Epiphany, Irish “Women’s Christmas,” and Spiritual Friendships

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On January 6th we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the true twelfth day of Christmas. Epiphany is the day we encounter the Magi coming from the East to adore the newborn Baby King. I am fascinated by how Christians all over the world uniquely celebrate this special day.

Nollaig na mBan or “Women’s Christmas”

A friend recently shared a charming story about an Irish custom called Nollaig na mBan (pronounced Null-ug na Mon). This is the day when Christmas decorations come down — not a day before or after — or else risk bad luck for the rest of the year. Nollaig na mBan can be translated from Gaelic as “Women’s Christmas.” On January 6th women finally give themselves the gift of some much-needed rest after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. In rural and small-town Ireland, women gather in each other’s homes for a few stolen hours of good cheer. A very simple celebration, maybe eating a slice of sweet bread and having a cup of tea (or something with a bit more zip!) over a nice chat with friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, and neighbors. An article from the Irish Times in 1998 joked that when even God rested on the seventh day, Irish women didn’t stop until the twelfth!

The Gifts of the Magi

As popular as the three wise men are in contemporary culture, the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem appears in just one place in the Bible — the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 1-12. St. Matthew gives the Magi more square inches of text than he gives the narrative of Jesus’ birth. In fact, only two of the four Gospels depict the birth of Christ at all. St. Luke mentions the visit of the shepherds to the stable (2:8-20), but not the Magi. Matthew skips the shepherds’ story to focus on the journey of the wise men.

Even so, Matthew does not specify the number of wise men. Artists’ portrayals of the Magi over the years depict different numbers. Renaissance paintings show as many as a dozen Magi crowded around the Holy Family. Artists in later centuries painted three Magi in their Nativity scenes, perhaps because St. Matthew mentions their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A lot of what we know about the wise men is from those three gifts they brought. In this sense, the wise men’s story can be ours, too.

The Gift of Spiritual Friendships

One of the best gifts we can give to not only Jesus but others is the gift of our own heart. When I think of giving my heart freely, I think of authentic spiritual friendships — with not only Jesus but with those who the Holy Spirit places along my path.

Renowned priest and author Henri Nouwen often wrote and preached about spiritual friendships. He says,

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive … it makes all of life shine brightly. No two friends are the same. Each has his or her own gift for us. One friend may offer us affection, another may stimulate our minds, another may strengthen our souls. The more able we are to receive the different gifts our friends have to give us, the more able we will be to offer our own unique but limited gifts. Thus, friendships create a beautiful tapestry of love.

Although we speak of “making friends,” friends cannot be made. Friends are free gifts from God. When we have eyes to see, we recognize He gives us the friends we need, when we need them.

Happy Epiphany, friends. Let’s especially take time on this feast to thank God for the gift of friendships. And if you happen to find yourself among a group of women on January 6th (or thereabouts), may you have a blessed Nollaig na mBan!

Copyright 2019 Lisa A. Schmidt

Lisa Schmidt is a proud lifelong Iowan and an equally proud alumna of Iowa State University. #GoCyclones! Her roots serve as an inspiration to continually seek opportunities to help make Iowa a great place to live, work, pray, and play. In 2016, Lisa blended her skills for building community with her love for Jesus and founded The Well women’s ministry. Along with her husband Deacon Joel and their four children, the Schmidts are parishioners at St. Pius X in Urbandale, Iowa.