Emigrant Christmases: ‘I’ve a pound of Irish sausages in the freezer’
Friends become family for the Irish celebrating Christmas abroad
Brenna Cahill: ‘The thermometer just hit 34 degrees Celsius (it’s 11am). I have never experienced a December like this.’
My four children, husband and I are spending Christmas in Hong Kong. We spent two Christmases in Ireland since we moved here six years ago but with our ever growing brood it’s just too expensive now. We cook Christmas dinner with all the trimmings in our apartment with its tiny kitchen. Turkey, ham, potatoes three ways (we are Irish after all) and veggies. Trying to get things like fresh Brussels sprouts or parsnips can require a bit of planning but as I’m a Christmas fanatic I’ve been on the hunt.
It is generally warm in December but just the last week or so can get a little chilly which helps with the Christmassy feel. Watching the Toy Show and Christmas movies with the kids helps to bring back memories of childhood. The day will finish with Skype calls home while our kids are in their pjs ready for bed, as their cousins are in theirs for breakfast.
Orna O’Reilly Weber, Puglia, Italy: ‘Tom and I have built a home together and planted 84 olive trees’
I retired and moved to Italy, all on my own, in 2013. I wanted to spend my retirement writing books, having contributed to magazines and newspapers for many years on travel and design.
Having been alone for many years, busily rearing my family and running a demanding business, after just eight months living in the Veneto I met a retired, widowed journalist - Tom - and last year we tied the knot. My family was ecstatic; relieved to see that I would not be growing old on my own.
Since then, Tom and I have moved to Puglia, down south on the stiletto heel of Italy, built a new home together and planted 84 olive trees and several fruit trees on top of a hill near the White City of Ostuni.
It has been an exhausting year and we have decided to spend this Christmas relaxing and enjoying our new home. Christmas Day will be spent with a group of our new friends and neighbours and will be a great day. Retirement is wonderfully liberating!
Jennifer Tejada, Orinda, US: ‘My parents used to send Irish breakfast ingredients’
While many families in California gather on Christmas Eve to celebrate and open presents, we make our kids, Aoife and Tighe, wait until Christmas morning to open presents by the lit fire. We have an “Irish breakfast” that I order online; my parents used to send the ingredients when they were alive. We chill then until noon when we leave to help serve meals to the less fortunate for a few hours before returning home to host Christmas dinner. We never know how many we will have because in the days leading up we always end up inviting co-workers and neighbours who might be without family that day.
Dinner is stuffed turkey with the trimmings followed by Aunty Molly’s Christmas pudding, made weeks prior from our ancient family recipe. My husband and children entertain my need to celebrate Christmas in a way the fills the longing that always exists in my heart to be home in Ireland.
Tria R, South Sudan: ‘I’ll be working in 40 degree heat’
This year will be my seventh consecutive Christmas away from Ireland. I’ll be spending it working in 40 degree heat, thinking of everyone back home and dreaming about the sweet relief of a cool breeze while I’m sweltering under the mosquito net in my mud hut. On the bright side it looks like it’s going to be a white Christmas here because thousands of local birds have taken up roost in the trees overhead and the ground is liberally coated in their excreta. I will not be brave enough to risk a snowball fight.
Donal Peoples, Berlin: ‘It will be my mother’s first Christmas outside Ireland’
This year I’ve decided to stay in Berlin rather than suffer the hustle and bustle of flying before Christmas. I know it’ll be a bit different to previous years, but I’m looking forward to finishing work and not having to rush somewhere, but rather just enjoy the few days in the city were everything will be a lot quieter than usual. In previous years the build up of stress just before flying home for Christmas was annoying, and always having to think about returning to Berlin made my stay in Ireland so rushed.
I booked a flight for my mother, it will be her first ever Christmas outside Ireland. It should be interesting to see what she makes of the Christmas markets and what we’ll put on the menu for Christmas Day.
Brenna Cahill, Sydney: ‘I’m heading to Asia’
As I write, I am at work in North Sydney, looking out over the sparkling blue of the harbour, its loveliness eclipsed only by the cloudless azure sky. The thermometer just hit 34 degrees Celsius (it’s 11am). I have never experienced a December like this.
