Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan: How the meaning of January 6 has changed over time

Marking the official end to Christmas festivities, January 6 sees Irish tradition celebrate the women of Ireland with Nollaig na mBan, translating to “Women’s Christmas”.

Also referred to as Little Christmas, Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night, universally, the day brings the Christmas period to a close.

How has the occasion changed over the years?

Unlike other European countries, Ireland traditionally celebrates January 6 differently, honouring the women of the household, those who historically held the main household duties such as cooking and cleaning.

The holiday allowed women to have a downtime from their household work and enjoy some well needed time off to spend with their female friends and relatives, resulting in the men taking over the cooking and chores.

With women taking on bigger roles in society, the need for a break from household chores has become a distant thought – rather, the day has welded into a working day, seeing households put away their Christmas decorations in place of the traditional “day off”.

The ever-changing landscape of women in the workplace has seen the holiday become an obsolete event. A smaller occasion and celebrated less throughout Ireland in modern society, a number of counties still pride themselves on the tradition, such as Kerry and Cork.

Today’s society sees the day celebrated differently from 100 years ago, with a number of women meeting for a special ladies’ afternoon tea, or seeing clubs packed with groups of female revellers celebrating. The day focuses on scheduling festivities with friends and gathering for brunch.

A century ago Irish women might have used the occasion to gather at one another’s homes for food, drinks and laughter while their husbands stayed home and watched the children.

Traditionally, goose was the chosen meat served on the day, while the women called to the homes of their friends and neighbours to enjoy tea and the last of the Christmas cake.

Today, many organisations have embraced the day to celebrate women’s contributions in society, with galas and charity fundraisers for women’s causes taking centre stage.

For example, The Irish Writers’ Centre run an annual event marking the occasion, celebrating women writers worldwide, with the theme of this year’s night marked as “Home”. The programme aims to ‘turn this quaint custom on its head with its 21st century interpretation of the meaning “home,” taking inspiration from the words of Meave Brennan: “Home is a place in the mind”’.

While Ireland remains different in their traditions, other European countries celebrate January 6 with gift giving.

Hispanic tradition sees Spain celebrate Christmas day as a solemn religious occasion, reserving Three Kings Day or Dia de los Reyes for celebrating and exchanging gifts.

This tradition originates from the Bible’s story of the three Kings following a bright star to Bethlehem on the night Christ was born, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Meanwhile, in England, a Yule log was kept lit until the twelfth night in order to bring blessings and good fortune throughout the upcoming year.

While children in Germany tend to go from house to house on Epiphany Eve singing carols and chalking the year and initials of the three Kings near the entrance of each home.

Source: Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan: How the meaning of January 6 has changed over time

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