An emigrant's Christmas: Missing all the madness

The first Christmas I spent away from home, I was 22. Myself and a friend from home were working in a pub in London, living in a youth hostel in Shepherd’s Bush, and broke as Tiny Tim.

Some Irish girls we knew were going home and pityingly let us use their flat on Christmas Day. The only thing I recall about the place is there was a poster of Jimmy Corkhill from Brookside on the wall. The Christmas dinner was a major production by our standards and just as we were dishing it up, I somehow smashed a jar of mustard and the glass shattered all over the plates of food. With little option, we ate it anyway.

I remember sitting watching the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special while picking shards of glass out of my Brussels sprouts before popping them in my gob. Lovely jubbly. It was enormous fun but after that I reckon I could do Christmas pretty much anywhere.

For the past decade or so, that anywhere has been France, and that’s where I’ll be for Christmas this year. Like many hundreds of thousands of other Irish emigrants, I’ll slip away from the living room and make the calls, speak to my mother and siblings, and as many of my nieces and nephews as possible. “What time did you get up? What did Santa bring?” and some minutes later, trying to get a word in, “Eh, do you want to put your daddy on to me?”

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Afterwards I’ll eat my bûche de Noël while longing for my mother’s homemade Christmas pudding.

For the first few years I was here, I had a tendency to slightly downplay Christmas, perhaps as a coping mechanism to deal with being away from home. I found the quirks of the French festivities initially kind of annoying – but, over the years, they have grown on me.

In France, Christmas is a generally a tad more low-key than the Irish version. Towns and villages here put a lot of effort into their Christmas markets. But when you get up on the morning of December 26, it’s as if they were never there – it’s over, the stalls have all packed up and gone. Poor St Stephen doesn’t get a look in and most people are back to work – the French don’t do that cholesterol-bothering week of movies, booze and endless tins of chocolate sweets.

Christmas Eve is a bigger deal here than Christmas Day. That’s when the French have the réveillon – the big festive meal with seven different courses: often foie gras, oysters, the works, and not a Brussels sprout in sight. The 24th feels like a Saturday night and the 25th like a more sedate Sunday with work the next day.

Christmas everywhere is linked to the idea of home – for proof of that just look at Irish airports, the scene of many a tear-jerking bear hug as Santa-hat clad relatives pick up their loved ones.

But there are some things about Irish Christmas that I’m sure many emigrants who can’t make it back are quite happy to avoid.

Take the telly. Who could be sorry to miss whatever festive special Daniel O’Donnell has cooked up, or whatever League 2-standard whiny Irish rock band is headlining the New Year’s Eve concert live on RTÉ? And I simply can’t handle the Toy Show.

Also, lots of families have tensions and rows when they get together at Christmas. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder – my sister, whose nerves I’ve been known to get on, might tell you I’m the Christmas personification of that. Then there’s the over-sentimentality, the excess, the consumerism, the cost, the waste…

But there are things all emigrants miss about being at home. Most will miss sharing that festive glow with their beloved family – I have to say that in case mine read this. And maybe those few pints in the local with friends, that comforting feeling of hearing those great old stories (“And then this fecking eejit, full of whiskey, smashed a jar of mustard…”) mixed in with new ones you’ve missed throughout the year.

I can’t deny that Christmas in my home place gives me a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else.

It’s best summed up by a sound I heard a few years back when we were there – the sound of my daughter’s eight or nine frantic footsteps on the floorboards in the corridor between the bedrooms and the sitting room in my mother’s house, in the stillness and half-light of dawn, during those epic seconds as expectation becomes reality, then the explosion of joy: Santa has been.

My own footsteps made that same sound there on those very floorboards long ago, jostling for position with my brothers and sisters. When I heard it again, it brought back a lot of memories and feelings – that sound and that place distilled for me the bittersweet transience of it all: Christmas, childhood, life.

My daughter, almost a teenager, has outgrown that moment now. I won’t hear that sound again. But she reminded me what makes spending Christmas at home so special – it lets us reconnect with the magic and the love we experienced there, and the people we shared it with.

So the last word goes to my daughter. While I have come to enjoy the low-key French Christmas, she prefers Irish Christmas – she says it’s more wild, more fun, more memorable. And that’s really what it’s all about…

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