An eclectic Christmas for far-flung Irish

Emigrants are enjoying the festive season from Dubai to the US and beyond


The Economic and Social Research Institute may be saying emigration may have begun to come down in recent months, but over the past five years more than 200,000 Irish people have left the country to make a home elsewhere.

There were emotional scenes at airports around the country in the past week as many of them were welcomed back to Ireland by loved ones for Christmas, but many more stayed abroad this year, creating new traditions for themselves with family and friends in their new homes.

Here, five recent emigrants based in different locations around the world talk about how they spent the day.

PENNSYLVANIA: Clare Herbert, who is 26, is a writer and communications consultant who moved to New York in October

Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt the odd pang of nostalgia for Ireland. I miss the Christmas jumpers, the lights on Grafton Street, and hot port by the fire in the Library Bar. I wanted to be there as far-flung friends gathered in Dublin for the holidays.

But Christmas in New York is pretty magic too. The city is lightly dusted with snow, brightly lit with twinkling lights and a familiar Christmas buzz. I’ve spent my time exploring the Christmas markets, sipping hot chocolate and listening to carollers on every corner. I made a special effort to embrace the Christmas spirit, writing Christmas cards and buying my first real Christmas tree.

On Christmas Eve I took the train to visit family in Pennsylvania. Though it’s my first Christmas away from home, it doesn’t feel it; family always makes me feel at home, no matter where in the world we are.

With the benefits of the internet, I got enough of an Irish Christmas to satisfy me. I listened to Marian Finucane as I put the vegetables on to roast. I tuned into the Toy Show online while enjoying a plate of Sushi. I took myself to Mass and soaked up the Christmas tunes.

I spent much of Christmas Day on Skype, swapping stories with friends and family around the world. There were times it truly felt like I was there. I watched my cousins proudly demonstrate their new back-flipping robotic dog. I soaked up my feeds from Facebook and Instagram, full of snapshots from Christmas walks, beautifully set tables and new gifts.

We sat down to dinner in the evening, devouring the traditional feast of turkey, roasties, stuffing and veg. We had Christmas cake made from an Irish recipe and settled in for the traditional post-dinner game of cards. All in all, it was a perfect, peaceful Christmas.

CAIRO: Ruairi McDermott works as country director for Plan Egypt

Cairo is a strange place to be at Christmas. We moved here in October from Sudan, where we always travelled home for Christmas. This year we decided to stay put and woke up on Christmas day with our two young boys, aged two and one, to bright blue skies, a slight chill in the air and the faint sounds of the morning call to prayer.

Opening the presents was fun, although the two boys did not really get what was going on and after breakfast (without the usual fry up), we went for a morning walk where a couple of people wished us a merry Christmas. Apart from that it was just another working day.

Christmas dinner consisted of roast chicken, spuds and sprouts washed down with a couple of glasses of Egypt’s finest wine, a tipple I am unable to recommend, in truth. After lunch we tuned into Hard Talk on BBC World as there was not much else on.

I work for Plan International, a global charity that works in partnership with local communities to improve the lives of underprivileged children. Being here, I am reminded of those who have little cause for celebration. Many of the disadvantaged communities here in Egypt currently play host to fragile Syrian refugee populations . . . This is not their first Christmas in Egypt and it is unlikely to be their last.

We are fortunate to be together as a family, with a choice of returning back home for Christmas. The same cannot be said for everyone here in Cairo this December.

DUBAI: Helen Morrogh is a 29-year-old journalist living in the United Arab Emirates since December 2012

It was my first Christmas away from home, so I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel. But it was so different to what I’m used to that I had a fun day. A lot of expats living here go home for Christmas, but my boyfriend and best friend stayed with me, which put my mum’s mind at ease a little. She was more worried about me spending Christmas away from home than I was. Your friends become your family over here.

A group of us went to brunch in the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, a fake palm-shaped island. Brunches are really popular in Dubai. You pay the equivalent of about €100 and get all the food and alcohol you want – or can possibly hold – for four hours. They played Christmas music all afternoon and even threw in Fairytale of New York at the end which I belted out sitting at the table in my reindeer antlers.

My boyfriend and I bought a Christmas tree so the apartment looks a bit festive. It’s artificial, with no fairy lights, so sometimes I put my phone on the tree to make it light up a bit. They don’t go too big on Christmas over here, seeing as it’s a Muslim country. I’m working as a journalist and have to refer to it as the “festive season” or “25th December” in my copy. We had no hope of having a white Christmas in the desert, so we were joking that we hoped for a wet one instead but, it stayed a dry 25 [degrees] the whole day.

Nothing beats spending Christmas at home in the cold with your family. I missed them throughout the day, but as seeing them wasn’t an option, this was the next best thing.

SANTA FE: Sarah Walsh moved to Silicon Valley with her husband and three children in 2012

We are one of the lucky families, here in California for a few years by choice. It is our big adventure and Christmas has been part of that. We went to see The Nutcracker, a big tradition in San Francisco for Christmas. We tracked down the craziest Christmas lights street on the Peninsula, in San Carlos, and attended holiday parties.

A local elderly couple, whose children and grandchildren live on the east coast, hold a tree-lighting party every year, with food, wine and a Santa visit for the neighbourhood. We have learned if they can enjoy the holiday period in the absence of family, so can we.

We didn’t try to recreate an Irish Christmas in California, where everyone is sick of turkey from the very recent Thanksgiving. Instead, we took to the road for two weeks, visiting the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and a few other spots. Santa was still able to find us, and even managed to leave a few selection boxes under the tree, thanks to my thoughtful sister and An Post.

In a few years’ time, maybe William, Jonathan or Grace, over Christmas morning ham at their grandparents’ house, will tell their cousins about the different but lovely Christmas they once spent in Santa Fe.

MELBOURNE: Fee Kennedy, who is 32, moved from Donaghmede to Melbourne five years ago, where she works as an office manager

We alternate our Christmases between Melbourne and Dublin. And this year was Melbourne’s turn. Most of our friends had the same idea so there was a great crowd around. It is strange having Christmas day dinner in 30 degree heat and not seeing family, but my friends here are like family and I embraced them and Australia for everything that was on offer for the day.

This year was my first as a married woman and I planned to have 10 friends over for dinner. I was looking forward to starting new traditions with my new husband and bringing some yuletide joy to the group.

On Christmas morning I woke at 7am and used the time . . . to call home. My mam, dad, brother and sister were all there. I held up until it came time to say goodbye, and I could feel my bottom lip shaking and my “Christmas in Oz is grand” resolve slipping away.

We had never been to Mass in our local church before, but the parish priest is from America and another priest was from the UK so it was nice to see we weren’t the only non-locals in attendance. I always find it very reassuring that Mass is the same no matter where you go.

It was all systems go for the rest of the day with everyone putting their own countries’ mark on the meal. Australians brought seafood for starters, we had Yorkshire puddings brought by our friend from Leeds, pigs in blankets, cheesecake and oysters from UK friends and trifle and pork belly from the Welsh contingent. We of course took charge of the turkey and three types of spuds.

The session lasted until the wee hours and we called home a few times during the evening. My husband even managed to be on the phone when his brother announced he had got engaged. The best part was when we called home to tell them we would be home next week as a surprise, which made our mothers’ Christmases.

The day was nothing like it would be at home, but it was a great reason to catch up with friends, exchange gifts, eat too much food and drink to much alcohol . . . maybe it was more like home than I thought.

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