Today is Nollaig na mBan: Women’s Little Christmas; Small Christmas. A litany of names for the sixth of January – the last of the 12 days of Christmas and the day on which the Three Wise Men are supposed to appear for the first time in the Crib. They rarely do of course, since January 6th is also traditionally the day the decorations finally come down.
Kevin Danaher’s classic text The Year In Ireland: A Calendar has a short entry on the date. He suggests that the name “Women’s Christmas” is explained by “the assertion that Christmas Day was marked by beef, and whiskey, men’s fare, while on Little Christmas Day the dainties preferred by women – cake, tea, wine, were more in evidence”. It’s a custom which seems to have been passed on orally and informally, drifting down like feathers from one generation to the next. Few women spoken to for this article had read anything about Nollaig na mBan, but all had heard about it from other women or female family members – grandmothers, mothers, aunts.
If January 6th is Small Christmas, then December 25th is definitely Big Christmas. Big Christmas, big work. Traditionally the women did all the preparation for Christmas on top of the normal work on the farm. God rested on the seventh day but the women of Ireland didn’t get to do the same until the twelfth and last day of Christmas.
For some reason the tradition of celebrating Nollaig na mBan was always stronger in the west of Ireland, particularly in Gaeltacht areas. It is also a non-urban custom. Academic Alan Titley suggests that the slow demise of the Irish language has contributed to the fading of this custom with its Gaelic title. Nobody is certain when exactly the term Nollaig na mBan entered the language; perhaps at the same time as Christmas began being celebrated here.
Women enjoyed the day in different ways. “Most women in west Kerry would have raised five or six turkeys for sale at the Christmas market. They kept the money – like egg money – and if there was anything left over after Christmas they spent it on themselves,” Titley says.
Siobhan Fahy has lived in Ballyferriter on the Dingle peninsula all her life. “All the special food you’d had in over the Christmas to eat would be gone by Nollaig na mBan. The men here used call it `Nollaig gan mhaith’ (no good Christmas), ” she says wryly. “But us women would go visiting that afternoon. It was a very simple celebration, just eating a slice of currant loaf in someone’s house and having a cup of tea and a chat, but that was the day you’d do something for yourself and have a rest after all the Christmas work.”
Ellen O’Malley runs the annual Bard Summer School on Clare Island, exploring the relevance of Irish myths in contemporary society. She first heard about Nollaig na mBan from her aunt. “In her time women took the day off. Sometimes the men cooked for them. Otherwise women took it in turns to cook a meal in their house and invited their women friends to it.”
Ellen was brought up in the Midlands. “I’ve only started celebrating Nollaig na mBan in the last few years,” she says. “I don’t quite know why I started – it seemed natural to do so.” For the last few years she has been meeting a group of friends in a Dublin hotel on the morning of the sixth to have a communal breakfast. Fourteen women ate together last year. “It was wonderful.”
The poet Mary O’Malley grew up near Ballyconneely in Connemara. “It was a tradition I was always aware of when I was growing up, even though we didn’t celebrate it in my house. But I knew from my cousins who lived in south Connemara what went on there, where they did celebrate. It was mostly afternoon visiting, because women didn’t stay out late in those days. And they didn’t drink either, apart from maybe the odd glass of port. But it was mostly tea and cake and talk.” Mary herself holds a special dinner every year. “The numbers are creeping up each year. I think it’ll be 15 this time. We start late. And we don’t stick to drinking tea.”
“An old and formerly widespread custom still carried on in a few places is the lighting of candles on this night,” according to The Year In Ireland. The Connemara-based writer and publisher Micheal O Conghaile remembers his mother lighting candles for every room in the house on that night. “I had to go round all the rooms every so often to check on them,” he remembers. This memory is the subject of a Martin O Direain poem in which the poet wishes he was present to watch his mother light the Nollaig na mBan candles.
Michael Gill, who still lives on Inis Mor where he was born, also remembers the lighting of candles. “Every house had 12 candles in the window on that night. My mother would light them. And what we did on Nollaig na mBan was walk the island to look at the houses all lit up. In the days before electricity it was the brightest night of the year.” They still light candles on all the Aran islands in this way today.
