes, which were a whole three pence each. I would wrap it up in layers and layers of newspaper and it was always exclaimed over with the phrase, "Well now, I can hardly wait to use this"!


The coal fire would be stacked up high and already lit in the front room before anyone arrived, with Bord na Mona briquettes piled on the fender around it, and any male showing his face would be banished to some other spot in the house.


I remember the women gabbing all day and in the heel of the evening getting into the stories and songs of which I never, ever tired. My female cousins and I would sense the privilege of being included in all of this, there was a respect in us and never did we exemplify more the ideal of children being seen and not heard than on that day. Unasked, we poured the drinks and ran outside to boil another kettle to make a fresh pot or brought in the sandwiches and the fairy cakes and the chocolates and exotic biscuits in the later part of the day.


I remember the hoots of laughter as my aunts dipped their ladyfinger biscuits into their sherries, letting us have a small sample of the incredible taste. This was the one day in the year that I could get a sense of how the older women in my family were when they were young girls themselves. Full of fun and music and stories. I learned about their old boyfriends and who courted them, how one of my uncles had dated all four sisters before settling on my aunt. How wild he was and how she tamed him.


I'd learn of the sad miscarriages and the stillbirths, the neighbours who went peculiar from the change or the drink, the priests who got spoiled in Africa and became pagan; or who had the failing, the old great grandaunt who took on fierce odd after her son married. I didn't know what a lot of it meant then but I stored it all away to ponder on in later years.


They would dredge up old musical numbers from their single days and sing a few bars while one or two got up and showed off their dancing legs. Sweet Afton cigarettes were lit and my grandmother would puff on her dudeen and we all could hardly see each other for the clouds of smoke.


Stories were told and they would get caught up on all the doings they might have missed in their conversations all year, obscure marriages and births, sometimes in Australia or other far flung and exotic outposts of the Irish Diaspora. But most of all I remember the peals of laughter which resounded throughout the house all day and evening.


A moment would come in the midst of all the hilarity when the time for a spot of prayer came. Out of the big black handbags that never left their sides would come the rosaries. These would be threaded through their fingers and all the heads would bow in unison. I never knew the prayer and haven't heard it since but it was to St Brigid, the women's saint of Ireland, and it involved her taking all the troubles of the year before and parking them somewhere in heaven and thus they were never to be seen again. This was followed by a minute of silence (while St Brigid did what she was asked, I have no doubt), then a fervent "Thanks be to God and all His saints" and a reverent kiss on the cross of the various rosaries which were all tucked away carefully into the handbags again. Then the glasses of sherry or the cups of tea were refilled and the whooping and carrying on would begin afresh, the bothers and griefs of the past year now permanently banished and forever.


And I wish this for all of you out there - both at home and abroad.

22 comments:

  1. What a stunning idea, WWW and so beautifully and tenderly written. What a joy you are my dear xx

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  2. I had not heard of this tradition before, even though my mother was a Cork woman (born, bread, and buttered in Mallow!) In our house, January 6th was the day we took the tree down and packed the decorations away. We would make a little occasion of it, with neighbours coming in for tea and savouries and to help with the dismantling of the tree.

    I think Stephen's Day was the Nollaig na mBan for my mother and her sisters. The husbands would go off shooting early in the day, and the three sisters would descend on our house, because it was the biggest, with their children in tow. My mother would have been baking like a fiend all morning, and there would be scones and apple pies and her special chocolate cake and, of course, the obligatory Bristol Cream sherry. While we played with our cousins in the park in front of our house, she and her sisters would let their hair down and have a grand old time. As I grew older, I would hang around and listen to them talk and, yes, it was often about the lost little ones, because all of them had lost babies.

    Thank you for this post, Mary. It brought back such deep-set memories of how hard life was, in many ways, for Irish women of that time and age. And yet, they had this wonderful facility for carving out little islands of time for themselves.

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  3. Well, as one who does all the cooking over Christmas, I do believe I have a right to share in these festivities. Though I dare say my demands will fall on deaf female ears.

    Beautifully, and poignantly, written.

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  4. Wow! What a wonderful tradition, and so many amazing memories - thank you for sharing :-)

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  5. It's a wonderful tradition, which must be enormously positive for all the women present, not having to allow for all those annoying male sensibilities and just being themselves. It really ought to be more common.

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  6. Happy Women's Christmas to you :-) I'll raise a glass of sherry this evening in your name X

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  7. @Hull:
    Thank you!
    @Tessa:
    When the column was published several years back I got letters saying it was a custom originating in the southeast of Ireland. My sister revived the tradition in her family and I think it is slowly coming back into its own.
    @RJA:
    Fine man that you are you'd be more than welcome at my gatherings!
    @Jo:
    You're welcome!
    @Nick:
    I have my gathering at my annual Ladies' Brunch in February which is the closest I come to celebrate this.
    @Conor:
    Thank you - I wonder has your mother heard of this?
    XO
    WWW

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  8. Reading your delightful account, I could almost hear the chit-chat and the gorgeous Irish brogue WWW !

