Sunday, January 06, 2019

Nollaig na mBan - Women's Christmas - a re-post.



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!
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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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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.

27 comments:

  1. What a LOVELY tradition. Not one I have heard of, but well worth putting in place. The world over.

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    1. Yes we all need women time. I started this tradition both in Toronto and in Newfoundland. Everyone loved it!

      XO
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  2. Interesting post. I used to say the rosary, but in 2004, I left the church and became an atheist.

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    1. Oh I'm an atheist also. It was the wonderful women tradition that was so wonderful!

      XO
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  3. "became pagan" ???

    Sorry.

    He was pagan before the church got hold of him. After he escaped, he would be a heathen; by religious parlance, even if he was more enlightened than while the church had their hooks in him.

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    1. No idea what you're talking about Fred. Are you on the right blog for that comment?

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  4. That's really wonderful. I've never heard of Women's Christmas. In the Episcopal church today is Epiphany. But I like the women's tradition better.

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    1. It is wonderful, especially when all the sorrows are put behind you and a new year is welcomed :)

      XO
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  5. Perhaps they should start a 'Man's Christmas' for the small minority of males (like me!) who do all the cooking and shopping over Christmas - and I have done for the last twenty years.
    A lovely piece, though, WWW and no surprise the original caused such a stir.

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    1. Now you have a purpose in life RJA, have at it my good man :)

      XO
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  6. I read this with a lilt in your pen. I had Irish aunts and cousins, a grandmother, but my father committed the sin of marrying a Baptist and I was consigned to wonderful German and English women who gabbed all day and half the night, and I listened, wide eyed, open mouthed. Thank you for reposting.

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    1. Nothing like the conversations of these wonderful women who let it all hang out on Women's Christmas with the sherry loosening up the tongues and the forgetfulness for the children in the room lapping it all up. I had a favourite place behind the sofa!

      XO
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  7. What a wonderful tradition! I loved listening to my Grandma and her sisters(their mama was from Ireland)talking about bygone days. My mother was very reserved and embarrassed by so many things that she never told anything interesting and never thought her children should hear anything. Her mother and aunts however were so enlightening when they seemed to forget I was there.

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    1. Interesting about your mother Candace, perhaps she was brought up in a house where things were kept private? Who knows, as her mother was so different. My father's sisters were quite repressed and in such contrast to my mother's sisters who were live wires.

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    2. My Grandmother said my mother's personality was much like my Grandfather's. I never met him as he died during the depression when my mother was 13. She was often around all her mother's "people" but was very shy and VERY private like her father. When she talked to me about the facts of life it was after we had a class about it at school and she was so white and shook so much I felt bad for her. We moved from Illinois to Calif. when I was nine and my Grandma said to me. "You will have to be brave and help your mother." Very strange in my family where children were much cared for. My poor mother cried every night after we went to bed and she thought we couldn't hear for at least 2 years after we moved.

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    3. Oh Candace, that touches my heart, your poor mother. I hope she felt a little better in herself later on in life :(

      XO
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  8. Bord na Mona turf briquettes! Sweet Afton cigarettes! And I’m assuming a dudeen is a dainty ladies white clay pipe? A wonderful account WWW. I checked with my niece in Co Kildare just now whether Nollaig na mBan is still celebrated among the younger generation of feisty irish women. She says it certainly is, in a pub with lunch and cocktails “... as long as you have the time, the money, kids that don’t need to be taxied anywhere and an understanding husband “ xxx

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    1. Yes and it's been revived around the world too - I've heard from those in New York and Oz as well. Long may it prevail~~

      XO
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  9. Lovely to hear of this. My father was born in Roscommon in 1890. He was in the States when his mother died in Ireland in 1935. My father loved to tell all the Irish tales but he never mentioned this - and I doubt his mother or sisters took part - perhaps because they were not Catholic. But my mother had wonderful stories of customs in the north of Scotland where she was from....first-footing on NY's always brought laughter when we heard the stories. I feel close to both my parents as I am writing this.

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    1. It's good to keep some traditions alive that bring our dear departed a little closer to us, isn't it. The South of Ireland had this tradition, but I understand it is spreading and the Irish Times had a wonderful feature on it with all the historic buildings lit up by projections of famous Irish women. I actually cried reading it.

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  10. I loved reading this. I don't remember ever hearing about Nollaig na nBan growing up in Limerick. Maybe it was only in rural parts? Though my mother grew up on a farm 25 miles out the road. If she had it growing up she never mentioned it, but it sounds like a lovely tradition. Which was your favorite scent of those bath cubes - that I also bought at Woolworth's for my mum! My favorite was 'Apple Blossom."
    My Ukrainian m-i-l used to tell us of their celebrations of Epiphany (for me, Little Christmas) when she was growing up in Ukraine.
    Maybe next Christmas I'll organize Nollaig na mBan for my friends. But, you know, I think I might have said exactly that in a comment some other year when you ran this piece! And nothing happened. Lovely to read about it again at any rate.

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    1. There was one called Gardenia Molly. Every time I get a whiff now I think of my mother and the lovely look on her face and my granny beaming at me. I know it was peculiar to Cork originally but it has spread far and wide now and someone told me it had made its way to the West Coast of Newfoundland many years ago.

      I'm going to try something next year to honour the day as I don't have the strength or space for hosting and cooking anymore. Watch this space :)

      XO
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  11. Delightful to hear of this — quite unknown to me. I did always delight in hearing any stories the older adults in my life shared — also listening to their recollections of earlier years events.

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  12. I've never heard of Women's Christmas until now. I think it's a lovely event and there should be more of it everywhere. It probably works better in families with many women in them.

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  13. Lovely memories you obviously treasure, WWW. What a good idea too!

    I was reading, earlier this week, that Christian Orthodox countries don't celebrate Christmas until 7 January - something connected with the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian version we use. I thought, at first, that perhaps your Women's Christmas might be connected, but it doesn't seem likely. :)

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  14. Thank you. It gives me great pleasure to reciprocate though it would have been nicer to have done so face to face!

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  15. I really enjoyed your retelling of the Women’s Christmas in Ireland – what a lovely custom. My mother was secular and my father Armenian orthodox(he just went alone to the Paris Armenian church on January 6th) so Christmas was only fun for me when I was a wee child, just because of Papa Noel. So when I went to London to my pen pal family when I was 13 I just loved their Christmas. I do remember buying some bath cubes at Woolworth’s too, maybe violet scent. Then while my Paris friends would go skiing during the holidays I would always return to London every year until I was 20. That’s one of the reasons I became bilingual. My English Christmases were so much fun, much better than at home in Paris.

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