The twelfth and last day of Christmas. An auspicious date in many cultures, with various associated traditions.
In Ireland Janruary 6th is Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas.
It’s an old tradition that women take a break on this day. There are not too many written accounts documenting this custom.
The date is also referred to as Nollaig Bheag (Little Christmas). It was the female answer to Nollaig Mór or Christmas day, when women worked hard serving and preparing food. This was a time when all of the preparations for Christmas both domestic and financial fell to the woman of the house.
After the men and children had their share of the goodies and celebrations the women would put aside their household responsibilities for an afternoon. As Christmas ended for another year they gathered to relax, to eat cake and drink tea.
Irish pubs were no place for women. On January 6th, however, it was not unusual to see women drinking stout together in a pub. The tradition was particularly strong in rural Ireland.
I spoke to many people to seek first-hand accounts of Nollaig na mBan, but they were very scarce on the ground. Women from Tipperary, Galway and Donegal had no recollection of their Mother’s celebrating this day. Ironically enough, the only two people who remembered were men!
One man, of 86 who grew up in Donegal could recall little except that his Mother ate cake with other women. When I asked him about Nollaig na mBan his reply was simple “sure that was the Mother’s day”.
The practice of women meeting to take a break after the domestic avalanche of Christmas is not, I believe, a bad one.
We have come a long way in terms of domestic and parental equality but for many women and mothers Christmas means a lot of extra work.
I find preparing for Christmas stressful. When the sun goes down on December 25th I breathe a sigh of relief. Especially when I see that the children are happy with their gifts and goodies.
They may have been before my time but I understand why these women felt the need to get together on January 6th. Modern Christmas can also be overwhelming. With schools closed, lots of rich food about and no routine, things do get a bit hairy.
When I think back to my own childhood I remember all the Christmas dinners my Mam made.
The smell of fresh thyme still brings me back to Christmas eve. My Mam in the kitchen, trying to get the stuffing made before Mass, knee-deep in breadcrumbs and sausage meat and the Kenwood blender. The stress radiating from her like heat from a crackling fire.
I loved all the Christmas dinners she made and especially her home-made stuffing. Even now she makes an extra batch for my family to eat with our Christmas dinner every year.
That’s why I’m starting a new old tradition by taking my Mam to lunch this January 6th. The last day of Christmas will be just for us.
If you’re free this Friday, join forces with some other women who worked hard this season. Raise a cup or a glass. Empty the biscuit tins and selection boxes before school starts. Create your own Nollaig na mBan.
After all, didn’t Christmas begin with one woman, labouring alone in the company of men? It certainly doesn’t have to end that way.