Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, the end of the season, the Epiphany, marking the arrival of the three Kings to the birth of Jesus. In Ireland, this day is known as ‘Little Christmas’ – also called Nollaig na mBan, which translates as Women’s Christmas. It used to be quite widely celebrated and apparently is undergoing a resurgence. In Ireland, schools used to be closed until after the 6th January – the holy day – and Little Christmas became the day when women had the day off from their usual running of the household while the men took on the chores; one whole day out of 356. In my part of Ireland, I never really heard about it, but it’s said not to have died away in Cork and Kerry where groups of women still hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Maybe it is something worth thinking about bringing back!
Little Christmas is also the date on which the short story, ‘The Dead’ is set. One of the best known from James Joyce, it’s contained in his collection, ‘Dubliners’. In the story, two eldery aunts, pillars of respectability, Kate and Julia Morkan, throw their annual party at their house on Usher Quay by the side of the Liffey in Dublin. Although the Morkan’s party always falls on Little/Women’s Christmas, it is a party for men and women, although I think Joyce acknowledges the day by endowing his female characters with the stronger qualities and a deeper range of feelings than those of the men. It’s a motley gathering: Gabriel Conroy, nephew of the Morkan sisters, comes with his wife Gretta; his sister, music tutor Mary Jane Morkan, is there with some invited students; a firey young woman, Molly Ivors, challenges Gabriel in her championing of the Irish language, the land, the culture; an Irish Tenor named Bartell D’Arcy sings, but is in bad humour as he’s nursing a cold; and Freddy Malins makes everyone nervous with his excessive drinking. Although it’s set around one hundred years ago, the tensions and dynamics are the same found at parties today.
The tone is one of reflection, contemplation, gazing backwards. In his after-dinner speech Gabriel holds court: “there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: the thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living.” It’s a beautiful passage, one where he presciently pulls us back from lingering with the dead. I’m not too drawn to Gabriel myself, though; to me he lacks empathy, understanding and any ability to read nuance. He swithers over quoting Browning in his speech for fear those present, whom he deems less educated, won’t understand it. When he sees Gretta, his wife, deeply lost in the music he cannot fathom why. “There was a grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing in the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.” The song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, has reminded her of Michael Furey, who loved her, and whom she loved, when she was a girl in the West. Michael loved her so much that when she came to leave Galway, he simply told her that he didn’t want to live on. He was ill, ‘in decline’, as the story put it, and sure enough, he did not live. Gabriel is devastated when he learns that Gretta has had a love before him. A significant love that she has held onto and never told him about.
As the fabulous poet Galway Kinnell says about loving again, “Second-hand gloves will become lovely again, their memories are what give them the need for other hands. And the desolation of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness carved out of such tiny beings as we are asks to be filled; the need for the new love is faithfulness to the old.” Not so for Gabriel. He cannot understand Gretta’s love for a 17 year old, now long dead; and that her love for him is not diminished but is, nonetheless, quite different.
Read it for yourself though, you may decide differently. You could do worse today than to cocoon up for two hours on Little Christmas and transport yourself away to “….snow falling softly…. upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.” Visit the dead and return to the living.