Irish Christmases abroad
How do Irish people celebrate Christmas when they’re not at home? Seven people living in different parts of the world tell Rosita Bolandwhat they did this Yuletide
I’ve been in Quzhou since the beginning of September. It’s in the middle of nowhere – about six hours’ drive from Shanghai. I’m an English teacher in the technical college here, and the only non-Chinese member of staff.
Christmas Day was just an ordinary day here. There are some decorations and inflatable Santas, and schoolchildren have parties run by the school, but the rest of the Chinese ignore it – this was best characterised by the puzzled looks in the bar where we had Christmas dinner. The Chinese wife of an Australian runs the bar. Him being an Aussie meant the barbie was wheeled out to cook skewers of pork, beef and chicken. Between three of us, one German, one Spaniard and myself, we mustered up some European dishes and mulled wine.
We went shopping on Christmas morning, which was a little surreal, because the staff in shops had Santa hats on but the level of awareness of Christmas is pretty low. It’s just another festival in a country where having tinsel and decorations and celebrations are a daily occurrence.
I moved to Sweden 11 years ago, and this year I spent Christmas Day in my wife Maria’s family home on the edge of a forest in the village of Rimbo, 60km north of Stockholm, with our two daughters Ingrid (6) and Freia (4).
Food is a very important part of the ritual for Swedes and given that the country is frozen solid for a good four or five months of the year, the emphasis is on preserved foods such as smoked fish and meats and raw pickled herring.
The Swedes have a bizarre TV tradition of watching Disney cartoons at three o’clock on Christmas Eve, and Donald Duck is as much a part of Christmas here as the Queen’s speech is in the UK. This is followed later in the evening by a film called Christopher’s Christmas Mission, in which a Robin Hood-like post office employee redistributes presents from the wealthy to the needy on Christmas Eve.
Santa arrived at around 4pm with a sack full of presents to give out – he usually delivers presents to Scandinavia before moving on to Ireland.
We awoke on Christmas morning to find the back garden crisscrossed with tracks from the roe deer and hares that had come during the night to eat the winter apples we had left out. It’s hard for them to find food in the winter so they have to come much closer to civilization than they normally would.
The first Christmas I spent away from Dublin was in 1996, and since then we have spent every second Christmas in Sweden. Of course there are things I miss about an Irish Christmas, mostly family and friends, especially those home from abroad, but I know that next year, I’ll be back there to see them all again.
This was my first Christmas outside of Ireland and away from my family and friends. Just like the Irish seanfhocal “níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin“ – that is how I felt on Christmas Day.
At the beginning of May, I left for Canada on a one-year work and travel visa. Five weeks ago, I made my way to Whistler, British Columbia, the winter wonderland of Canada, surrounded by snow-covered mountains and lights on fir trees. Yet I wasn’t feeling the same Christmassy mood that surrounds this time at home. Living and working in a hostel in a winter holiday village means it was business as usual on Christmas Day, which made it a little harder to celebrate.
I was lucky to have met some great people and we celebrated Christmas together. There was 10 of us from eight countries: Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Italy, Australia, the Philippines and Canada. We each brought or cooked something from our home country.
For starters we had an Australian pumpkin soup with bread and cheese. Main course was ham and stuffing (Ireland) roast potatoes (England), roast carrots, parsnip and sweet potato (Scotland), tuna pasta and olives (Italy), potato salad (Germany) and rice and chicken (the Philippines).
Dessert was Christmas pudding and brandy butter made by my mom and sent from Ireland, homemade banoffee pie (Scotland) and a pandoro cake sent from Italy. The drink of choice was warm apple cider from Canada.
We lit the Christmas pudding and wore paper hats we made at the last minute from leftover wrapping paper.
It was definitely an experience, but without doubt I’ll be home for next year’s Christmas.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
We were woken by the call to prayer a little after 5am to find that Santa had brought the rain with him. In our four months in Dubai, it was the first time it had rained, but it didn’t last for long.
Christmas in Dubai is not as big as at home so it is not so easy to get into the festive spirit. It’s also very strange to have good weather. For many, it was business as usual, with open shops and construction sites. We had been to Mass on Christmas Eve, in an area outside the city where a number of different faiths practise.
