From Startling New Revelations to Swapping Gender Roles: The Unique Celebration of Little Christmas and Nollaig na mBan
It might be normal nowadays—no doubt informed by the unforgiving way those outgoing direct debits never seem to give one a break through the celebrations and temptations of December—to be back at work, or at least planning and strategizing about work, before the bones of the Christmas turkey even make it to the bin.
But Christmas, and its first cousin New Year’s, used to be so much more than just a day or two of festivities. That famous song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is more than just a famous song. It was a lived experience for people all across the Christian northern hemisphere. Those twelve days of celebrating started with Christmas Day on December 25th and enjoyed a sort of second climax with the often uproarious hoo-ha of Twelfth Night late into January 5th, before some seriousness was restored with the Christian Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.
As with all these things, the lived experience varies depending on the traditions and stories in your own particular culture or country.
In some countries you had the calm of the Epiphany, which marked the arrival of the Magi (a.k.a. The Three Kings or Three Wise Men) to the stable in Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. In others, most notably Ireland, January 6th was an altogether different experience. Known as Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas, an anglicization of the old Irish title “Nollaig na mBan”, the Feast of the Epiphany was for many a little less a day of solemn religious practice and a little more an all too rare day of letting some hair down with the rest of the ladies.
The Epiphany and Little Christmas: A Cultural Merger
Like so many other dates on the calendar, January 6th—the Feast of the Epiphany, as the Church calendar might have it, or Little Christmas as the people tended to call it—emerges as a fascinating amalgamation of early Christian customs and pagan celebration.
This was no mere collision; it was a symphony that included notes of both the sacred and the secular, the celestial and spiritual paired with the earthly and the here and now.
The flames of pagan bonfires, kindled for the merriment of the winter solstice and the turning of the earth back towards the brightness and rebirth of spring, found a new purpose within a Christian narrative. As communities everywhere grappled with shifts in their belief systems, a delicate balance emerged to bring together both sacred and secular in the celebration of Little Christmas, with the sight of evergreen branches of holly and the smells of incense carried over from pagan to Christian with just a few modifications to the underlying story.
If anything, the evolution of these celebrations—seen most notably at Christmas but also visible to all at Halloween and St Brigid’s Day, amongst other dates in the calendar—is a testament to the human need for celebration. Life without its great days is no life at all, and that stands true whether you’re an evangelizing Christian or a pre-Christian devotee of the land.
The Epiphany: Much More than Just One Star and Three Gifts
A story told in the early verses of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi were beckoned to the stable in Bethlehem where the baby lay peaceful, a few days after his birth.
“They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”
Guided by these signs from the heavens, the Three Wise Men embarked on a westward journey bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Each gift told an age-old story of meaning—gold to mark both earthly kingship and the transcendent beauty of the divine; frankincense as a symbol of reverence and adoration, with its pungent scent momentarily overpowering the senses; and myrrh, with its established usage as an embalming ointment, thus suggesting the fleeting mortality of the human form and the depth of the sacrifice that might lie ahead for the divine baby before them.
With their symbolic gifts, the Three Wise Men become messengers who will carry a profound truth through the ages. The narrative of their journey, guided by signs from the heavens and the faith that they were doing the work of the Good, is a story that will never grow old.
Over the centuries scholars have sought historical or astronomical records that might corroborate the biblical story of the bright star that rose and beckoned the Magi from the east. In the end, the evidence for a magical celestial event seems to be scant, but then again, as the best scientists know all too well, the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence!
Women's Christmas and the Swapping of Gender Roles
In Ireland, January 6th has unfolded with an additional layer to become known as Nollaig na mBan, or Women's Christmas.
This distinctive moniker carries with it the weight of folklore and heritage, whispering tales of a day reserved exclusively for the matriarchs of Irish households.
If it’s true that “a woman’s work is never done”, as the old Irish proverb goes, then it was done for one day on January 6th. Or, more to the point, it was done by someone else: and not just anyone else, mind, but by the man of the house, who could be seen trying to figure out how to tie the straps of the apron for, where exactly the Fairy Liquid is kept and how much of the good green stuff is needed to get a good lather up in the sink. (Answer: not as much as you’ve just squirted into the sink, creating a foam that could provide enough cover for a small army.)
This reversal of household roles has echoes in the Twelfth Night celebrations that seem to have been more common in old England than in Ireland. Those festivities included carnivale-like mask-wearing and dancing, with gender roles swapped for one night only and men adorning themselves in fine women’s clothing and women donning fake mustaches, sharp suits and hair lacquer to masquerade as men for a while. Indeed, this swapping of the sexes is the central plot point of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night: the shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a young man, “Cesario”, to get work in the service of Duke Orsino, before Duke Orsino falls in loves Olivia and convinces Cesario to speak with Olivia on his part, only for Olivia to in turn fall in love with Cesario!
But let’s leave that Shakespearean side-road behind and return to Ireland and Nollaig na Mban.
