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8 Slices for Nollaig na mBan

Updated on January 1, 2015

Women's Little Christmas

Christians call January 6th as the "Feast of the Epiphany", the day it was revealed that infant Jesus Christ was the Messiah, and saviour of mankind.

For many of us it really is time to get the tree and decorations down and truly get back to our work.

For Irish women, January 6th, or 6th of January as said in Ireland, it's "Nollaig na mBan", or what some women call "Little Christmas".

Traditionally this is the time for women to sit down, put the feet up and have an undisturbed cup of tea with a biscuit, cake or two, while men in the house do all the housework and childcare during the whole of that day.

What do we think today of allowing the women of Ireland a full 24 hours break before returning to being a domestic slave for the other 364 days of the year?

And which bosses are going to say to their male employees - "ok guys have another day off to look after the missus"?

Why am I, a man, writing this and not a woman?

With today's thinking and consideration of "political correctness" this idea of a "day off" for women is quite insulting really, I think, as it strongly suggests that women live lives of duty and, at worse, slavery for the other 364 days.

Having said that, I feel, and I see, women grasping the old traditions and making them into something that is wonderful for them today.

Nollaig na mBan has largely faded away with many of the traditions transferred to the European Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and in some areas Bride's, Brideog's or Brighid's Day ... but I feel Nollaig na mBan should not be lost so here are, what I call, 10 Slices for women to get together with their women friends for this celebration

... and some tips of how men can support this.

1 : January 6th "Feast of the Epiphany"

The Catholic religion, and other Christian religions, celebrate January 6th as the

"Feast of the Epiphany".

It is said to be the day when the "three wise men" arrived to offer gifts to the two-week-old baby and reveal him to be the Messiah, Saviour of Man and son of God.

Originally, traditions of our Christmas Fayre, such as plum puddings, mince pies and black buns, and all of their origins, were all not served until this day.

French women's bake today, a flaky pastry cake called "galette des rois" to celebrate the arrival of the three wise men/magi to Bethlehem. The pastries have a soft filling of delicious frangipane, and inside this is a "Feve", which by tradition was once a broad bean but these days is a tiny porcelain or plastic figure.

The broad bean is more with tradition, though, as it's shape is similar to the human embryo. It can be planted earlier than other beans and seed so it is the first vegetable to emerge from the ground after winter. This causes the broad bean to represent the gifts of the earth, it's fertility and new life.

The person who had the slice of pastry with the broad bean, or alternative object, is declared king or queen and a paper or card crown that is on the pastry when served is worn on the head of the new king or queen.,

One piece of galette des rois pastry is also always set aside to be offered to the first poor that knocks on the door or who they see pass by their home.

I read somewhere that the French enjoy 50 million Galette des Rois on January 6th to celebrate the Festival of Kings.

After the feasting for the Epiphany, the greenery decorations came down and were burned in the cooking fire along with a final round of blessed year toasting and thanks for survival through the winter.

2 : in Ireland it's Women's Little Christmas

On January 6th Ireland also celebrates "Nollaig na mBan" - Women's Little Christmas.

Women worn out by doing the Christmas shopping, preparing, cooking and overall looking after of the men and children to ensure their good time over Yule, now had their break and let the men do the housework and look after the children.

With worldwide fascination for Irish traditions Nollaig na mBan is now celebrated in other countries, often in a very big banqueting way by women for women.

Today, several women despise this celebration even taking place as they relate this tradition to the old ways roles of women than women has spent so much campaigning to escape from.

Not only have I served at catering these but I enjoy the stories my partner returns to me with.

The myth stories are my passion and those we hear of Ireland are usually of the men's interpretation of the tales. We rarely hear how the women tell them. It is these stories that seem to come up at Nollaig na mBan.

Of course, this is the day when women open up and talk quite detailed about old boyfriends, how wild they were, and how they "tamed" them, and they would have toasts for those they missed too.

Religion is a major discussion both of feelings of faith and the gossip about priests and ministers, and maybe the local druid.

After the wine, the songs, in their way, would be sung, often songs sung by good women singers long forgotten. Of course, one or two of the senior women would get up to show off that they still have their dancing legs.

One thing common in all Nollaig na mBan gatherings is the seemingly endless laughter and usually one wise cracking male waiter saying something like "free range, I hope"

Nollaig na mBan for women is fun, and nobody saying "they can't".

