The 6th January widely know as Feast of the Epiphany among Christians has been known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan, Ladies’ Christmas, Little Christmas or sometimes Old Christmas. It is the last day of “the Twelve Days of Christmas”.
Women’s Christmas differed greatly from Christmas Day or Men’s Christmas. There was not the same volume of food nor were there any presents. Half of the Christmas cake would have been wrapped and secretly hidden away and kept for January 6th. An orange which was a luxary item would also have been put away.
In some parts of the country eggs which were laid over the Christmas were kept and made into cakes and custards on the 5th January. Where mince meat was part of the Christmas preparations the final bowl was used to make fruit soda bread.
It was said that men would do the women’s work on the 6th January but in reality most men were working. So women get the essential parts of the housework completed then they would gather in one house and bring those luxury food items that perhaps had been hidden out for high tea. It wasn’t unknown for a little poteen or early 20th century for sherry to grace the table. However, most women would produce these items for the family high tea but knew that the clean up would be done by the children.
A friend told me that when she was growing up the local parish priest tried to put a stop to women meeting up on the 6th but the women totally ignored him and even made sure his housekeeper joined them so he would have no meals that day. He never raised the subject again.
In houses throughout the country it was considered unlucky for the Christmas tree and decorations to be removed before the 6th. This tradition still remains in many households. The holly remained until Shrove Tuesday when it was used in the fire to make pancakes or put on the tower of pancakes once people no longer cooked on an open fire.
I grew up with Nollaig na mBan. I continued the tradition even when I was married and when our son was born. He learnt very early on that January 6th was a day when Granny and Mum had a very relaxed day. We all shared a meal together and we always had Brontonas na mBan to open. This was a small present which was left surrounding the milk jug as a sign of good luck for the forth coming year.
By the early 1970’s Nollaig na mBan was in decline especially in the cities and by the end of the century it was only celebrated by a few. There is a revival of the tradition which is good to see. There is the new tradition of celebrating the day or the evening and turning it into a fundraising event for a women’s charity.
Beannachtaí Nollaig na mBan daoibh.