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Have yourself a merry Women’s Little Christmas

Ten things you might not have known about today’s celebration of Nollaig na mBan… nor might you want to.

Image: Simon Law via Flickr

GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT? This is the perfect evening for it, falling as it does on Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas’. Why and how do Irish women celebrate it – and should they at all? Here are a few things you may not know about January 6 traditions… be warned – some gender stereotyping (not ours) may abound.

1. This date is traditionally celebrated in the Catholic religion as the feast of the Epiphany. That’s the day when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem on the last of the 12 Days of Christmas to offer gifts to the two-week-old baby Jesus.

2. Remarkably, Ireland is the only country where January 6 was also celebrated as Women’s Little Christmas. It was the day on which women – supposedly worn out by doing the Christmas cooking – were allowed to take a break and let the men do the housework.

3. In his book The Year in Ireland: A Calendar, Kevin Danaher wrote that while Christmas Day “was marked by beef and whiskey, men’s fare”, on Women’s Christmas ” the dainties preferred by women – cake, tea, wine – were more in evidence”.

Or you could revel in the list of fancies detailed by Brid Mahon in Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Irish Traditional Food. She says that high tea on January 6 might have featured “thinly-cut sandwiches, scones, gingerbread, apple cakes, sponge cakes decorated with swirls of icing, plum cake, brown bread, soda bread, baker’s bread, pats of freshly made butter, bowls of cream, dishes of jam and preserves and the best quality tea”.

4. The day can be variously referred to as Little Christmas, Women’s Christmas or – especially in Cork and Kerry – Women’s Little Christmas.

5. It’s traditionally the day in Ireland when the decorations come down and are thrown back up in the attic, waiting to be unfurled and desnagged on December 8 next.

6. The tradition of holding a get-together with women friends may descend from the rural tradition of women raising a few turkeys to sell off for Christmas. The UCC historian Alan Titley maintains that the earnings would have been used to fund Christmas niceties for the family – and they deservedly spent any leftover cash on themselves at the start of January.

7. The ancient Irish belief held that Christmas came to an end at midnight on Nollaig na mBan. There was a little consolation though – well water briefly turned to wine; rushes turned to silk; and sandstone turned to gold.

8. The French don’t call it Women’s Christmas but they do get their bake on today to make the galette des rois, a flaky pastry cake, that marks the arrival of the three wise men/kings/magi at Bethlehem. One piece is always set aside to be offered to the first poor person to call to their door on January 6. If you feel peckish, get the recipe here from the Grand Livre de Recettes.

9. Some restaurants cash in on Women’s Christmas by promoting special lunches for groups of women. At least one hotel in Co Cork is pushing it a day late offering “Women’s Little Christmas Cocktails, Fashion Show, Manhattan Buffet where you taste flavours from around the world, Entertainment”, for the queenly sum of €25. On January 7.

10. Not everyone buys into Nollaig na mBan. The author of today’s post on Gaelick.com says she has no time for the “fiddle-dee-dee nonsense about how wonderful it is to allow the mammies of Oireland a full 24 hours break, before she returns to being a domestic slave for the remaining 364 days of the year”.

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