Sounds like ‘Nullig ne mon’ and translates as ‘Christmas of the Women’, but is also known as ‘Little Christmas’. It’s today – the 6th of January – and is celebrated in Ireland and wherever else in the world there are Irish communities. There are other traditions surrounding this day (quite apart from the arrival of the Three Wise Men), and they are confusing. I was brought up knowing that the Christmas decorations have to come down today otherwise there will be some bad luck in the year. Finola, however, knows that they have to stay up all through the day as it’s still part of Christmas – so she would have them down tomorrow instead. Maybe this is a Catholic / Protestant divide? And when is Twelfth Night: 5th or 6th of January? Either one, it seems, depending on which of the many traditions you choose to follow, or which part of the world you live in.
In Tudor Britain the whole winter festival started on All Soul’s Eve (Halloween) and lasted until Twelfth Night. On the first day a cake was baked with a bean in it. Whoever had the slice with the bean was elected Lord of Misrule and presided over a topsy turvy time when the peasant ruled the master and so on. The World Turned Upside Down is a wishful thinking concept that has inspired many artists ever since.
In some parts of Europe a custom of house-blessing takes place today. Dried herbs are burnt and their scents fill the building. Doorways are sprinkled with holy water and the master of the house writes with chalk above the house and barn doors the initials C M B enclosed within the year (eg 20 C M B 14). According to the ritual he says: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water. Alternatively it could stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (May Christ bless this home).
Some traditions closer to home: McCarthy + Hawkes write in Northside of the Mizen –
…On Nollaig na mBan (Woman’s Christmas or Epiphany), the women put all the scraps and leftovers from Christmas onto the kitchen table and it was then up to everyone else to cope the best they could. At midnight, on the eve of Nollaig na mBan, the water in the spring well turned to wine. Now that was a great thing! Ne’er a man or woman has ever supped any and that was because it was only for the Little People…
Perhaps to emphasize that such miracles should be the preserve of only the Fairy Folk, there is a tale told of the blessed well of St Brendan in Cill a ‘Ruith, near Ventry in County Kerry: here in days of yore Three Unwise Men sat up to drink their fill of wine at the appropriate hour and were turned into three large boulders which stand there as a warning to this day.
As this is a Monday, and the first one of the new year, it is also known as Handsel Monday, when children used to visit neighbours and friends and ask for money or cakes. Such a gift was known as a suggit which may derive from the Irish so dhuit – ‘here’s for you – here you are’.
Finola is off out tonight with friends to celebrate Nollaig na mBan, as she used to in Vancouver where the tradition was strongly followed in the Irish community. It is said that the term ‘Women’s Christmas’ can be explained because Christmas Day was marked by beef and whiskey – men’s fare – while on Little Christmas Day the dainties preferred by women – cake and tea – were more in evidence. Finola will no doubt tell me whether this is still the case.