Many traditions are associated with Christmas such as decorating Christmas trees, giving gifts, and caroling. In Ireland, the Christmas fun doesn't end on December 25th. It comes to a close on January 6th, a day known as Little Christmas.
The Feast of the Epiphany
In many parts of the world, January 6 is known as the Feast of the Epiphany. The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in Ireland under a different name: Little Christmas. It's known as Three King's Day in Spain and some other Hispanic countries. In England, the celebration is called Twelfth Night.
Historically, the Feast of the Epiphany observed three significant events in Christianity:
- The birth of Jesus (the Nativity)
- God's appearance when at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist
- Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana
In Ireland and the rest of the Western World, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted, Jesus' birthday became December 25. The Nativity was no longer celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany. Instead, January 6 marked the day three Magi, also known as the wise men, visited the baby Jesus. In some Irish households, three Magi are placed in the nativity on this day to observe the end of their journey.
Many Armenian Christians and Christians in the Eastern World still celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6. The period between December 25 and January 6 is known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Women's Little Christmas
In Ireland, women take part in a unique ritual on this day called Nollaig na mBan, or Women's Little Christmas. According to Discovering Ireland Vacations, historically, women gathered on January 6 to enjoy a break from household chores while men stayed home. Women headed to the pubs, places that usually catered to men, and enjoyed pub fare.
According to Irish scholar Alan Titley in an Irish Times article, it was most common in Western Ireland where women raised turkeys and sold them at Christmas markets for egg money. They used any leftover money on themselves.
Most people in Ireland exchange Christmas gifts on Christmas morning. But children may also give tokens to their mothers and grandmothers on Little Christmas.
The tradition of Women's Little Christmas has been handed down orally from generation to generation. While some women feel it's sexist and outdated, many others continue it today. The clientele in many pubs and restaurants in the South West Coast of Ireland is mainly female on January 6.
According to A Silver Voice from Ireland, today's Irish women have lifted the celebration to a new level. Many have left stout and corned beef sandwiches behind for wine, high tea, and more elegant restaurant fare at female-only parties, breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners. An article from Independent.ie also supports the idea that restaurants "will be packed" on this day.
The Daily Edge reports that Brid Mahon's book, Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food, indicates high tea on Little Christmas may include:
- Thinly-cut sandwiches
- Cakes - Apple, sponge, plum
- Breads - Brown, soda, baker's
- Butter and/or bowls of cream
- Jam or preserves
- High-quality tea
Many restaurants offer deals to women on January 6. Some men cook for the women in their lives or take them out to eat. But, mostly, today's Women's Little Christmas is a day for women to get together and celebrate their lives and achievements. It's not necessarily a day to escape hard work.
The Official End of Christmas
Little Christmas marks the end of a busy Christmas season for the Irish. It's also the last day of the holiday school break for children. The Christmas tree, often a Noble Fir, and other Christmas decorations are taken down on this day. It's thought to bring bad luck to take them down before January 6.
According to Historia Vivens, the traditional celebration included the lighting of twelve candles in honor of the twelve apostles. Today, the candles are often placed in windows. To commemorate the official end of Christmas, holly sprigs that were used as decorations are tossed into the fireplace to burn.
Little Christmas reflects an Ireland that's steeped in culture and tradition. The Irish have turned the often-melancholy task of taking down Christmas decorations into a day of celebration. It not only celebrates the religious reasons for the Christmas season, but also the strength and sisterhood of women.
You don't have to live in Ireland or even be Irish to celebrate Little Christmas. If you're looking for a festive way to say goodbye to the holidays, try adapting some traditions as your own.