The scholar and fiction writer Angela Bourke has spent several Nollaig na mBans in the Dingle area and recalls seeing “quite elderly people in restaurants in Dingle on that night. These wouldn’t be people who would normally eat out. The women were being taken out by their husbands, because it was Nollaig na mBan, and they were being treated.” She suggests that urban Irish women now view the day as something akin to International Women’s Day.
Certainly it seems that women have reinterpreted the day as the years have passed. The work of preparing for Christmas nowadays is not always carried out only by women, and Women’s Little Christmas is now being marked around the country for different reasons: it has become more a celebration of friendship and sisterhood, rather than a customary break from a long period of hard work.
When writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne spends the sixth of January on the Dingle peninsula, she goes to Krugers Pub in Dunquin. “All the women of the parish gather there from about 4 p.m. onwards. Women who don’t usually go to the pub any other time of the year go there on that day. They take over a corner of the pub and talk. It’s about talking, rather than drinking, although drinking goes on of course.” She struggles to try and find a word to describe what the atmosphere is like before settling on “special”.
Nollaig na mBan was not celebrated in my own house in Clare, but I always had an awareness of it, perhaps picked up by osmosis while visiting. Two years ago when I spent some months in Dingle I had a Nollaig na mBan party for 13 women. Everyone brought a bottle of wine and something they had cooked or baked as a contribution to the meal. All day we banked the fire with turf, ate and drank.
We talked for hours and hours, telling stories, and exchanging fragments of our lives. The first visitors arrived at noon and the last left at midnight. It wasn’t the first gathering I’d ever had at which there were only women, but there was something indefinable about it which made it different to any other, before or since. There was an unexpected ease and openness among us all that day: a sense of solidarity and warmth and even something like pride for the day that was in it. We toasted ourselves and the coming year. Whatever it was about that day it shines out fire-bright against all others from those months I spent in Dingle.
|Nollaig na mBan|
Women’s Little Christmas
Nollaig na mBan
Là na Bliadhna Ùire
|Observed by||Christians in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, particularly women
|Type||Christian, Irish and Scottish|
|Significance||visit of the Three Kings to Jesus, former date of Christmas|
|Observances||religious services, gift giving, family gatherings, meeting friends|
|Date||6 January in Ireland, 1 January in the Scottish Highlands|
|Related to||Christmas, Epiphany|
Little Christmas (Irish: Nollaig na mBan) is one of the traditional names in Ireland for 6 January, which is also widely known in the rest of the world as the Feast of the Epiphany. By the year AD 1500 eastern Churches were celebrating Christmas on 6 January and western churches were celebrating it on 25 December even though both were using the Julian Calendar. It is the traditional end of the Christmas season and until 2013 was the last day of the Christmas holidays for both primary and secondary schools in Ireland.
In the Scottish Highlands the term Little Christmas (Scottish Gaelic: Nollaig Bheag) is applied to New Year’s Day, also known as Là Challuinn, or Là na Bliadhna Ùire,while Epiphany is known as Là Féill nan Rìgh, the feast-day of the Kings. The Transalpine Redemptorists who live on Papa Stronsay celebrate ‘Little Christmas’ on the twenty-fifth day of every month, except for December, when the twenty-fifth day is of course celebrated as Christmas Day.
In some parts of England, such as Lancashire, this day is also known as Little Christmas. In the Isle of Man, New Year’s Day on 1 January was formerly called Laa Nolick beg in Manx, or Little Christmas Day, while 6 January was referred to as Old Christmas Day. The name Little Christmas is also found in other languages including Slovene (mali Božič), Galician (Nadalinho), and Ukrainian.
In Scandinavia, where the main celebration of Christmas is on Christmas Eve, the evening of the 23rd is known as little Christmas eve (Danish: lillejuleaften). In Norway and Sweden, Little Christmas Day refers to 13 January (Norwegian: Tyvendedagen; Swedish: Tjugondedag), twenty days after Christmas, and is regarded as the day when ornaments must be removed from Christmas trees and any leftover food must be eaten.
In some parts of the Spanish-speaking world, Christmas Day is strictly religious, and gifts are exchanged on the feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men (or Magi) brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Tradition names them Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The custom of blessing homes on Epiphany developed because the feast commemorates the time that the three kings visited the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day (December 25) and end on January 5, eve of the traditional date of the Epiphany.
