Coming home for Christmas: the highs and the lows
The festive season is laden with emotion and being together 24/7 may not be the perfect answer to months or years apart
‘It’s only one day” the voice of reason bleats as all around people splurge, hoard and party in preparation for the most emotionally charged 24 hours of the year.
But who listens? Anyway, here in Ireland we are pretty good at making at least a week out of Christmas. Egged on by relentless advertising and a herd mentality, it’s hard not to buy into the stress of having to make Christmas “really special”.
For returning emigrants and their families here, the emotional stakes are even higher.
It’s such a precious time when a dispersed family of different generations is reunited – but that brings its own pressures.
“You may want to do everything, be everything, solve everything,” says Ann Campbell, vice-chairwoman of the Family Therapists Association of Ireland (FTAI).
The reality is that it takes time to acclimatise to being back together. Not only will adult offspring have changed during time away but they in turn may be shocked to see how their parents have aged and be dismayed by a diminishing of abilities which, as children, they always took for granted.
It’s a challenge for hosts and visitors alike if somebody is sleeping on the sofa for days, the hot water keeps running out and a well-intentioned helper is forever putting things back in the wrong place in the kitchen.
It may not be the darling grandchildren’s finest moment either, uprooted as they are from home and routine, and wound up with excitement and sugary treats.
Throw too much alcohol into the mix and the mood can begin to darken.
“We all have the best intentions of not saying something and then, a few drinks later, everything is being said in a most unhelpful way,” agrees Campbell.
But a little self-awareness and lowering of expectations can go a long way to keeping it a memorable Christmas for all the right reasons.
There is this idealised version of how it always was, or how we always wanted it to be, or how it might be, says Campbell. Be open to considering what might suit more people best, she advises. A bit of flexibility can make a huge difference: hold onto a bit of what you want yourself but be prepared to give and take.
Nicola Courtney, who is flying home from California tomorrow with her Brazilian husband Fabio Lignini and their two children, Lucas (nine) and Lia (five), is always conscious that the four of them descending on her parents’ lovely quiet house in Dublin is “a big ask”.
She also has to remember that, as her dad says yes to everything, “just because he said yes doesn’t mean it’s okay”.
Obviously there can be a few frayed nerves. “I always try to make as little extra work for them as possible but I’m not sure I succeed.”
She likes to cook a couple of nice meals – although it can be hard to wrest control of the kitchen from her parents – and they give them bottles of wine here and there “and a voucher for a meal out after we go”.
If all else fails, they can retreat to another room or go out the door for a walk – easy to do in Dublin, unlike back in LA County, which has been her home since going out there to work for the animation company DreamWorks in 1995.
Christmas is just not the same in California and Nicola loves being home – “being with my family, nothing mad, just being there; seeing the cousins together; Dad’s turkey; picking at the ham when you’re not supposed to; throwing off the Christmas clothes in favour of pyjamas; the one packet of Snax”.
The other thing she relishes about being back in Ireland, at any time of the year, is how her children are changed by the experience and seem to grow in confidence.
“Normally for us it is just us. No family on either side here to pick up any slack so we’re a very tight, self-sufficient unit,” she explains from Glendale in California.
“When we’re at home they could be gone for hours and I don’t give it a second thought because they’re with Auntie or Uncle or Grandpa/Grandma. I have a great photo of Lucas and my Dad walking off down the road to get the Luas into town – he was about three and I think it was the first time he’d ever gone on a little adventure without one of us.”