Sheila Flitton is an Irish writer and actor whose most recent contribution to the arts might be the one for which she’ll be remembered more than any other: she almost stole the show as Mrs McCormick, the eerie old woman who may also be a banshee, in Martin McDonagh’s highly-praised The Banshees of Inisherin in 2022 (read more about Ireland at the Oscars).
Sheila, who was 90 by the time Banshees was doing the parade of awards ceremonies, wrote an article titled Little Women’s Christmas years ago, and her recollections of how the women of her native Cork celebrated Nollaig na mBan are as insightful as they are hilarious!
Men never lifted a finger in the house to help, and were never expected to. If a man washed the dishes, he would be called an “auld woman" by other men. No full blooded Irish man was prepared to risk that! But each year, after the Christmas holiday, tired women finally got a break – for one day, at least. On January 6th (the same day as the Epiphany), men would take over the housework, offering women a chance to go out to relax with each other.
While the tradition of Nollaig na mBan remains alive to the present day, there is no doubt that it is not as prevalent as it once was and has sadly become more of a nostalgic note that has in all too many Irish communities faded a little into the echoes of history.
“All The Living and The Dead”: Little Christmas in Art and Culture
Shakespeare apart, the feasts and celebrations of January 6th are a recurring theme across the arts and literature. The idea of a great “epiphany”, a sudden appearance of new clarity, could equally apply to the Magi traveling to Bethlehem as to an Irish socialite who finds the painful discovery that his wife’s love is much more complex than he ever would have imagined.
That is the story of what some judges have called the greatest short story ever written in English. James Joyce’s “The Dead” was first published in his collection Dubliners in 1914, almost a decade before Ulysses brought him worldwide praise and 25 years before the dreamlike Finnegans Wake became his final contribution to greatness. While Ulysses and Finnegans Wake often require study guides and detailed explanations, the stories of Dubliners are both powerful and easy to read, and “The Dead”, the long and heartbreaking story that brings the collection to a close.
Set at a Little Christmas celebration at the house of the Morkan sisters on Ushers Quay in Dublin city center, the story unfolds with both great humor and great sadness. Let me say no more about it here and just encourage you to find it and read it, especially on Little Christmas!
Or, if you insist that books are not your thing and you’d much rather settle in for a movie, feel free to seek out John Huston’s gorgeous and faithful adaptation starring his daughter Anjelica, made in 1987 when the great director was terminally ill. Huston died just four months after shooting was completed.
If you’d prefer something a bit more romantic than all that, look no further than the Irish singer-songwriter Sean Tyrrell’s “Lights of Little Christmas”. Be warned, though: this is a bittersweet sort of romance which brings to mind a little of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne”, a tale that might be just as much about love lost as it is about love found.
Other artworks that have echoes of the Epiphany and Little Christmas include “The Wexford Carol”, which might have been Ireland’s most famous contribution to festive music before those two late greats Shane MacGowan and Kirsty McColl captured the attention of the world with “Fairytale of New York” in the late 1980s.
Also known as “The Enniscorthy Carol” or by its first line “Good people all, this Christmas time”, “The Wexford Carol” is an old Irish song telling the story of the nativity of Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. While its true provenance is unknown, much gratitude is owed to William Grattan Flood, who was the musical director at St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy in the early years of the 20th century. He transcribed the lyric and sent it to Oxford University Press, where it was eventually included in the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928 and from there found its way to new audiences and new choirs all over the world.
Away from Irish culture, the events of the Epiphany are also well told in such renowned artworks as two titled "Adoration of the Magi", one an early unfinished work by the great Leonardo da Vinci and the other by his Renaissance compatriot Sandro Botticelli.
In this age of mobile phone addiction and “doomscrolling”, you could do much worse than spend a few minutes staring at both below and seeing how two artists of the ages could see things so similarly and yet so differently.
Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (1475)
Almost five centuries after those Renaissance masters were at work, the great modernist writer TS Eliot took his turn at the same story in one of the standout poems of the 20th century, “Journey of the Magi”.
Eliot placed himself in the shoes of the Magi as they battled to withstand the perils of a harsh and forgiving winter to make it to Bethlehem. “A hard time we had of it,” he writes, before recalling the moment they arrived “not a moment too soon/Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”
With its time-shifts and memories, Eliot’s poem brings a new urgency to the story. It makes the wise men fragile and human and all too prone to life’s struggles, both mental and physical. It is a masterpiece, different in a million ways to Leonardo, Botticelli and even to his fellow modernist Joyce, but no less a masterpiece for all that.
And there you have it!
From its ancient roots traversing Christian and pagan celebrations, through stories that have lasted two thousand years and will be certain to last two thousand more, through gender-swapping fun and frolics in Shakespeare’s London to the one day of the year that Irish women might put their feet up and enjoy a Guinness or three in the snug, Little Christmas continues to carve out a unique place in the calendar year.
The only thing now is for all of us to take those traditions, keep them alive—and maybe even help them evolve in new and exciting ways.