As a newly arrived expat (I landed in Australia in the middle of October), I have no intention of flying back to Ireland for Christmas. Air fares are astronomical at this time of year and the memories of my 36 hour odyssey to get here via Malaysia are fresh. Despite kind offers from friends to spend Christmas with them and their families in Melbourne, I’m Bali bound for the festive season. The island’s inhabitants are predominantly Hindu so it will be business as usual on December 25th.
The plan is to explore some temples before grabbing dinner at a local restaurant that evening, as well as a Skype session with my family back in Limerick. All of this depends on Mt. Agung not erupting anytime soon, or sending more ash plumes up into to sky, leading to further flight cancellations as there were late in November.
The lead up to this first Christmas in Sydney has been very different to the ones I’ve spent in London and Ireland. There is far less festive drinking, for one thing (in London, the month of December was always one nonstop booze fest), and there is much less of a focus on cooking a big meal and exchanging gifts: families make a barbecue and head to the beach or sit by the pool in the afternoon. As someone who has had multiple cold and frosty Christmas’s, I’m looking forward to seeing what this one will be like in the sunshine.
Bea Morrin, Vancouver: ‘My parents are visiting’
My boyfriend and I moved to Vancouver in 2016, so this is our second Christmas away from home. Last Christmas feels like it never happened, and was probably a big contributor to my homesickness that I couldn’t shake until mid this year. There’s just a certain spirit about Christmas at home. Most of our family traditions are like all Irish, with drinks and games and hours spent arguing about so and so cheating at the board game. We decided not to travel home this year as I couldn’t take time off, and it costs a lot. But my parents are visiting us for the holidays, so that festive cheer is here! We are going to try cooking a full Christmas dinner, and bring them to the light shows and Christmas markets here in Vancouver, and possibly go skiing.
Two months ago I opened my first training school here in Zigong. I was lucky as it is very hard to get a business licence here without a Chinese partner.
I am hosting a western-style Christmas party. Interest in the event has been overwhelming; we were booked out in 2 days. We will gather and decorate the Christmas tree together, children will write cards with their Christmas wishes and I’ll teach them how to make mashed potatoes, I will show them and their parents pictures of an Irish family Christmas while they listen to greetings from my family and friends and Ireland, before we sit down to eat a wonderful Christmas dinner.
I’m cooking four turkeys with bread stuffing, ham, potatoes, and veg, followed by Christmas cake, apple pie and cream and an assortment of other desserts, all for 90 people!
Sadly our wonderful mother, Mary Smyth, died on October 12th, so Christmas will be different and touched with sadness this year. We have lived in Winnipeg in Canada for nearly five years, and have not been home to Ireland for Christmas for four. We visit in summer instead, this year for my mother’s 90th.
My husband at 9am Canadian time would Skype my brother’s home where our mother spent her Christmas and New Year for the past 20 years, and he would sing her favourite songs. We will miss that tradition this Christmas Day.
In Winnipeg on Christmas Eve we have friends and neighbours visit, I cook a honey roasted ham with homemade Irish soda bread, smoked salmon, Irish chocolates and Dubliner cheese, and we sing, have a few drinks and make Irish coffees with whiskey or Baileys for a little bit of Ireland in Canada. On Christmas Day we go to our great friends’ home with about a dozen more friends, for plenty of food, desserts and fun in the snow. Winnipeg at Christmas is like a movie.
Mario Kinsella, Erie, US: ‘We are happy to try new ideas, and locations’
My wife and I left Ireland in 1986 with a six week old baby to spend a year in Canada. We settled in western Pennsylvania, and called Pittsburgh our home for more than 20 years. We have recently relocated to the shores of Lake Erie, quite beautiful in summer, but snowy and cold in the winter, even if at the same latitude as Madrid. Both of our children live in Manhattan, and we will be joining them in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania for Christmas.
We will do some skiing, and catch up with news. Christmas dinner is not yet settled, but will likely be in the hotel, there is little choice in a winter resort not connected to a town. We have had many ski trips over Christmas with them, and have also gone to the southern hemisphere on two occasions, to South Africa and South America. We have not developed a Christmas tradition like we had growing up in Ireland, and have never really missed it. We enjoy spending time with family, and are happy to try new ideas, and locations.