Nollaig na mBan or women’s Christmas falls on the 6th of January each year. Women traditionally enjoyed a day of pampering while the menfolk took over all the housework. This old Irish tradition acknowledges the graft of weary mothers and grandmothers over the festive season. The day is more commonly known to the rest of the world as the Feast of the Epiphany or the Twelfth Night and sometimes Little Christmas. It marks the official end of the 12 days of Christmas. These days husbands get of lightly as most celebrants enjoy a pamper day at a spa interrupted by lunch with Prosecco.
Image: A beautiful redhead. We are not ones for pandering to or promoting stereotypes here at IMH but most people associate red hair with Ireland and Scotland even though it is highly likely that the US has the highest number of people with red hair!
Red hair is the rarest hair colour on the planet. According to Jonathan Rees, professor of dermatology at the University of Edinburgh says that it is estimated that 1% and 2%, or 70 to 140 million people around the world, have red hair. Rees goes on to say the figure for the UK is about 10%. This would suggest that Scotland with its population of 5.3 million has just half a million redheads – less than 1% of the global total. Ireland is thought not to be too far behind but with a population of 6.3 million the number is over 600,000. If the America population had just 1% red hair, that would make three million redheads.
Believe it or not there is a big genetic advantage to red hair for peoples living in northern climes like in Northern Europe where sunshine is both low in abundance and intensity. Vitamin D is created inside the body by sunshine falling on exposed skin. It turns out that pale skinned people can make the vitamin more easily that dark skinned people i.e. with less sunshine.
Read more here…
Traditionally Christmas Day was celebrated with men’s fare like beef and whiskey Nollaig na mBan is more associated with the dainties preferred by women like cake, tea and wine. In France to celebrate Epiphany they eat Galette des Rois (translates as King Cake), made of puff pastry and frangipane. The tradition of King Cake extends through many countries including Spain (who have Roscón de Reyes) & Greece (Vasilopita), they even had a similar twelfth night tradition involving a cake or pie in England. In French and English custom a bean and a pea was included, the receivers of which became king or queen for the evening. In Italy, on the eve of epiphany, gifts are delivered to children by Befana (an old woman similar to St Nicholas or Santa Claus). Luckily no carrots had to be left out for the reindeers so the Italians left out wine and morsels of food for her. She must have been well plastered and stuffed by the time she got home.
Epiphany is the “festival of the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles” in the persons of the Magi. The word literally translates as appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity. Very often these days the word is used to describe a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
In case you were wondering ‘Nollaig’ is a feminine noun so when followed by the adjective ‘sona’ lenition is required (the letter h as the second letter). The rule is – lenition should occur after feminine nouns in the nominative/accusative singular e.g.: bean mhór = big woman. However ‘sona’ is preceded by mBan which is in the genitive case and therefore lenition is not required. (h is not a letter in Irish, it is a séimhiú meaning that the sound of the preceding consonant has to be softened. The use of the letter h is relatively new, previously a dot or buailte was used over the letter to indicate the occurrence of a séimhiú.)
Approximate pronunciation guide
Nollaig – nul-laig
na mBan – nah mon/man (depending on the dialect)
séimhiú – shay-vu
sona – son-ah
shona – hon-ah
Little Christmas is also called Women’s Christmas (Irish: Nollaig na mBan), and sometimes Women’s Little Christmas. The tradition, still very strong in Cork and Kerry is so called because of the Irish men taking on household duties for the day. Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Bars and restaurants serve mostly women and girls on this night. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.
In Ireland and Puerto Rico, it is the traditional day to remove the Christmas tree and decorations. The tradition is not well documented, but one article from The Irish Times (January 1998), entitled On the woman’s day of Christmas, describes both some sources of information and the spirit of this occasion.
A “Little Christmas” is also a figure in Irish set dancing. It refers to a figure where half the set, four dancers, join together with hands linked behind partners lower back, and the whole figure proceeds to rotate in a clockwise motion, usually for eight bars.
