Women’s Christmas, Little Christmas or Old Christmas – an old Irish tradition

The customs may have waned over the years but once-upon-a-time January 6 was celebrated in Ireland as ‘Women’s Christmas’, ‘Little Christmas’ or ‘Old Christmas Day’.

The Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan) tradition has enjoyed a revival of late. The custom was always strongest in the south west of the country.

A search of the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection – which collected lore and traditions from schoolchildren at national schools across the 26 counties in the late 1930s – returned sixteen references to Women’s Christmas, ten of which were from Cork.

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Betty Connell, a pupil from Corravoley, near Skibbereen, related: “The Women's Christmas is so called in West Cork because the men try to make everything as pleasant as possible for the women so that they can enjoy a peaceful and happy time, the women having worked so hard to make the real Christmas day a happy one for everyone else.”

According to some traditions water was said to turn into wine at midnight on Little Christmas Eve.

Pupils from Askeaton National School in Limerick provided the following intelligence: “This is known as ‘Nollaig na mBan’ (Women's Christmas) and women are entitled to their feast on this day by indulging in intoxicating drinks but the majority of the women do not indulge.”

There were no references to ‘Women’s Christmas’ from pupils or their informants – normally their parents, relations and neighbours – in Ulster, with the most northerly mention being from Roscommon.

In Donegal, the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, is more commonly known as ‘Old Christmas’ or ‘Little Christmas’.

The tradition is believed to have arisen when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in Ireland and ‘Old Christmas’ – December 25 (Old Style) shifted to January 6 (New Style).

The Women's Christmas tradition was strongest in Cork. In Donegal it was known as Little Christmas or Old Christmas.
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Colm Quigley, a pupil at Naomh Colmcille in Buncrana, noted that the next great feast after the Christmas and New Year period was ‘the Epiphany which was called in olden days Old Christmas’.

Colm, who collected the story from his mother, advised: “They did not feast much on the day but prayed more.”

Susan Doherty, from Ture, was told by her father that ‘the Epiphany is called old Christmas’.

Kathleen Doherty, from Cabry, near Quigley’s Point, was informed by her father Patrick that on the night before ‘Old Christmas’ particular customs were followed.

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“Oat bread was eaten particularly on ‘state nights’ - that is, on the eves of the principal feasts. Some of these ‘state nights’ were Christmas Eve, Candlemas Eve (February 1), Old Christmas Eve (January 5), ‘Larmaura’ Eve (August 14), Hallow Eve, and New Year’s Eve. On these ‘state nights’ oat bread was eaten with mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were called ‘bruitins’ or ‘poundies’,” Kathleen reported.

Philomena MacGrath from Castlecooly between Burt and Newtown referred to January 6 as the Feast of the Epiphany and named it among the great feasts locally.

“The most important feasts of the year are: The Epiphany, St Brigid's Day, St Patrick's Day, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Whit Sunday, Feast of St Peter and Paul, The Assumption, Hallowe'en Feast of All Saints, and Feast of All Souls, Christmas and St Stephen's day,” she stated.

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As with many of the great festivals and celebrations in the Irish calendar there were various beliefs and superstitions associated with the weather.

Sister M. Beirín Ní Bhaoighill, from the Convert of Mercy in Carndonagh, collected the following from a Mrs. Doherty: “During the twelve days that elapse between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany, the people are anxious to see what kind of weather these days are, as it is said that the kind of each day indicates the kind of month of the year, the first day indicating the kind of weather in January, the second, February, and so forth.”

Irene Russell, a teacher from Muff, collected this account from pupil Jerry Mc Connell: “It is said that the twelve days from Christmas Day to Epiphany represented the twelve months of the year. If the twelve days are warm it will be a fine year and if the twelve are wet it will be a wet year.”

Teresa Cassidy, a pupil from Drumbar in South Donegal, told of a tradition which will be familiar to all readers.

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"On this feast all the Christmas decorations should be taken down, because if they are left up any longer in any house, the people of that house will have bad luck during the year.”

Returning to the Nollaig na mBan celebrations in Munster a number of contributors to the schools collection provided an interesting origin story for the celebration. It was, they said, an acknowledgment of the biblical feast at Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at a wedding he attended with his mother Mary.

Mary O’Sullivan, from Shantullig on the Mizen peninsula, said: “It is called ‘Nollaig na mBan’ or ‘The Women's Christmas’. Candles are lit on Little Christmas night and again on the following night. On Little Christmas night it is the custom to bring in an extra bucket of water in memory of the wedding feast of Cana.”

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Jeremiah Mahony, from Crookhaven, in the same area of West Cork, corroborates this.

“The feast of the Epiphany is known locally as Little Christmas day or the Women's Christmas. There is feasting and merrymaking on that day. It is thought if a person remained up till midnight on that night he would see water turned into wine.

"It is believed it occurs in memory of the time Our Lord changed water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana at the request of His Blessed Mother. Probably that is why it is known here as the Women's Christmas,” he related.

And a Mrs. J. Kingston, from near Dunmanway, noted: “The Christmas festivities end on ‘Little Christmas Day’, ‘Epiphany’ or the ‘Women's Christmas’. It is said that water turns into wine on ‘Little Christmas Eve’ at 12 o'clock.”

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Happy Women’s Christmas, Little Christmas and Old Christmas to our readers!