Women's Christmas Is the Feminist Holiday Worth Celebrating

In Ireland, Nollaig na mBan is a historic post-Christmas vacation day for women to clock off and chill out.
January 6, 2016, 2:20pm

Christmas is over, but women in Ireland are celebrating a Yule of their own today. Nollaig na mBan, which means "Women's Christmas" in the Irish language (pronounced "null-ig na mon") is a centuries-old tradition taking place on January 6. It is typically observed in the south of Ireland as a day for women to celebrate themselves: To forego household duties, go out, and have a laugh.

It's a window into a different age, based on a time when women were traditionally responsible for domestic chores and men didn't typically mind the kids, sweep the floor, or go out for the shopping. So for one night in January, the kind men of around the 18th century agreed to do a bit of child-minding, or possibly even lift a finger at home. Gee, thanks!

Also known as Little Christmas in Scotland, and the Feast of the Epiphany to the rest of the world, the celebration stems from the Catholic religious holiday that marks the official last day of Christmas. In Ireland, Women's Christmas likely evolved as a token of appreciation for all the cooking, cleaning, and innovating of leftovers that women performed over the Christmas and New Year period.

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Historian Dr Mary McAuliffe, a lecturer on Irish women's and gender history at University College Dublin, grew up in the south of Ireland in a family that celebrated Nollaig na mBan. "Nollaig na mBan was always part of Christmas, on the twelfth night," she says. "On that night, women could lay down their tools of domesticity, put down the kitchen implements, and have dinner cooked for them, or go out with their friends, go visiting other houses, have parties, sing songs. Certainly when I was a kid we would have a full Christmas dinner again on the sixth of January, because it also combines with the Feast of the Epiphany.

"Really, until middle of the 18th century, the Feast of the Epiphany was the most important date of Christmas, rather than December 25. By the 20th century it became Nollaig na mBan as we know it today, where women take the date to celebrate themselves."

It's to commemorate the contribution that women have made to the state, to our revolution, to our society, and celebrate that.

Nollaig na mBan has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, especially in the last few months with a grassroots movement called Waking the Feminists. Late last October, the Abbey—the national theatre of Ireland—announced their commemorative programme for 2016, "Waking the Nation," with only one of the ten programmed plays written by a woman.

As the national theatre, the Abbey receives a large amount of government funding, to the tune of 6.2 million euros for 2015. Since the outrageous program announcement, Waking the Feminists has sprung up to lobby for equality for women in the arts, raising awareness of the issue by holding events across the country around Nollaig na mBan.

Meryl Streep even voiced her support and was pictured holding a piece of paper which said "I support Irish women in Irish theatre", and Will & Grace actress Debra Messing tweeted the same. In response, Abbey theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail has issued a public apology, and has committed to programming more work by women artists in 2016.

Waking the Feminists stage a protest outside the Abbey. Photo by Fiona Morgan

Waking the Feminists has adopted Nollaig na mBan as a holiday close to their heart, and an ongoing sign of the obstacles that Irish women continue to face in the creative arts and beyond. "It became very apparent from very early on that this wasn't solely an issue with the Abbey theatre's 2016 programme," says Lian Bell, a theatre designer and producer who was instrumental in gathering support for the launch of Waking the Feminists. "There was such a huge response from women working in all areas of the theatre about how endemic the imbalance is in the sector (and the arts sector in general) that it was clear there was the need to address it more broadly."

Nollaig na mBan has taken on an added importance this year, as 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the uprising against the government to end British rule and which ultimately led to Ireland gaining independence in 1922.

"This year is a particularly special year as [it's] the centenary of the Easter Rising," McAuliffe explains. "It's about remembering the roles that women have played in Irish society in the last 100 years and the battle they've had, and still have, to gain full and equal citizenship in all aspects of in their lives—reproductive lives, political lives, economic lives. It's to commemorate the contribution that women have made to the state, to our revolution, to our society, and celebrate that."

It's a night to catch up and celebrate being a woman and have a laugh. What makes it that more special because it is Nollaig na mBan.

McAuliffe introduced her Dublin friends to the idea of Nollaig na mBan after she moved to capital city, as Nollaig na mBan is, or was, relatively unknown in urban areas beyond the west and south of Ireland. This year Nollaig na mBan takes place not only in Cork and Kerry in the south, but all around the country.

"In the last decade it has really taken hold," McAuliffe says. "When I came to Dublin first in the mid 90s, many people I met had never heard of it, but it had always been part of my life, being from Kerry. But now the whole country celebrates Nollaig na mBan; it's become a feminist thing, it's become a fundraiser for charities. Waking the Feminists are organising several events, the National Women's Council promote it. I'm going out tomorrow night with my friends, all the women members of my family are going out. It's a night to catch up and celebrate being a woman and have a laugh. What makes it that more special because it is Nollaig na mBan."

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At the Irish Writers Center, the national resource for Irish writers, communications and events coordinator Amy Herron explains why Nollaig na mBan has taken off in the 21st century. "Although this reversal of stereotypical roles for Nollaig na mBan mightn't seem all that relevant today, the ritual of women coming together to celebrate the end of a busy season and to toast the start of a new year is undeniably special," she says. "You see women writers connecting online over powerful campaigns like #readwomen and #wakingthefeminists..."

"Observing moments like this, you realize that although faced with a difficult publishing climate and the weighty legacy of their forefathers, women writers in Ireland have rallied for battle and are prepared to face new challenges head on and united."

On Bell's part, she believes that Nollaig na mBan marks a women's holiday that has implications far beyond Christmas. "I believe in personal reponsibility. I believe feminism means each of us examining the world around us, reimagining what it could be like if the systems in place were built to be inclusive of everyone, and personally trying to make those changes reality. I'd like for people to take a bit of time to think about that today. I'll be going to a few gatherings in Dublin, and will be tweeting furiously on #wakingthefeminists, of course!"