January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany when the Magi brought the gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold to the Christ Child. In Ireland, Epiphany is sometimes called Little Christmas. It is, however, better known as Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas.
The tradition of Women’s Christmas enjoys small pockets of revival around Ireland today. The idea behind Women’s Christmas is that women, who are in the main the creatrixes of the holiday festivities, deserve a day when the menfolk and children give back. The woman of the house is meant to put her feet up and be brought food she hasn’t cooked. Neither should she rush to make tankards of tea and mounds of sandwiches for any visitors. Indeed, the visitors are also often other women, released from domestic chores for the day.
You might imagine how giddy making the prospect of day release from responsibilities could be!
How does this manifest in modern day Ireland? While there may be a more equitable division of domestic labor in Ireland today, my anecdotal evidence indicates that the woman of the house shoulders most of the responsibility for organizing and manifesting the Christmas festivities.
Think about it. Who writes most of the Christmas cards or sends greetings from your household? Who takes the lion’s share of responsibility for organizing gifts for extended family? What percentage of the holiday cooking and baking is done by the female head of household? Who figures the logistics of family and friend visits, as well as monitors the ebb and flow of fraying tempers on said visits?
Christmas is the Irish Mammy’s finest hour! It is the pinnacle of her year. She feeds hordes, mediates disputes, counsels the anguished and lovelorn, hands round Andrew’s liver salts to the hung over along with hot water bottles for those felled by the current flu virus. She does it day after day until the Twelfth Day of Christmas.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany, the women of Ireland have a little Joycean epiphany of their own. Today is Women’s Christmas. The garland is down, the tree undressed; the tinsel and twinklys are packed away for another twelve months. Today is the day for the mighty women of the Irish Christmas to kick back and put their feet up.
In practice, with many women employed outside the home these days, there may be no great show of appreciation at home. Many women toast each other as they greet one another back at the office. They are glad to be back to work and celebrate with a special lunch out.
The self-employed, retired, or home workers may gather together their female buddies for an afternoon tea or a lunch out in a restaurant. It is a time to catch up and tell their Christmas tales like veterans tell old war stories.
We survived another Christmas. Here’s to the women of Ireland! Nollaig na mBan Shona!