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How to celebrate Nollaig na mBan (Women's Little Christmas) today


Tradition: Sean Og Hurley, Ruairi Guckian, Michael Walsh and Dessie Lynas of  Dubarry Shoemakers in Ballinasloe, Co Galway will cook for the Dubarry ladies, including Una Casey, for Little Christmas this year. Photo: Andrew Downes

Tradition: Sean Og Hurley, Ruairi Guckian, Michael Walsh and Dessie Lynas of Dubarry Shoemakers in Ballinasloe, Co Galway will cook for the Dubarry ladies, including Una Casey, for Little Christmas this year. Photo: Andrew Downes

Tradition: Sean Og Hurley, Ruairi Guckian, Michael Walsh and Dessie Lynas of Dubarry Shoemakers in Ballinasloe, Co Galway will cook for the Dubarry ladies, including Una Casey, for Little Christmas this year. Photo: Andrew Downes

Nollaig na mBan, when the mammies of the house traditionally downed tools at the end of the festive season, is having an epiphany

Today is Little Christmas, Women's Christmas, Nollaig na mBan or, to use its full title, Women's Little Christmas, but whatever you call it make sure to get your adjectives in the right order. It is not Little Women's Christmas because this year's celebrations make a point of celebrating women's enormous contribution to every sphere of modern life, rather than patronising the 'little women' confined to the festive kitchen.

You'll be hard-pushed to pinpoint the origins of Nollaig na mBan but what does seem clear is that January 6, the day when women traditionally visited each other's homes for tea, cake and chat, has been given a new lease of life.

Today, a series of events all around the country, and in the US, will champion women's contribution to every area of modern life - home, community, health, politics and business.

The woman who did much to encourage Mna na hEireann, former president Mary Robinson, will address a Women's Christmas Breakfast Celebration at the University Club in Washington to highlight Irish-American women leaders and their positive contribution worldwide.

Closer to home, it will be treated as a yuletide swansong before the decorations come down and we venture forth into the lean, mean days of bitter January.

It won't be unusual to find a women-only clientele in restaurants and bars, particularly in the south where the tradition is still strongest. Angela Shanahan, senior travel adviser at Kinsale Tourist Office, describes Nollaig na mBan as "the last hurrah before the fall" and says restaurants will be packed with mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, friends and female members of the extended families.

"Children might bring their mothers breakfast in bed or friends might gather for a meal. Women's Christmas gives people the impetus to get together. One year, the sisters and sisters-in-law in my family got together and I'd say it was the only time the whole six of us were together for some time," she says.

Christine Costelloe, development director at Breast Cancer Research, thought Women's Christmas was the ideal day to launch the charity's drive to raise funds and awareness.

She lost her own mother to breast cancer in 2009 and moved to Ireland from the States to work with Breast Cancer Research, a national charity that raises funds for research at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

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"Nollaig na mBan is a really special day when we can honour the contribution of women to Irish life. It can be a platform to remember women and positively impact on women's health. One in 10 Irish women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and we are encouraging people to gather together to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research," she said.

Dubarry Shoemakers in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, have heeded the call and today the male members of staff will serve up elevenses and lunch to their female colleagues.

Marketing director of Dubarry Ireland, Michael Walsh, identifies himself as "the soup man" - he made stock from the turkey on Christmas Day - and says he has been sussing out the men's culinary credentials in the run-up to January 6.

The staff of 45 is evenly split between men and women but the ladies will be granted "plenary indulgences" from their new year's resolutions so they can enjoy every morsel of the Nollaig na mBan feast.

Dubarry, Mr Walsh explains, was happy to join in the initiative - it adds a bit of colour to a bleak month and underlines the company's commitment to women's health. The company raised €70,000 for breast cancer in 2012 with a limited-edition pink-ribbon boot.

Women's Christmas, though, is not universally celebrated. Ask some older women and they'll wonder why women are given the cast-offs and a second-hand meal at the tail-end of Christmas.

In the southern counties, there's an old saying: "Nollaig na bhfear, Nollaig Mhor Maith, Nollaig na mBan, Nollaig gan Mhaith" (Men's Christmas is a fine big Christmas, Women's Christmas is a no-good Christmas".

Over the last few years, there's been plenty of discussion about the patronising idea that women should have just one day in the year to be acknowledged. (Well, three if you count International Women's Day and those for whom Mother's Day is relevant).

Yet, in the last decade, there's been a steady rise in the number of events that mark the day by talking about real issues. Last year, there was a soapbox to discuss women's mental health, while Cork Simon Community used the day to remember the 50 women who slept rough during the year.

This year, Sligo women with connections to 1916 - Countess Markievicz and Linda Kearns - will be celebrated with the launch of 'Sligo Women: 1916'.

In 1921, Countess Markievicz recalled her first act of political activism with Sligo Women's Suffrage Society, saying: "It was one of the first things I worked for since I was a young girl. That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom and soon I got to the other freedoms - freedom to the nation, freedom to the workers.

"The question of votes for women, with the bigger thing, freedom for women and the opening of the professions to women, has been one of the things that I have worked for."

It would be intriguing to hear what she might have to say about Nollaig na mBan. Though, interestingly, there isn't a whole lot written about the tradition.

Emeritus Professor of Modern Irish Alan Titley says, in European culture, Epiphany (the arrival of the Magi on January 6) is often more important than December 25, but there is little about it - or indeed Christmas - in Irish literature.

"What people say about Nollaig na mBan is that it marks the end of Christmas and it seems to be more prevalent in the south," he says, adding that many traditions, particularly those relating to women, were seldom written down.

"There is very little account of what ordinary people did before the 18th century," he says. And even then, the focus was generally not on the women of the house who took a well-deserved break after Christmas.

Kerry historian Dr Breandan O Ciobhain says the tradition was (and still is) celebrated widely in the Dingle Peninsula. It used to be celebrated with a goose dinner and visits by women to each other's houses.

Though, he recalls one Christmas in the 1950s cycling with his father west from Ventry to visit neighbours. When they called, the household was eating their Christmas dinner of two boiled eggs and bread and butter.

"It startled me and I imagine that on Nollaig na mBan they might have had one boiled egg and bread and butter. Not everyone could celebrate at the same level."

In The Year in Ireland, Irish Calendar Customs, folklorist Kevin Danaher suggests the tradition can be explained by the fact that Christmas Day was marked by 'men's fare' - whiskey and beef - while on January 6 'women's dainties' - cake and tea - were more popular.

Today, too, there will certainly be food but also food for thought on what it means to be a woman in 21st-century Ireland.

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