3 : Nollaig na mBan always in Cork and Kerry

Nollaig na mBan has sustained its tradition

in Cork and Kerry

Many bars and restaurants in Cork City report a near 100% female clientele on this day, as the women of Cork meet up with girl friends, sisters, mothers and aunts to celebrate their own little Christmas., their own Nollaig na mBan.

Other counties are reviving this tradition. I have observed women's christmas groups gathering in counties Tipperary, Clare, Galway and Sligo over the past 10 years so it may spread all over ireland soon and overseas too.

Nollaig na mBan is now being celebrated well overseas, and growing. Women in the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand celebrate it.

In British Columbia, Canada, there is an Irish Women’s Network that celebrates this day not with afternoon tea but a banquet attended by about 70-100 women of all ages. Some of the senior women bring along teenage Canadian-born grand-daughters so they can introduce them to this tradition.

4 : It Used to Be Women's Turkey Trading Day

Nollaig na mBan is said to have descended

from a women's turkey trading tradition.

It is said many women raised turkeys, and other poultry such as geese and ducks, which they would sell on this day.

People bought these turkeys and oultry maybe for their upcoming Brigid's Day, Oestra and Easter Feasts and celebrations with eggs.

After trading, the women would meet and treat themselves to some food and drink niceties they would not normally have through the year, before returning home and donating the rest of their earnings to the annual household budget.

5 : Men Once Called It Dainty Tea Party Day

Nollaig na mBan is often described, usually by men, as a dainty tea party.

Yule and Christmas was once a glutonous beef and whisky men's event served by the women and the children kept quiet and busy by the toys built from them in their workshops, claiming Santa's workshops really made them.

Turkey, duck, goose and family eating

on Christmas Day is actually quite a

modern tradition we enjoy now.

Compared to the men's gluttonous beef and whisky feast, the women's Christmas of Nollaig na mBan was a feast of light sandwiches, sponge cakes, cup cakes, gingerbread biscuits, scones with cream and jams, best quality tea, wine, and maybe a daring bit of sherry or port or dessert wine with a small portion of pudding or even ice cream.

In Ireland, Nollaig na mBan went through quite a transition during the Celtic Tiger years of the 90s and naughties. Many women dropped the tradition as being totally irrelevant to the new elevated free thinking free doing educated, qualified, career, business and executive women.

Others adapted Nollaig na mBan to celebrate what women had become in commerce and recognition. Nollaig na mBan left the afternoon tea celebrations in tea shops to become banquets to celebrate the creative, independent and managerial woman.

Now the Celtic Tiger boom has gone and many of these women, just like the men equally, have entered into new lives of being in debt, often unemployed and are unable to afford and enjoy the grand celebration style of a few years ago.

Financial instability is motivating women to unite and pool their creativity in different directions today. Women of Ireland have always had an incredible ability rallied to combat the experience of poverty using their wits, skills and talents. The Ladies of the Land League around 1880 was a strong historical example of this.

When times are tough Women have been incredible as using their hands to make things to sell at market and I am seeing many women, as well as men, appearing more and more at farmer's markets and other outlets with products of baking, knitting, sewing and unique crafts to earn an income.

Again, people are gradually leaving the lifestyles of the mass produced and are rediscovering the value of hand-made, cared for, nurtured things in life. It seems we are back in an age of simpler needs and pleasures.

So again, January 6th, is perhaps returning to a day when women are celebrated in Ireland by women, when they celebrate themselves for their wits, skills and talents no matter what trend our lifestyles are taking.

6 : Women Exchange Gifts with Each Other

This is when women exchange gifts with each other

Women friends often delay their Christmas gift exchanges with each other until they get together at Nollaig na mBan, rather than close to mid-winter.

This adds to the fun and discussion of gifts that just would not be possible with men and children around, especially if some gifts are quite intimate.

Unless men were serving food and beverages they were banished from the rooms of women on this day, but I did notice that gifts exchanged were perfumes, soaps, bottles of good wine and a few "saucy" women's play things, though i have learned since the latter is not standard.

Years ago, young girls were encouraged by grandmothers and aunts to buy a little gift for their mothers. They used to shop in Woolworths where they could find pocket money priced bath cubes, bath salts and combs, then wrape these in recycled Christmas paper, maybe saved from their own presents received from Father Christmas. You can see how this has moved to Mother's Day now.

