Nollaig na Mban / Women’s Christmas – 6 January

Today, January 6th, is Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas in Ireland. Traditionally, when the work and bustle of preparing for Christmas was done, women had a day to themselves to gather and celebrate, whilst the men of the household took on the domestic duties. Bless.

I discovered this lovely description of a traditional Nollaig na mBan celebration on the Canadian blog, The Other Side of Sixty – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

‘The day of the Women’s Christmas, women were supposed to take it completely easy after all the hustle, bustle and hard work of the prior months, with the men now taking care of them and cooking and cleaning all day. I can assure you that this never happened in my house as, like many men of his era, my father didn’t know one end of a broom from the other and boiling a kettle was the peak of his culinary skill.

However, my mother was the eldest female of her family so consequently her sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts and mother came around on that day and a smaller, daintier version of the Christmas meal was served. On the menu were: a bird (usually a fine roast chicken), a smaller lighter plum pudding and a lovely cake, usually dressed up in the fanciest of pink wrappers with silver sprinkles everywhere on the pink and white icing. The most delicate of my mother’s tea sets was brought out, my own favourite, the lavender and pale green set. I would love to hold one of these little saucers up to the light and put my hand behind it, as it was so fragile you would see all your fingers through it.

Gifts were exchanged, usually the most feminine of presents, perfume or talc, bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream were lined up on the sideboard and the fun would begin. I was encouraged by the grandmothers and great-aunts to always give my mother a little gift on that day for the woman that she was and I did, from a very early age. I would buy something small in Woolworth’s on Patrick Street, a little comb or my personal favourite, those fiercely aromatic bath cubes, which were a whole three pence each. I would wrap it up in layers and layers of newspaper and it was always exclaimed over with the phrase, “Well now, I can hardly wait to use this”!

The coal fire would be stacked up high and already lit in the front room before anyone arrived, with Bord na Mona briquettes piled on the fender around it, and any male showing his face would be banished to some other spot in the house.

I remember the women gabbing all day and in the heel of the evening getting into the stories and songs of which I never, ever tired. My female cousins and I would sense the privilege of being included in all of this, there was a respect in us and never did we exemplify more the ideal of children being seen and not heard than on that day. Unasked, we poured the drinks and ran outside to boil another kettle to make a fresh pot or brought in the sandwiches and the fairy cakes and the chocolates and exotic biscuits in the later part of the day.

I remember the hoots of laughter as my aunts dipped their ladyfinger biscuits into their sherries, letting us have a small sample of the incredible taste. This was the one day in the year that I could get a sense of how the older women in my family were when they were young girls themselves. Full of fun and music and stories. I learned about their old boyfriends and who courted them, how one of my uncles had dated all four sisters before settling on my aunt. How wild he was and how she tamed him.

I’d learn of the sad miscarriages and the stillbirths, the neighbours who went peculiar from the change or the drink, the priests who got spoiled in Africa and became pagan; or who had the failing, the old great grandaunt who took on fierce odd after her son married. I didn’t know what a lot of it meant then but I stored it all away to ponder on in later years.

They would dredge up old musical numbers from their single days and sing a few bars while one or two got up and showed off their dancing legs. Sweet Afton cigarettes were lit and my grandmother would puff on her dudeen and we all could hardly see each other for the clouds of smoke.

Stories were told and they would get caught up on all the doings they might have missed in their conversations all year, obscure marriages and births, sometimes in Australia or other far flung and exotic outposts of the Irish Diaspora. But most of all I remember the peals of laughter which resounded throughout the house all day and evening.’

So go on – put your feet up, have a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a wee sherry, if you’re feeling daring. You’ve earned it.

And to all the wonderful women who I count as family and friends – Happy Nollaig na mBan!

A Necklace of Wrens by Michael Hartnett

In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is also known as Wren’s Day – a tradition descending either from Celtic or Nordic mythology, where boys would hunt for a wren and then take the captured bird around town singing and asking for coins.

There are various stories attached to the tradition, including one where a wren betrayed Irish soldiers to invading Vikings, by beating its wings upon their shields, earning the moniker, ‘traitor-birds’.

Whatever the root of the story, it made me think of this beautiful poem by Michael Hartnett – recalling an incident from his childhood when a fledged nest of wrens landed on him and his grandmother claimed it foretold his calling as a poet.

A Necklace of Wrens
for Micheal O Ciarmhaic, file

When I was very young
I found a nest.
Its chirping young
were fully fledged.

They rose and re-alighted
around my neck,
Made in the wet meadow
a feather necklet.

To them I was not human
but a stone or tree:
I felt a sharp wonder
they could not feel.

That was when the craft came
which demands respect.
Their talons left on me
scars not healed yet.

Via The Guardian – the original article also contains the Irish version and an appraisal of the poem.

Illustration: Lilydale Lake Wren by Jan Liesfield