    It'd be a pity if the custom has faded out, like so many others. Yours is a valuable record, and it will always be here on-line for generations to come. I can imagine some young women in 50 years' time reading about Women's Christmas here, and deciding to start it over again. :-)

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  9. My Niall's mum celebrates Women's Christmas every year with her friends I believe. So some women manage to hold on to the tradition fortunately, although I don't think it's celebrated with that passion and tradition you have beautifully described in your writing. A pity if it were to be lost in time completely. All things women should be cherished not left to be forgotten.
    Gx

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  10. The thing I enjoy most about your writing, Mary,like that of my other Irish friend, Tessa, is the Irish words and phrasing. I hear the lilt and cadence as I read, and imagine being in the room, by the fire, sipping sherry, and listening to your Irish memories. Lovely, truly lovely...

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  11. Gaye:
    Oh you've so cheered me up to know that Niall's mother does this!!! Yippee!!
    XO
    WWW

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  12. Marylou:
    Oh you're so kind! *blush*, I think writing defines our voices like nothing else can. We are all so unique....
    Thank you for your cherished words, my dear!
    XO
    WWW

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  13. Hello WWW, I am a Kerry woman in NYC harnassing the new power of Nollaig na mBan to run a charity breakfast on Jan 6th, 2010. I would like to use your image of the women in the circle on my flier. Is it yours and could I use it? Many thanks, Carmel

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  14. Hi - what a coincidence -I'm a Dublin woman visiting my son and his wife and new baby in Singapore for Christmas and was just telling my family about Nollaig na Mban - My husband swears he never heard of it which I don't believe for a minute So I was delighted to be proven right by Googling and up came all these memories. It was not a tradition in Dublin or thereabouts to my knowledge but in recent times there has been a revival of the old tradition. Let's all be ready and spread the word for 2011 - Slan agus Beannacht - Mna na H'Eireann !!!
    Patricia

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  15. I was doing a little research on Nollaig na mBan for my own blog today and abandoned what I was going to write when I read this! I just had to share this story with my own readers and nothing I could write would match up to your evocative words.

    Nollaig na mBan shona dhuit

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  16. This is such a wonderful, evocative description of a lovely tradition! I hope you don't mind my sharing it on my own blog. There is definitely a new awareness about Nollaig na nBan in Ireland again and I know many women who make a point of celebrating it - preserving and adapting it for a new generation of women. Thank you so much for sharing it!

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  17. Thank you so much for your account of this special occasion. Creating an opportunity to celebrate Nollaig na mBan was one of the reasons I started the Irish Women's Network of BC in 1998; we're planning our 13th celebration at present, and I have put a link to your article on our Facebook page. What is particularly special, I would even call it precious, about your account is that it is an actual memory of the original celebration. I hope that it inspires more stories and more celebrations.

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  18. The date is set for my second celebration of this in my own house.

    xo

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  19. Lisa: Spokane, WA, USAThu Dec 29, 03:15:00 AM GMT-3:30

    I am delighted to find this tradition to celebrate on Epiphany....For 20+ years, I have hosted a Christmas Cookie Exchange for family, friends, & neighbors..But last year my Father passed away in Oct, then in Nov, my dear Mother in Law, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Needless to say, Christmas 2010 was a blur and Cookie Exchanging was not to be...Then after battling for a year, Our sweet Mama went Home and her Memorial Mass was held in Minnesota on Dec 3, 2011. We have been blessed this past year with many visits and trips across the country. My husband's Dad is spending the Holidays with us and will hopefully be here until Feb. So, it seemed that another year would pass without my favorite female gathering...Tomorrow, invitations go out for Jan 6, 2012 and we will celebrate "Little Christmas" I am so grateful to you for sharing your tradition and always thankful to our Heavenly Father, Emmanuel, God With Us, for His abiding care. Blessing!!!

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  20. preparing a gorgeous dessert (or rather my husband is) to celebrate tonight in Brussels.

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  21. Loved this, thank you. Thought you might be interested in my own post, about Nollaig na mBan in Corca Dhuibhne.We're getting ready to party here tonight! felicity's blog: Nollaig na mBan - Another Great Irish Winter Festi... http://felicityhayes-mccoy.blogspot.com/2012/01/nollaig-na-mban-another-great-irish.html?spref=tw

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  22. Thank you for the outstanding posts!

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