Thursday, January 06, 2011

Nollaig Na Mban

Of all the posts or articles I have ever written, this is the one that has gotten the most attention and the most links from other blogs and publications. I reprint it here in its entirety and I am so, so happy this beautiful custom is now being held all over the world and not just in Ireland. Emails from New York, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and even Germany tell me it is being revitalized. Long may it continue!

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.
Nollaig Na Mban - "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.


  1. It sounds like it has its origins in a much earlier pagan custom, don't you think? Maybe it was a Celtic thing that survived in this form. Women had more visibility then and more power.

  2. A nice reminder of our childhoods. The day was marked but the celebrations were simpler.

  3. Jenny and I were talking about the Women's Christmas a few days ago. I think some friends of hers were planning to have one. It's a great idea.

  4. In another context, Grannymar mentioned "women's christmas" and I was wondering what this was all about. I was planning on asking her about it, but this post is fantastic. I have learnt something new. Thanks.

  5. My father's mother was born in Ireland. My mother's mother was second generation Irish American. Yet, I never knew of this celebration. How sad that it got lost in transition. I'm so happy to find it here. What a lovely gift you've given. I can't wait to share your blog with my daughters and granddaughter. Hopefully, they will take up the tradition and keep it alive.

  6. A wonderful post. I am so glad you repeated it and I had a chance to read it.

  7. What a beautiful tradition. I certainly hope it continues. Perhaps I'll start it in my own family, being of Irish descent myself (great-great-grandparents).

  8. What a wonderful post, I sincerely enjoyed it. This is a great tradition and should be brought back. I found myself in the living room with the ladies singing and dancing, saying a prayer and drinking sherry. Thank you so much for sharing.....:-)Hugs

  9. I missed this post first time round and am so happy you repeated it for me to enjoy. Such wonderful vivid descriptions of what is so important....our female connections.

    Here in Spain, January 6th is an important day - 3 Kings: the day when children receive their gifts. Alas, with the influence of N. Europe and USA, children now expect gifts at Christmas and 3 Kings.

    I would much prefer to see your Nollaig Na Mban here so that the women get a chance to relax and enjoy one another's company.

  10. How did I miss this?? You got me with the bath cubes! Apple Blossom was my favourite, carefully selected at Woolworth's on O'Connell St. and my mother always managed delighted enthusiasm, God bless her! We didn't have Nollaig na nban, but whenever we went to visit my granny out the country, if we stayed overnight, the women---my granny, my mother, my aunts,and maybe a few of their cousins, would settle in around the fire after we went to bed. And the stories would start. And the reminiscing....I'd creep out and crouch 'round the corner from the kitchen and listen, rapt, to every word. Until a chair scraped and I'd run like a rabbit back to my bed....Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane!

  11. This sounds
    so wonderful.
    But now I am the matrarch
    and daughter
    and granddaughters
    not near.
    Wish they were.....

  12. Now that sounds like a wonderful tradition! I wonder if this person of diluted Scottish blood could revive the Nollaig na Mban in this family? I kind of like the idea of banishing the men for the day, or better yet, having them wait on us!

    This is from the other post, but I also like the idea of lighting a candle for all those who aren't with us anymore for the festivities.

  13. My husband's Ukranian family celebrated Little Christmas. That was the time for church and the presents, etc.

    In America it was considered a childhood bonus as families Americanized and the kids ended up getting presents twice.

    He thinks the date had something to do with an old calendar(?).

    This year when some neighbors threw out their Christmas tree on December 26th he commented that they could have at least waited until Twelfth Night.


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