The last Christmas I spent in Ireland was 12 years ago

The first Christmas I spent away from home was in Sydney. It was 28 degrees and sunny. Photograph: iStock/Getty
WHEN YOU FEEL AS IF ‘HOME’ IS HALF A WORLD AWAY, YOU MIGHT FIND IT RIGHT THERE UNDER YOUR SHINY RED NOSE THIS CHRISTMAS

Racing off a plane from Melbourne a few days ago to the first of a long list of festive events, a small wave of panic hit me as I realised what these few weeks would bring – a swag of pre-holiday work deadlines, my son’s 13th birthday, the 12th anniversary of my mum’s death, our 16th wedding anniversary, a string of events I have organised or have to attend, the school year ending and my children commencing the long summer holidays (yes, everything really is upside-down here in Australia) . . .

And of course, there was Christmas. Not a present bought, not a turkey stuffed, not a carrot washed, not even a parade of reindeer mounted on the front garden wall. I exited the airport into a pall of bushfire smoke and a queue of traffic from here to next Christmas.

The first signs of Christmas when I was growing up in Miltown Malbay were my mother’s forays into the storeroom above the shop, from where she would eventually emerge jubilant, bearing a battered cardboard box of decorations

Welcome to Sydney in early summer of the year that has broken all climate records – nine people dead, more than 800 homes gone, and hundreds of thousands of hectares destroyed by bushfires that have been raging for weeks, while we kiss our children off to school in air equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

As the backlog inched past a shopping mall festooned with fake Christmas trees and stars twinkling under the red glare of a smoke-shrouded sun, I started to wonder what Christmas even means these days. I wondered how many other people were wondering the exact same thing, wherever on Earth they may be.

The first signs of Christmas when I was growing up in the seaside town of Miltown Malbay in Co Clare were my mother’s frustrated forays into the storeroom above the shop, from where she would eventually emerge jubilant, bearing a battered cardboard box emblazoned with “Xmas decs” in black marker on the side. The front window would be stripped (occasioning a visit one time from the red-faced parish priest, who insisted my mother stop scandalising the town with her naked mannequins).

Anne Casey at Sydney Harbour Bridge
Anne Casey at Sydney Harbour Bridge

The model family would duly get brand new outfits for Christmas (a hint to the townsfolk), which they dutifully displayed alongside a miniature tree, piles of fake presents, great swathes of shedding tinsel and spray-can snow declaring the must-see bargains to be had for gifts.

There followed 12-hour days pounding up and down stairs to stockrooms, and the around-the-clock rustle of gifts being wrapped. By the time my mother shut the door late on Christmas Eve, she was ready to drop. But that didn’t stop her racing out at the 11th hour to foist a gift-wrapped package upon a habitual drunk, with stern instructions to give it to his wife the following day.

“What did you do that for?” I asked with unjolly judgment. “Everyone should have some joy at Christmas,” was her reply. What I didn’t realise until later was that this was the last of a small pile of wrapped, unlabelled packages she kept under the counter each year. She wasn’t entirely an angel, my mother, but she gave it a good shot.

The first Christmas I spent away from home was in Sydney. It was 28 degrees and sunny. None of it felt real. Christmas lunch was a barbecue on the roof of a backpackers’ hostel, where everyone jumped into the pool to cool off

The first Christmas I spent away from home was in Sydney. It was 28 degrees and sunny. The streets were decked with green wreaths, red bows and gold stars. There were shop windows full of mannequins in new outfits, surrounded by mini Christmas trees, fake gifts and piles of make-believe snow. Under endless blue skies, Santas sweated on street corners in furry red suits hailing the great bargains to be had. But despite the familiar trappings, none of it felt real. Christmas lunch was a barbecue on the roof of a backpackers’ hostel, where everyone jumped into the pool to cool off.

That night I had a tearful phone call with my parents, who had just risen on the far side of the planet to their first Christmas morning in an empty house.

There followed a string of “orphan’s Christmases” in Sydney, where singles like me would get together for potluck lunches at share-houses or flats, or – if we were willing to brave the tightly packed, scantily clad, very “merry” crowds – the sweltering city beaches. Over the ensuing decade, the food gradually improved as our fortunes rose – from “snags on the barbie” (barbecued sausages) to cold hams and platters of prawns on beds of ice.

