The team at Galway City Museum wish you a very happy ‘Nollaig na mBan’ or ‘Little Christmas’ or ‘Women’s Christmas’ – take your pick! Here are some fascinating insights about the tradition of this feast day collected by schoolchildren in Galway in the 1930s. These stories were compiled by the National Folklore Collection and can be explored in further detail HERE . For ‘Women’s Christmas’ we have chosen to share this iconic photo of four Claddagh women wearing Claddagh shawls. View it up close along with other colourised images in the Old Galway in Colour exhibition now open, more details at the end.
Some Galway folklore on “Nollaig na mBan”
“The Twelfth Night. This night occurs on the eve of the sixth of January (fifth of January) and is called in some places Little Christmas Night but nearly all the people of this district call it the Twelfth Night. It is the last and also the twelfth night of Christmas. The twelve nights of Christmas are from the twenty fourth of December (Christmas Eve) to the fifth of January. On this night in almost every house in this district twelve candles are lit in memory of the twelve days of Christmas. A table is placed in the middle of the kitchen (or room) and twelve little coloured candles are placed on it. All the members of the family now gather in a circle round the table each holding in his hand a lighted match or piece of paper. The woman of the house now tells them to light a candle which each one promptly does; all lighting their candles at the same time. In some cases some members of the family are obliged to hold two lighted matches; one in each hand that is when there are not twelve members in the family. The candle which each member has lit is said to represent the length of time he will live; and whatever candle is worn out first the person who lit that candle will be the first to die in the house and so on until the twelve candles are worn out.”
Long ago candles used to made out of tallow which used to be got from the butchers and the butchers used to get the tallow out of the sheep when they would kill her. A man called Killgariff used to make candles for the people around this place. He was living in Tuam. He used to boil the tallow in a big pot first and then pour it into a mould and make candles out of it. Rush candles were also in use long ago. The skin was peeled off the rushes first and then they were steeped in reap-oil which was much like linseed oil. They were used at the Twelfth Night (Little Christmas night) when the people of this district lit twelve candles in memory of the twelve days of Christmas. – Informant: James Kennedy, Age 77, story collected by Mary Mc Gagh
“On “Little Christmas” or as it is called round here “Twelvth Day.” On that night twelve candles are got and when the Rosary is going to be said they are lighted. Each person in the family has their own candle marked. Which-ever of the candles dies first that person is supposed to die first in the family. Long ago it was rushes the old people used to have.”
– Informant: William Costello and story collected by Evelyn Costello.
“The 6th of January is known as “Little Christmas” or “twelfth day”. On that night most people light twelve candles on their windows. This feast is regarded as the end of the Christmas season.” – Informant: Miss Eily Ahern
“On the Eve of the Epiphany, “Little Christmas”, there are twelve small candles lighted in honour of the Coming of the Gentiles.” – Story collected by James Canon Age 15
To mark Nollaig na mBan we bring you this photo from the Old Galway in Colour exhibition currently running at Galway City Museum. The four women pictured are Nonnie, or Nannie, O’Donnell, Mary Rodgers, Kitty Conneely and Mrs Gill, all from the Claddagh, Galway City. They are wearing the Galway shawl, which was a heavy-weight shawl that became popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland and colourised by John Breslin.
To visit this exhibition or any of the exhibitions at Galway City Museum book your FREE ticket HERE and enjoy!