7: hotels now promoting Nollaig na mBan

Some hotels and restaurants are now promoting Nollaig na mBan

They are advertising and encouraging special lunch buffets for groups of women and some even taking this further to include special cocktails menus and a fashion show.

8 : not every woman likes Nollaig na mBan

Not everyone woman is happy about the celebration of Nollaig na mBan.

Many equality activists are disgusted at the mere suggestion that women get a "day off" from the home when domestic and childcare should be a 50-50 sharing with males so that women can study and work careers too.

It is different today, much different than as little as 30 years ago when it is natural today for women to develop their lives with careers and share all home and child care with spouses. Most men are no longer like Father Ted and Dougal in the kitchen on Mrs Doyle's night off and cannot even make a cup of tea. Today Many men love playing in the kitchen, make good food, enjoy playing with their children and caring from them and have home care pride.

However, let us not forget that Father Ted's Mrs. Doyle was not just the tea lady but the one who also repaired the roof and all of the DIY repair tasks.

In the past, as an events manager and caterer I have seen many women thoroughly enjoy and appreciate their Nollaig na mBan. Most of these women now are career or business women, some wealthy enough to pay for service help with domestic and childcare chores. Some are, sadly, unemployed looking for new opportunities.

The Nollaig na mBan tradition used to be in dining rooms of each other's homes or in small tea rooms with simple sandwiches, cakes and tea.

Now the modern Nollaig na mBan tradition attracts the creation of luxurious menus and often women's gatherings in hotels, sometimes quite large such as the one hosted by the Dublin rape crisis centre.

Nollaig na mBan is again slowly becoming feminine, Mná na h-Ãireann spirit day where women often use the time not to discuss families, housework and knittng but how they can truly make a difference in all areas of life they contact

With many women taking time off on January 6th is now not possible, so many women choose to meet during a nearby Saturday or Sunday afternoon and sometimes in very large organized groups.

Women meeting up with each other for Nollaig na mBan has much more value than not celebrating it. Women can make the Nollaig na mBan tradition their own and celebrate it to suit the lives of women today.

tunes for Nollaig na mBan

Nollaig Na Mban
Nollaig Na Mban

sung here by Jennifer Licko


and the Yule ends

The evening Epiphany meal with spouse, boyfriend or family, after a Nollaig na mBan woman's gathering, is usually a highlight for a woman too. During the evening meal prepared by the man there would be some chat about the women's gathering but also chat recapping the entire Yule from mid-winter solstice onwards, the people seen and shared with; a last look at the cards before ting them down and chat about the food, oh the marvelous food ... and the diet everyone is now going to go on.

Sometimes this last meal of Yule is with neighbours,

such as the Scottish tatties and herring night.

During this evening the holly and evergreen is burned in the fire. If not done after midnight, the decorations taken down and packed and the tree put out.

Many people have now delayed all of their Christmas gift giving until this Epiphany day instead of Christmas Day, just like the wise men, and the awakening to the light of the

new year.

Another reason for the delayed gift giving is the ability to shop for

post-Christmas day bargains :-)

Before snuffing your candles at midnight after Epiphany

Bless the corners of your house and all the lintels blessed.

Bless the hearth and bless the board and bless each place of rest,

Bless each door that opens wide to strangers as to kin,

Bless each crystal window pane that lets the starlight in,

Bless the rooftop overhead and every sturdy wall.

Peace of man. Peace with God. Peace and love for all.

... the candles are snuffed out

what say ye about Nollaig na mBan?

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    • WoodlandBard profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @anonymous: Many thanks for your kind comments Ena. I was reluctant to post this but folks on Facebook were asking me what did I know about Nollaig na mBan. Many thanks for the compliment of "well researched" as I put this together very quickly, maybe within an hour or two of doing other things, just writing down the titles, then a quick rambling of things from memory or what i have observed as an events manager and caterer in the past or what I have been told by my partner Claire after she returns from Nollaig na mBan. I will look at this closer and add more for next year.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I too wrote a blog post on Nollaig na mBan but feel it's in the halfpenny place in comparison to this well researched post and from a males perspective! Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for all your efforts must have took a while to compile.


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