Nollaig na mBan (“noll-ug-na-mon”). 6th January. Little Christmas. Women’s Christmas. One of the few Irish festivals I can think of without Celtic origins. Commemorating the last day of the Christmas season, the Epiphany, it’s a day for hard-pressed mothers who typically do the lion’s share of the domestic duties – even more so in the Christmas season – to take the day off. A day to rest and relax while her family take on her mantle for once. One day in the whole year.
I suppose Nollaig na mBan 2021 was never going to be normal. But this day I associate with home and comfort and coziness saw no rest. 1000 people in the UK died of Covid today. By comparison, 12,431 people in England and Wales died from all causes in the first week of 2020. And 3067 people died of influenza and pneumonia (which are grouped together in health statistics) across the 31 days of January 2020. The NHS is overwhelmed, the government won’t commit to giving clear guidance, and the deep divides of wealth and poverty in the UK are making it unnecessarily worse for so many. My heart breaks for the place of my birth, the country in which I set such store, the place I look to as home.
Ireland, country of my parent’s birth, my home of many years is already in Level 5, it’s highest Covid tier, and has banned travel from the UK, yet is today introducing even stricter restrictions to attempt to curb the surge in cases. With 7836 cases, the highest daily figure since the onset of the pandemic, it must feel to people like all their earlier efforts were for naught. To be told you can go out again to being told you must stay home, or can go to a pub but only for an hour, or can go to a friends house so long as there are no more than 6 of you, to- well, I can imagine it feels like a dizzying merry-go-round of unpleasantness.
And on this day America attacked itself. Protestors filled with hate and anger stormed the US Capitol building, fired shots and killed a woman, air force veteran Ashli Babbitt. These people were not under imminent attack. Their lives were not threatened. They were not cornered. They did not need to fire. But they did.
I saw the videos. They pushed their comrades – they pushed them – into police, into barriers. The police pushed back, used water cannons and tear gas (less freely, I note, than their use of same against Black Lives Matters protesters). Protestors pushed past the police, pushed their way inside, paraded their confederate flags – a symbol of proud slave-ownership – around the building, luxuriated in chairs, gleefully pilfered, and took copious selfies. Oh – and murdered a woman. (3 others seem to have died from medical emergencies at the scene.)
These men and women, though they are predominantly men, are angry that Donald Trump lost the election. They believe the election was rigged. I try, I try so hard to put myself in their shoes – what if in my country I could “clearly see” the election I took part in was not fair, was rigged. I would be angry. I would sympathise with protestors, maybe even protest myself. But I could never condone theft and murder and happy selfies as part of it.
I try to see it their way, to understand how they got to where they are, but I can’t get past the fact that these people are woefully misinformed. They have been fed lie after lie. Their president is an inveterate liar. He has no proof, not a shred, that the election was flawed, and is attempting to bully his way through instead of conceding the election. How can they still believe his lies?
They have been disenfranchised, sure, by recent economic changes. Left behind in many ways. And they have been failed by an educational system that ties too close to politics and devalues teachers and schools. But I cannot watch them and find a shred of empathy. Far be it for me to tell someone how to protest, but larking about and murder don’t count as legitimate methods to me.
But Nollaig na mBan 2021 doesn’t stop there. In Hong Kong 53 people were arrested for so-called subversion. 1000 officers to arrest 53 people. Unrest is rising in Hong Kong as pro-democracy activists clash with the increasingly heavy-handed mainland China government. Hong Kongers were promised a 50 year transition. Instead, under new laws, anyone convicted of the adequately vague crimes of subervsion, secession, terrorism or colluding with foreign forces, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
It blows my mind a little that the people arrested in Hong Kong today feel they are protecting democracy just as much as the people storming the US capitol feel they are protecting democracy. But that’s how life works: one person’s terrorist is anther person’s freedom-fighter. And everyone thinks they’re on the good side.
Sitting here, in my adopted home (that’s 3 home countries so far in my life if you’re counting) of New Zealand, I feel at a far remove from it all. Not without it’s own problems, New Zealand at least has eradicated Covid in the community. Our only cases are quarantining arrivals. Life is all but normal here. I can’t help feeling like I am in a fishbowl, watching the world outside crash and burn. And there’s nothing I can do to help. The events of today have me wondering if I’ll ever get to see my family again. If I’ll ever have Little Christmas in Ireland again. Or any holiday – Halloween, Christmas, even St Brigid’s Day would do. It all feels so end-of-days. Rapidly-mutating viruses grinding the world to a halt. Governments and the people attacking each other. Nationalism on the rise. Refugees risking everything to get to a new land and dying in their thousands day after day. Nations departing world-building organisations to go their own way (the UK from the EU, the USA from the WHO).
I try to tell myself it’s not the end. After all, it wasn’t the end when the Nazis bombed the shit out of London and Coventry. It wasn’t the end when the Irish people were starving to death in the 1845-49 famine. It wasn’t the end during the Cold War when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over everyone like a sword of Damocles and the Irish government gave everyone iodine pills as if it would help. It wasn’t the end when epidemics of Plague ravaged half the world. But it was the end of certain ways of life. It was the end of something. And this, surely, is the end of something.
I turn in circles knowing there is nowhere to turn to. This is not a YA novel and no teen saviour is coming to fix it. Nor is it a comic and no superhero is coming to set things straight. It is Nollaig na mBan, Women’s Christmas, and so I shall do what I can, which is take down the Christmas decorations, as is tradition, and pack them carefully away and hope, because all I can do is hope – and all that will be left, in the very end, is hope – that there will be a reason to take them out again in December.