The history of Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas) in Ireland

In Ireland, Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas’ falls on 6 January every year, but what exactly does this entail?

Those of us who celebrate Christmas will have grown up singing along to a song called ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. 6 January is recognised in Ireland as the last day of Christmas.

The story of Nollaig na mBan states that on this day, women are invited to take a break, enjoy a feast, and let the men do the housework for a change.

It goes without saying that this is an old tradition born of old-fashioned gender roles that no longer apply today.

Therefore, will the history of Nollaig na mBan in Ireland reveal itself as a memory long forgotten, or can we celebrate it differently now?

Nollaig na mBan – what’s in a name?

What is Nollaig na mBan?
Credit: Pixabay / StockSnap

6 January is not only recognised as Nollaig na mBan.

Historically, and in many different cultures, the last day of Christmas has been associated with a religious celebration known as ‘Three Kings’ Day’ or ‘The Epiphany’.

This alludes to the day on which the three kings/three wise men from the Bible would have gone to visit baby Jesus.

As regards Nollaig na mBan, this holiday is also referred to as ‘Little Christmas’ or ‘Twelfth Night’.

Customs – the ancient traditions of Nollaig na mBan

The belief may have stemmed from the significance of Three King's Day.
Credit: Flickr / National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution

Many people in Ireland today still believe that taking the Christmas decorations down before 6 January brings bad luck.

This belief may have stemmed from the significance of ‘Three Kings’ Day’.

It was said that Christmas lights would’ve guided the three kings to Bethlehem. Thus, removing them too soon seemed a bad idea.

We understand 6 January then as the last chance for women to enjoy Christmas. This would have involved visiting their female friends and eating the rest of the Christmas leftovers.

For example, many households in Ireland would have finished off the Christmas cake on 6 January. This is a treat whose delicacy would normally have been reserved for visitors alone.

Irish superstitions – tales from Little Christmas past

It was believed that water in the wells would turn to wine on Nollaig na mBan.

Some other traditions from the history of Nollaig na mBan are more memorable thanks to their bizarre nature.

In Ireland, many believed that the water found in wells would turn to wine on the last day of Christmas.

However, looking inside the well or tasting the wine was said to have brought terrible luck.

Moreover, mothers of the past would rub the tail of a herring over the eyes of their children to rid them of all disease for the year to come.

These traditions are rare nowadays, so then, what can we expect on 6 January this year?

The future of the feast – what it means today

The future of Women's Christmas in Ireland.
Credit: Pixabay / TerriC

Unsurprisingly, through the lens of the 21st-century, Nollaig na mBan is known to many as a sexist and outdated occasion.

The notion that women would have done all the work over Christmas followed by just one day off to enjoy old leftovers doesn’t exactly scream equality.

However, like our society, this tradition has started developing to fit modern standards.

In Ireland today, it is common for events to be held all over the country in celebration of Nollaig na mBan.

The Breast Cancer Research Institute Ireland encourage people to raise money for Nollaig na mBan.
Credit: Facebook / @BreastCancerResearchNUIG

Data scientist Áine Lenihan organised an All-Women Ted Talk for Dublin’s Merrion Hotel this 6 January.

What’s more, Ireland’s National Breast Cancer Research Institute is encouraging people to fundraise for them on the 12th day of Christmas this year.

Today, the Nollaig na mBan traditions come across as old-fashioned and unjust. Still, they act as a reminder of how much Ireland has progressed.

Besides, we always swear by keeping the Christmas tree up until after 6 January, and this year is no different!