Traditionally, the Christmas season lasted from Christmas Day on the 25th to January 5, and there was a celebration and a holiday for each one. These were typically in honor of a specific saint. In medieval Europe, the Christmas holidays were:
- Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day, which celebrated the birth of Jesus
- Day 2 (26th December): St Stephen’s Day.
- Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle.
- Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents. This celebrated the babies killed by Herod in his search for Jesus
- Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket.
- Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester.
- Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve also known as Hogmanay in Scotland.
- Day 8 (1st January): Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen
- Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The celebration of the “name day”, where Jesus is formally named in the Temple.
- Day 11 (4th January): Saint Simon Stylites
- Day 12 (5th January): Epiphany Eve
A huge party was given on the night of the twelfth day of Christmas called Twelfth Night because no one was very original. This marked the end of winter and was a modern day Saturnalia where rich and poor exchanged roles. A huge cake was baked made which was loaded with rich treats like eggs, butter, fruit, nuts and spices. A modern cake that approximates the Twelfth Night cake is the Italian Panettone. Inside the cake, a pea and a bean was baked. Anyone who received the slices containing the bean or the pea was considered the king or queen of that night and would have good luck the whole year. This is very similar to King Cake at Mardi Gras. (http://www.historynaked.com/the-mardi-gras-king-cake/)
There was general partying and mayhem. As with Saturnalia, servants were served by their masters and the roles were very relaxed. Pantomimes and plays which tweaked authority were popular entertainments. In these plays, cross dressing was the norm, with the “Dame” being played by a man and the male lead being played by a woman. To lead the revels, a Lord of Misrule was elected. This office began as a “boy bishop” and morphed into the “Lord of Misrule” in England and the “Abbot of Unreason” in Scotland and the “Prince des Sots” in France. This was usually a peasant or someone of lower social standing. This started as a fairly innocent tradition where the “boy bishop” presided over a processions and church ritual. This progressed to games that were less innocent and in 1523 at London’s Inns of Court a “Lord of Misrule” was responsible for a death.
When everyone woke up the next morning, they were tired, probably hung over and generally crabby. Probably most of all the women as they had been responsible for the logistics of the celebrations, making the rich Twelfth Night cake and all other other food for the feasts along with all their other household chores. From this Nollaig na mBan was born.
Technically, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of when the wise men arrived at the manger in Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus. It is also the first day Christmas decorations can safely be taken down without risking bad luck. Any holly displayed was burnt. Nollaig na MBan is celebrated on this date in Ireland, and translates to “Women’s Christmas”. It was a well deserved rest for Irish women after the busy season of Christmas.
It was tradition for women to sneak away for impromptu gatherings in their homes or in local pubs to enjoy their free time. This was the only time a lady would feel comfortable in the traditionally male domain of a pub. Any pocket money left over from the year’s budget or from sales of produce at the Christmas market was spent on treats at Nollaig na mBan. It was never an elaborate celebration. Mostly tired women putting up their feet with a nice cup of tea and chatting over a bit of cake or biscuit while the men folks minded the kids. Children also bought their mothers and grandmothers gifts on Nollaig na mBan.
There was a joke in an Irish Times article saying, “Even God rested on the seventh day, Irish women didn’t stop until the twelfth!” Having Irish women in my family, I can attest to this fact!