Ireland’s traditional “girls’ night out” is still observed by a few dedicated girlfriends
By Sheila Flitton
“Nollaig na mBan” or “Little Women’s Christmas” is an old custom that’s still celebrated by women all over Ireland. It goes back to the days when large families were the norm. Men never lifted a finger in the house to help, and were never expected to. If a man washed the dishes, he would be called an “auld woman” by other men. No full blooded Irish man was prepared to risk that!
But each year, after the Christmas holiday, tired women finally got a break – for one day, at least. On January 6th (the same day as the Epiphany), men would take over of the housework, offering women a chance to go out to relax with each other.
Never one to break with tradition, I returned to my hometown of Cork this year (from Dublin) to join my sisters and women friends to celebrate. As we sat overlooking the River Lee from Cork’s Metropole Hotel dining room, I thought, “We keep the tradition alive but, not in the same way our mothers did.”
Ladies On Guinness
During my childhood, I remember excited, shawled women hurrying to the local public house. On Little Women’s Christmas, they would inhabit this man’s domain without shame. Sitting in “the snug,” a small private room inside the front door, they would pool the few shillings they’d saved for the day. Then they would drink stout and dine on thick corned beef sandwiches provided by the publican. For the rest of the year, the only time respectable women would meet for a glass of stout would be during shopping hours, and then only because it was “good for iron in the blood.”
After an initial chat about the worries and cares of the old year, a pact would be made to leave them outside the door (something that was easier to do before the advent of cell phones). They’d be as free as the birds in the sky for the day – and well on into the evening. Late at night, with shawls dropped over their shoulders, words slurred and voices hoarse, they would always sing. In my memory, I still here them bellowing the unofficial Cork City anthem, The Banks of my own Lovely Lee:
“Where they sported and played
‘neath the green leafy shade
on the banks of my own lovely Lee.”
Some say this tradition is dying. But I was surprised to see how many women of all ages upheld it this year. Like my own sisters and friends, most women no longer gather in the snug of a public house. Wine and lunch has replaced the bottle of stout and corned beef sandwiches. And of course, today’s new man, no stranger to the kitchen, is home trying his hand at cooking and spending quality time with the children (or so they say).. We can’t stop progress, but it’s a pleasure to see Little Women’s Christmas survive.
Sheila Flitton, an actress and playwright, has performed in theater, TV and film for 30 years. She has written three novels and toured the US in her own one-woman play. She was recently nominated for the Best Actress Award in the Irish Times/ E.S.B. Awards for her role in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday?
The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.
The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.a
Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”
Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”2
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.
In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?
There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.
More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.
This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.
The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.7
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”12
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.e
Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).
Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.
The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15
In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.16
b. See the following Bible Review articles: David R. Cartlidge, “The Christian Apocrypha: Preserved in Art,” Bible Review, June 1997; Ronald F. Hock, “The Favored One,” Bible Review, June 2001; and Charles W. Hedrick, “The 34 Gospels,” Bible Review, June 2002.
d. The ancients were familiar with the 9-month gestation period based on the observance of women’s menstrual cycles, pregnancies and miscarriages.
e. In the West (and eventually everywhere), the Easter celebration was later shifted from the actual day to the following Sunday. The insistence of the eastern Christians in keeping Easter on the actual 14th day caused a major debate within the church, with the easterners sometimes referred to as the Quartodecimans, or “Fourteenthers.”
1. Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8.
2. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism—sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story—on the same date (Stromateis 1.21.146). See further on this point Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 118–120, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923), pp. 81–134; and now especially Gabriele Winkler, “The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany,” in Maxwell Johnson, ed., Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 291–347.
3. The Philocalian Calendar.
4. Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly skeptical of the “solstice” connection; see Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.
5. A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.
6. Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship, see especially Roll, “The Origins of Christmas,” pp. 277–283.
7. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.
8. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte Chrétien, 5th ed. (Paris: Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), pp. 275–279; and Talley, Origins.
9. Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos 8.
10. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, pp. 86, 90–91.
11. De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu christi et iohannis baptistae.
12. Augustine, Sermon 202.
13. Epiphanius is quoted in Talley, Origins, p. 98.
14. b. Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a.
15. Talley, Origins, pp. 81–82.
16. On the two theories as false alternatives, see Roll, “Origins of Christmas.”
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