'I’ve been the desperate person in the travel agent, booking last-minute Christmas flights home'

It took a while to let go of my love for an Irish Christmas, but I finally got there

The Keenaghan clan celebrating Christmas in Sydney.

I popped into the travel agent near the city in Sydney yesterday, to grab a brochure on Japan. I was next in line after a young couple who were trying to book a flight. I gathered it was a late booking and listened in once I heard the Irish accent.

The woman sounded desperate. “Anything if we go a day earlier? 1,500 dollars, is that available? Oh that’s only one way, so you mean we can’t be back in time for Christmas Day in Dublin with any airline?”

They left realising Christmas in Ireland would come at a huge price. I knew in my heart they would be back to pay it.

I too had been in that travel agent’s chair, suddenly deciding I had to travel home for Christmas. The need came on me in late November, with the first talk of snow and happy family times, which I couldn’t bear to miss. I told myself I needed to be sitting by a fire sipping mulled wine and doing a national tour of my friends and relatives to feel complete. We shelled out the huge prices, even when we as a family needed five adult tickets, at the most expensive time of the year.


Ten years

It is a decade now since we left Cork for Australia. It feels like a watershed. We have spent many years and family Christmases in Perth. I once cooked the big dinner with turkey, stuffing, and roast potatoes in 40 degree heat, but I don't even remember how it tasted. I was so exhausted by the time it was done, I spent the rest of the day slumped in a garden chair.

‘I have realised despite the tinny carols playing in Myers, it most probably won’t snow in Sydney and there won’t be sleigh bells ringing in my vicinity.’

Many emigrants will understand how Christmas Day is tough; you feel compelled to be in Ireland, and all those things you miss intensify. If you can’t be there, you can try as best you can to recreate it with in Skype calls but it is not the same.

I tried for years to find something good about Christmas here and I was dismissive and irrational, still imagining scenes from It's a Wonderful Life, as if set in Ireland. I really felt I was missing out, and I would suddenly decide we had to go, with three children in tow. I was that woman in the travel agent. The several trips we made were wonderful. One year it even snowed, but the dream I had was so impossibly big, reality could rarely compete.

One Christmas, we travelled from Perth to rent a house in Cork. My daughter was appalled that I couldn’t suddenly produce a tree and a box of decorations out of a hat. She wasn’t impressed with my feeble attempt of finding a nice branch outside and decorating it with a few red pieces of paper and some tinsel from Eurodollar. So, I went to the nearby large supermarket and was delighted to find a tree, complete with lights and decorations, all folded in a box, just take it out and plug in.

Santy had bought an Xbox for my youngest, but it was in Perth. My husband’s hilarious solution was not to bring it in his suitcase as I had asked him to, but to film himself going into my son’s bedroom in Australia and finding the Xbox. He planned to show the little phone movie to my son on Christmas morning instead of physically giving him the console; a disasterous idea.

Luckily the local supermarket in Cork also sold Xboxes and gave a 30-day return guarantee. So, I purchased and let him have a moment of Christmas morning glee before I whipped it away with some excuse about the televisions being different, before he could even lift off the Sellotape. I tried to ignore his confused look and I promised that he could open the box and play it once we got back to Perth, but he could open the games and umm, look at them.

The next day as we bundled into the car to get to Galway on the start of our national tour, we made a quick stop at the shops to return the tree, and the unopened Xbox. I left my perplexed family in the car and gave the shop assistant some feeble excuse of how the tree didn't really look quite right and my son had received two Xboxes, which was almost the truth. There were several returned trees at the service desk, and I pondered for a moment how many were from crazy Australian women, trying to relive a scene from It's a Wonderful Life.

‘It took a while to let go of my love for an Irish Christmas, but I got there.’

Letting go

Nowadays I have discharged my obligations of Christmas and the six-week shopping before. I have realised despite the tinny carols playing in Myers, it most probably won’t snow in Sydney and there won’t be sleigh bells ringing in my vicinity.

I have managed to finally embrace Christmas here. It is the official start of the summer holidays, great weather and time off work. The Sydney fish market will be packed with prawn shoppers and the salmon will be Tasmanian rather than Ballymaloe smoked. Everyone is smiling as work is over for a week or two. There’s an exodus to the coast for beach holidays, and shopping takes a back seat as its time to fish or sit with a stubby watching the sunset.

When I left the travel agents yesterday, I really felt for the couple who were desperately trying to fly to Dublin. I was that person once but now, the only trip I will be making will be to the fish market to push and shove for the best prawns. Once Christmas Day is over I will be jumping in the car to head to the coast for a summer break, with not a piece of tinsel in sight. It took a while to let go of my love for an Irish Christmas, but I got there.