Our cousin, Muireann, who lives in Abu Dhabi, came to stay and spent the day knee-deep in Junior Monopoly and Guess Who? with our daughters Tara, Fiona and Heidi, while our son, Rory, played football outside.
My husband Anthony, Muireann and myself spent the afternoon Skyping Donegal, Waterford and beyond, listening and picturing the hundred little things that make the day at home.
We are new to Dubai. At different stages, we have spent about 10 years living outside Ireland and this time of the year is the hardest to be away from our families and friends.
Ritual and tradition are now somehow more important, so we had a bit of a singsong, as well as explaining hurling to a man from Ontario, who then played us some Neil Young. He might even travel if Waterford are still involved come September.
This is my seventh Christmas in Melbourne, and thankfully I have family here to enjoy it with. I spent Christmas with my brother Davey, his wife Eithne and their two boys Keelan and Oscar.
It’s a long way from Ballina, Co Mayo, but feels closer by having them here.
My Christmas morning routine of a run along the beach followed by a dip in the water was a little better this year. I took the Artists’ Trail from Point King to Shelley Beach, along the cliff tops of Port Phillip Bay, with the perfect blue bay there in front of me. A lone kayaker weaved between the silent, moored boats. Then I took a leap off the jetty at the Couta Club to cool off.
Back at the house, my other Australian Christmas routine of making lunch was on the agenda. Lunch is generally a fairly casual deal.
This year, thanks to the previous day’s dive, there was a bounty of scallops followed by steak and club sandwiches, and a chilled drop for the grown-ups. It was around this time that the first of the many calls began to the crew back home in Ballina.
I didn’t have a late one as I had to get up early on St Stephen’s Day for a 1,600km road trip north to dive at Fish Rock Cave in New South Wales.
Panama city, Panama
My Christmas Day in Panama started early when I awoke to the delicious aroma of frying chorizo and eggs; breakfast cooked by my brother-in-law, Vincent. After almost 10 years out of Ireland – two-and-a-half in Panama, two in Haiti and five in Jamaica – I’m not quite sure what a traditional Christmas is anymore.
Vincent is married to my sister Carmel, he’s Chinese, she’s Irish, they have three kids and they all live in Los Angeles. With that combination of cultures, this Christmas in Panama City was never going to be a very traditional affair.
The Christmassy vibe didn’t hit me until the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah rang out in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmen at Christmas Eve Mass. It was then that I was brought back to the Christmases of my youth in Sutton.
On Christmas morning, gifts were quickly liberated from under the Christmas tree – a palm one, naturally. We found a laptop and reached out via Skype to friends and family at home and abroad. We explained to the folks back home that our not-very-traditional-dinner would be a feast of Panamanian ceviche to start, typical steamed tamales and turkey with all the trimmings for the main event and sherry trifle for dessert. Overindulgence seems to be traditional in all Christmas Day cultures.
It wasn’t the most traditional of Christmases here in Panama but we did keep alive the one tradition that means the most to my family; no matter where we are or what we are doing, we always manage to share a little bit of our Christmas with each other. Family – that’s the tradition that’s most important to us.
My 10th Christmas Day since moving to Turkey was as it should be – busy for me, exciting for the kids and quiet for the family. One thing I miss are the visits to the extended family.
Noel Baba (Santa) had visited during the night. My daughter got dressed and woke her brother before going to the stockings in the living room. The presents under the tree weren’t to be opened until my husband woke up. Normally, he’d be off to work, but as it was the weekend, the family was together.
It’s easy to get the trimmings here in Canakkale; the tree, decorations, gift-giving, Santa Claus and turkey have all been assimilated into New Year celebrations. I find it bizarre that the commercialised aspects can be adopted without any idea of the spirit of Christmas. I’ve never found an atmosphere the same as on Grafton Street or in the pubs in Dublin just before Christmas.
Breakfast, or rather brunch, was köfte, Turkish mini-burgers. We had mince pies and coffee in the afternoon and dinner served two hours later – roast turkey and potatoes with zeytinyagli (carrots and leeks cooked in olive oil) followed by trifle, pudding, and Christmas cake.
It’s important to recreate Christmas as I remember it. I could claim it’s for the children but as they don’t eat half what I cook, I have to admit it’s for me.