John McBride, Liverpool: ‘As a retail employee, I’m especially aware of how busy the city is’
As a Farneyman, a December reading of Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘A Christmas Childhood’ makes me feel very sad. I have swapped the stony grey soil of Monaghan for the stony grey pavements of Liverpool. My current residence is full of reminders of home, from the friendliness of the locals to a stall with a tricolour flying alongside the Union Jack, to the fact that the city seems to have more Irish bars than my hometown of Castleblayney.
As a retail employee, I’m especially aware of how busy the city can be at this time of year. My days off will be spent relaxing at home with my family. It will be a traditional Christmas for us with church visits, festive recipes, and perhaps some carol singers calling. I’ll miss the deceased members of my family (including my parents, brother, and sister) the most at Christmas. I’ll complain about the fare on television (a personal festive tradition since 1973). And I’ll remember more innocent times from my own Monaghan Christmas childhood.
Karen O’Hanlon Cohrt, Denmark: ‘This will be the first Christmas in our new home’
Having spent four Christmases in Denmark since 2011, I am no stranger to the Danish way of celebrating. This year will be a special one, however, as it will be our first Christmas in our new family home.
As an Irish-Danish family, Christmas will be a fun mishmash of traditions, filled with hygge. This year, we will celebrate with my in-laws and my younger sister who studies in Copenhagen. Following Danish tradition, the julenisse (Santy’s elf) has visited our home almost nightly since the 1st December, slipping small gifts into our four-year-old son’s advent calendar. The firm belief that the Julenisse lives in our attic and sneaks down with a present when everyone is asleep is a great bedtime-negotiation tool, and the look on his little face when the bowl of rice pudding is empty in the morning would melt the coldest of hearts.
We will bake and eat a mountain of Danish butter cookies, accompanied on Christmas Eve with a nice glass of gløgg (mulled wine). To avoid suspicion from our son, we will ‘do Santy’ the Danish way this year, on the 24th. All presents are opened after the dinner and before the obligatory dancing and singing of Danish Christmas carols around the tree. A tree that is adorned with real candles. After almost seven years, I’m still winging most of those songs.
I’ll miss everyone back home, but Skype makes a world of difference, and I’ve a pound of Irish sausages in the freezer for a fry-up on Christmas morning!
Bee Ní Choitir, Canada: ‘Your friends are your family’
This is my second year being away for Christmas. I moved to Canada in 2016. My partner is from France and with that we are learning not only each other’s traditions, but the Canadian ones too. As immigrants we now have a new-found appreciation for Christmas, things we may have failed to realise or taken for granted before are now to the forefront of our minds.
I miss the craic at home, shopping in the big city with friends on the 8th, going out for the ‘12 Pubs’ in the worst looking Christmas jumper you could find, knowing well you’ll only manage six!
The most important thing as an immigrant is to realise that now your friends are your family. Whether they’re from the country you’re in or they’re immigrants themselves, they will be your support. You will celebrate Christmas with them and they’ll introduce you to new traditions.
I’m lucky to have many South Americans, especially Venezuelans as colleagues and friends. Their Christmas dinner is completely different from ours and I have had the pleasure of being able to sample it this year. I’m informed that their families in Venezuela will not be in a position to create the traditional Christmas dinner, inflation being so high the food items are not available. At this I’m filled with gratitude; not only that they’ve shared this meal with me, but also at knowing that however bad we feel things may be at home in Ireland there is far more suffering elsewhere.
Lucie McInerney: ‘I’m looking forward to bringing my English boyfriend home’
I’m particularly looking forward to bringing my English boyfriend over to Ireland for his first Irish Christmas. He has been acclimatising to the journey over the past two years; whilst packing for his first trip to the motherland, he asked me if he needed plug adaptors and whether or not Ireland was in the same time zone as the UK... this guy’s a barrister!
Even after living here in London for seven years, the mind still boggles at how utterly unaware the English are of Ireland. It explains a lot of the shoddy handling of the border negotiations during Brexit talks.
Janneke van Nijnanten, Netherlands: ‘There’s nothing like small children to remind me of what is important’
I’m a Dutch woman who moved to Ireland at 21 to pursue music. Every year at Christmas I go home to the Netherlands. Especially now that I have a little niece (2) and nephew (6) I feel this great sense of responsibility to be there for them. When I get home for Christmas I’ll have a fun-filled “adventure day” with them, one of the most important days of the year to me. For me there’s nothing like small children to remind me of what is important: to be around for those you love, especially at Christmas.