After 25 years abroad, this is my first Christmas back in Ireland
The honeymoon period is over and we wonder where we fit in to this new home. If we will fit in
Jennie Ritchie: 'Christmas in Ireland is magic'
I am colder than I could have imagined. Four layers of clothes and still the shivering won’t stop.
The kettle is always on. “Another cup of tea?” I nod.
The BER rating is unknown.
We moved back home to Ireland from Antigua in the Caribbean earlier this year. I am faced with my first proper winter after two years in the tropics. Before the Caribbean, I lived in the Alps, in a village that was covered in snow for five months of the year, but the houses were better insulated there. Before that, Australia, and before that Turkey.
I was an Irish person living abroad for 25 years. I was not an emigrant, there was never a plan to stay away for good, it just happened that way.
In Ireland, old friends are disinterested. Employers view us with suspicion. Schools are crowded
I clutch a hot water bottle to my chest as I make a dash to bed. The dog follows me.
“No!” I say stubbornly. My white bed sheets will not be soiled by a mop of doggy hair. He obstinately stands on his back legs and nudges me. I can’t stop shivering. One hot water bottle is not enough, how shall I warm my toes? I look into Ricky’s big brown pleading eyes and then peel back the duvet.
“Come on then,” I say. He doesn’t hesitate to let me change my mind and burrows down the bedcovers.
Minutes later, my husband comes to bed.
“Mmm, what are you wearing darling?” he asks seductively, hopefully even.
“It’s the dog” I reply disdainfully.
I arrived back in Ireland on a wave of nostalgia. Four months later and the wave has washed up on the shore. The winter is setting in, the honeymoon period is over and we wonder where we fit in to this new home. If we will fit in. Old friends are disinterested. Employers view us with suspicion. Schools are crowded.
The children set their hopes on Christmas. We now live in the land that has Smyths Toys.
We all live in the moment.
Before we moved back, I told a friend that what I was least looking forward to was November. Then, the reality of November came and the clocks changed. I never realised how much I crave daylight. My friend said, “Ah sure, by the time it is November, you will be looking forward to Christmas.”
I planted bulbs in the garden to have something to look forward to next year. With the children, we kissed each one and said “See you next Spring”. Something to look forward to when Christmas is past.
My parents grow Christmas trees. There is real magic in that. Watching the seedlings grow into tall trees, harvesting them and selling them to families, knowing they will stand proudly in homes.
Now, many of the trees have grown into giants and each year a tree goes to the local village to stand in the square for all to see. This year, we were up at dawn to watch the tree being felled and experience the joviality of loading it onto the trailer to head off. This was the beginning of Christmas in Ireland for us. This year, we too, will have a real Christmas tree.
The shop windows at Brown Thomas and Arnotts came next. We headed to Dublin to see the Christmas lights being turned on. We were in town early and peered in the windows at the Christmas figurines and the glitter, transporting me back to my childhood. I loved that my children loved it too.
We did two laps past all of the windows to make sure that we hadn’t missed anything. Then to St Stephen’s Green to run around. The children were too tired to stay and see the lights being turned on, so we drove past the crowds and headed home.
The Late Late Toy Show followed swiftly. There was much talk at school and my children had no idea what this mystery TV programme was about. We lit the fire and snuggled under a blanket to watch until our eyes could stay open no more. I cried and cried when the children on the show unwrapped a present that their Daddy, who had been away with the Army for months, was hiding inside.
We put our Daddy on a plane to work abroad. He’ll be away for Christmas this year. We live in the moment. We’ll see you when we see you. We love you.
Advent calendars this year aren’t filled with melted chocolate and ants. Instead they are filled with toys. I tell the children about the olden days when we just had a picture in each door. “Black and white pictures?” my son asks.
Jack Frost visited and spread his magic everywhere. The dusky pink and pale blue of sunrise over frozen fields is one of the most beautiful views I have seen. I leave memories of the beaches and the yachts of Antigua behind and celebrate the wonder of changing seasons and colours in Ireland instead.
We decorate our own Christmas tree, playing Christmas songs on repeat. We write Christmas cards to friends all over the world, and school friends that my children miss in Switzerland and Antigua.
We share Sunday lunch with my parents, or Nanette and Grandad as they are now known. We play Monopoly and Cluedo. I accuse Colonel Mustard in the dining room with the candlestick. At last, we share a life with a greater family than just our own.
I tuck the children in and whisper “You belong here, you are safe.”
Soon, I will tuck them in with stockings by the end of the bed and mince pies by the hearth. Christmas in Ireland is magic. It is the joy of my childhood, being surrounded by family and relatives, getting a turkey that will feed more than just the four of us, people flying home for a few days to share in the indulgence.
Ok to feast
Even the cold is part of Christmas. It is ok to feast as you won’t be lying on a beach on St Stephen’s Day. Candles, warm fires, cosy socks and silly jumpers ... Christmas is an endless cliché here, but with children it’s fun. I resist the urge to do absolutely everything on our first year back. The tinsel brightens up the damp winter cold, and after Christmas the days will start to lengthen again, I’ve been told.
New friends are made. It will take at least a year of fine tuning to make Ireland work for us. A job offer in Barbados turns up. We shake our heads. Tempting, but I can’t bear to pack the boxes again. Besides, there is a gingerbread house still to be made. The one we made in Antigua last year melted.
What do I want for Christmas this year? A bag of coal would actually be nice, but I’m trying to save the planet for future Christmases. For now, being home in Ireland is just enough.
Jennie Ritchie blogs about rediscovering Ireland, design and lifestyle at jennieritchie.ie