NOLLAIG NA MBAN - WOMEN'S CHRISTMAS

January 6th (the Feast of the Epiphany), is traditionally when the Irish finish celebrating Christmas. It is also known as Nollaigh na mBan in Gaelic (Women’s Christmas). On this day, women all over Ireland honour the long held custom of gathering together for their own little celebration.

Women’s Christmas finds its origins in the days when large families were the norm, and women were entirely responsible for the running of the household and care of the children. Men’s work took them outside the home, so they neither did, nor were expected to do, any of the housework. Some say a man doing something as simple as washing a few dishes risked being called an ‘auld woman’ by other men.

The tradition of Women’s Christmas meant that after all the work of the Christmas season, housewives and mothers finally got a break, at least for this one day. Each year on this day in January, men would take over the running of the household and care of the children, while women took the opportunity to go out and spend time with one another.

Whether the gathering place was the home of one of the women, whose husband and children had been shuttled off to the home of another, or at a social club or pub, after an initial chat about the cares of the old year, the women made a pact to leave their troubles on the doorstep. These days all cell/smartphones are shut off and stowed away, or else put in the centre of the table, hidden from view by a table napkin. Women are free from the cares of house and home, and work outside the home, for the entire day and on into the evening.

In Ireland, women were not allowed into pubs until 1958, unless accompanied by a man. Some pubs stretched this prohibition well into the 1970s; however, on Women’s Christmas, women were allowed to eat and drink in this men’s preserve, with neither shame nor a chaperone. The women would inhabit the 'snug', a small private room often situated just inside the front door of the pub, or accessible by a separate door. Some Irish pubs still have snugs, and some of them are very snug indeed.

Women would pool together the few shillings they had saved for their special day, and use the money to buy everyone in their group a drink. It might be a small sherry, or a warm brandy, a ‘half’ of stout or a small glass of wine, which they would happily sip while dining on beef sandwiches or similar fare that was provided by the publican and his wife.

In Dublin, on Women’s Christmas, there is quite a din in one of my favourite restaurants — ‘Avoca’ on Suffolk Street — as it is filled with Irish women, young and old, laughing and talking as they enjoy lunch or tea time together. It is a lovely sight to behold.

These days wine and lunch or supper have replaced stout and beef sandwiches, women are no longer confined to the snug of a public house, and many Irish men now actively participate in the care of children and home, but nevertheless the tradition of Nollaig na mBan survives.