Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Emigrant Christmases: ‘Skype was broken. But actually I was relieved’

‘Christmas outside, in a summer dress’… Five Irish emigrants around the world share their experiences of how they celebrated with Ciara Kenny

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 17:09

   

‘Christmas outside, in a summer dress’… Five Irish emigrants around the world share their experiences of how they celebrated with Ciara Kenny

Will Keena in Melbourne with his girlfriend

Will Keena, Melbourne

I’ve tried to convince myself, in absentia, that Christmas in Ireland is just consumer frenzy soaked in alcohol and that’s it. I’ve sneered at the “two more sleeps ‘til I fly home” posts on social media, and boasted about the weather here on Skype.

I’ve been trying to convince myself of a necessary truth for any long-term traveller: I’m not missing anything.

This, of course, is the fallacy of the expat. I am missing everything. The people and the custom, the to and fro of what matters. Big laughs with my old man in a snug somewhere, seeing my brother and being heckled by my friends, my mother’s warmth and those pocketed tinfoil turkey sandwiches for mobile sustenance.

It was just us on the day itself, my girlfriend and I, and we exchanged gifts, prepared a full Christmas spread and drank good wine. There were heated games of Connect 4, lots of stealthy meat pilfering and the inevitable coma after we sat down properly to eat. We watched Chevy Chase and Macaulay Culkin do their Christmas thing. It was hot outside, but inside was so cool in every way.

Melbourne is a long way away but Ireland is patient – it waits there smiling, welcoming and ready to heap scorn upon (what I thought were) my cool new clothes. I love it and I hate it; I miss it and get furious with it all in equal measure. It’s a complicated relationship, but they’re always the most worthy ones. The ones you never forget . . . especially at Christmas time.

Eimear Holden with husband Tony, Finn (6 months), Charlie (2) and Jane (3)

Eimear Holden, Toronto

My family have been in Toronto since 2009, but this was our first Christmas away from home. The journey is a nightmare with three kids under the age of four, and last year it took us 22 hours to get to my parents’ house in Carlow. The kids didn’t settle for a week, so this year, to be fair to them, we decided to have a Toronto Christmas.

I’ve been doing my best to get into the festivities, and the kids are a great distraction, but it has been tough. The kids don’t notice as they are young and there are plenty of toys to occupy them but it made a huge difference for us not being able to share our children with their grandparents.

My parents, four sisters, nieces and nephews all gathered for dinner in my aunt’s house in Blessington. Skype was broken on the day, but I was actually relieved. It would have been very difficult to see them all together without us there. We talked on the phone, and texted throughout the day.

My husband’s sister Liz came over from London to stay with us, and brought lots of festive cheer with her. She’s delighted to be somewhere different and we have loved having her.

Friends and family sent presents and hampers, and we had more Irish food to eat than we would have had in Ireland. The children got beautiful books by Irish authors, so there was a very Irish feel to the day even though we were far from home.

We took a walk on Christmas Day in the snow, and we could see cars parked outside homes as people visited family and friends. It was very different being alone, just us and the kids.

Christmas is the one happy occasion where family get together, and it is important to us. Most of my family haven’t met my youngest son, Finn, who is six months old now. We’ll brave the journey next year.

Brian O'Sullivan with his wife and her family in Bolivia

Brian O’Sullivan, Bolivia

I was happy to escape the heat and stress of Chile for a week to spend Christmas in Bolivia, where my wife is from.

We flew from Santiago on Christmas Eve intending to find a flight to Cochabamba on arrival in La Paz, but soon discovered the flights were sold out with no chance of a bus.

In Bolivia, Christmas Day is counted down to, like New Year’s Eve, so we couldn’t wait. I grabbed the first taxi driver I saw and haggled a good fare. After driving for seven hours through the lonely, windswept plains of the Andean highlands we were approaching Cochabamba, but would we make it before midnight?

On the outskirts of the city, I broke it to my wife. “It’s 12 minutes past 12.”

The taxi driver corrected me. “No, it’s only past 11.” I had forgotten the time difference between Chile and Bolivia.

We arrived in time to exchange presents, which is done on Christmas Eve, followed by coca tea and Christmas cake. Fireworks went off throughout the night.

On Christmas Day my father-in-law baked spicy, sweet chicken in a traditional outdoor clay oven while my wife, her sisters and mother prepared sweet potatoes, sweetcorn, and salad, occasionally stopping to fret quietly among themselves over where to put my brother-in-law’s moped to make space for the table.

We ate Christmas dinner in the sun among the parakeets and flowers on the patio, my Aymara Bolivian in-laws and wife, her gringo Irish husband and our mestiza Chilean daughter, who has always spent Christmas in Ireland or Bolivia.

Caoimh McCarthy with her mother Mary, father Niall and sisters Avril (front left) and Alison at St Paul's Cathedral

Caoimh McCarthy, London

I have lived in the UK for the past five years and usually make it home for Christmas, but this year I invited my parents and sisters to stay with me. I felt a change of scene from the doom and gloom in Ireland would be good for all of us.

It cost me the same amount to fly them to London with a bag and return bus fare from the airport as it would have been for just the flight home for myself.

I’d been planning their visit since September, working out a hectic sightseeing itinerary, but my parents like to relax and do everything at their own pace, while my sisters concern themselves with traditional Christmas desserts and seasonal TV offerings.

We listened to carols at St Pauls, shopped at the Christmas market beneath the watchful eye of Big Ben, marvelled at the lights on Regent Street and decadently enjoyed a champagne afternoon tea in Knightsbridge. My parents sampled the delights of Fortnam and Mason’s while my sisters and I donned feather boas and slurped cocktails in Camden.

As a young emigrant, I sometimes feel I should be going “home” every Christmas, but Ireland is fast becoming an unfamiliar place. I have no doubt that I will visit soon, but for this year at least I have enjoyed showing off my new home.

Caroline Hurley (left) and Fiona Mitchell in Kampala

Caroline Hurley, Uganda

We had a beautiful sunny Christmas day in Kampala, with about 30 friends and children under a Turkish tent in the garden of my colleague Fiona Mitchell, Goal’s country director in Uganda .

Christmas definitely feels different sitting outside in a summer dress, with the kids running around barefoot and diving into a paddling pool well after midnight.

The feast was international, with the traditional Irish turkey and ham, guinea fowl from Fiona’s garden, and Doro Wat, a spicy speciality from Ethiopia. One guest brought Butlers chocolates from home, which was followed by Baileys, Jameson, coffee and Barry’s tea.

It is hard not to feel homesick at this time of year, but the Irish community here is close and it was lovely to spend Christmas with my Goal colleagues, and friends from Trócaire and Oxfam.

The Ugandans are very like the Irish; they have a very strong sense of family, and they like a good party. Christmas here is not about presents, but about families getting together and having a meal. Most people go home to their village over Christmas to celebrate the holidays with family.

I made it home in time to Skype my sister and the kids before they went to bed. Technology makes it much easier these days to live abroad, but I am looking forward to a cold Christmas in Dublin with my family next year.

This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today, and on the main website here.

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