But it all felt more like a holiday weekend than the traditions of Christmases past in Ireland, where after Mass with the whole town turned out in brand new clobber thanks to my mother’s efforts, our family would sit down to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, with crackers containing paper crowns and corny jokes, and selection boxes topped with snow-covered village scenes.

There was the odd disaster thrown in just to keep things interesting. Like the time Dad’s carving knife sliced through golden crispy skin and struck the icy, raw middle of a not-entirely-defrosted turkey. Or the time my shop-weary mother used half a bag of salt instead of sugar when making the brandy butter, which we didn’t realise until we were digging into big, buttery-sauced bowls of plum pudding.

With over-stuffed bellies in an over-warm room, we would sit down to the parade of old movies re-running on TV. And just occasionally, there would be a magical gift from the sky, when our little town became a vision in white, just like on the chocolate-box lids.

There is always our family table with turkey and trimmings, crackers and paper crowns and terrible jokes... and then there is the odd disaster

My first Irish Christmas for a decade was 16 years ago when I travelled home with my Limerick fiance to get married. Somehow the west of Ireland seemed to want to give us something familiar and turned on some radiant sunshine, between showers and in nine degrees.

Christmases became an adventure for a few years, exploring new places like Byron Bay and New Caledonia, where the Christmas paraphernalia never felt genuine in the bright sunshine. But the advent of a new home and two children changed all that. The Christmas tree became a place to hang the wonky stars and mis-beaded ornaments they made at kindy. On a once-dark suburban street, we pioneered putting up Christmas lights, a parade of reindeers on the front wall. After a little adjustment, the neighbours soon followed. From mid-December to early January, you will now find an assortment of Santas with miscellaneous escorts, from reindeers to kangaroos along our street.

‘The schoolyard festooned with glittering cardboard stars, LED-lit reindeers and giant plastic snowflakes twinkling from the outdoor stage.’
‘The schoolyard festooned with glittering cardboard stars, LED-lit reindeers and giant plastic snowflakes twinkling from the outdoor stage.’

There are drinks with friends, the ubiquitous snags on the barbie, kids jumping in a pool to cool off, and the occasional 48 degree scorcher when you regret filling the house with oven heat to roast the bird. There are the ritual calls home on our Australian Christmas night to a procession of clumsily timed conversations with nieces and nephews who would rather be enjoying the new pressies they have just awoken to on Christmas morning in Ireland.

There are the Christmas presents that didn’t make it... usually turning up looking a little worse for wear in the middle of January. There is always our family table with turkey and trimmings, crackers and paper crowns and terrible jokes... and then there is the odd disaster...

The last Christmas I spent in Ireland was 12 years ago. We had just buried my mother’s ashes after nursing her through a gruelling struggle with cancer. We did our best to make it work. Our toddler sons woke to a small pile of makeshift gifts under the tiny tree that had sat on Mum’s shop counter for that one week each year. Dad and I laboured together to prepare a turkey dinner with all the customary accompaniments. In the trauma of the preceding weeks, no one had thought to buy crackers. I doubt we could have found the heart to pull one anyway.

Three adults sitting down to table is an awkward grouping at the best of times, but with my mother’s freshly vacated chair staring us down, most of the food ended up back in the fridge. A few days later, we boarded the plane back to the sunshine. I may never spend Christmas in Ireland again.

Christmas is about reaching beyond ourselves. It’s about making new ‘family’ from friends, from community, from strangers who may need reassuring that there is still joy in the world

As I raced from the airport three days ago to my sons’ end-of-year school concert, through choking smoke haze – our new normal, this creeping reminder of the families who have lost loved ones and the hundreds now without homes – I braced myself for the first notes of the impending festive season. The schoolyard festooned with glittering cardboard stars, LED-lit reindeers and giant plastic snowflakes twinkling from the outdoor stage, a greasy waft of snags from the barbie, a pair of pre-teen elves making merry to the first strains of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Adrift in an ocean of white plastic chairs already filling with festively dressed revellers, I searched in vain for a seat out of the glaring sun, nodded to the antlered mum beside me, and settled my unseasonal black pants onto the searing seat. The school principal issued forth, adorned in golden angel wings with a matching sequinned tuxedo, his core temperature no doubt approaching that of the turkey I have yet to buy and will roast in the not-too-distant future. The first of the school bands struck up.

Anne Casey with her two sons in Sydney
Anne Casey with her sons in Sydney

Somewhere between Joy to the World and Twenty Carols in Two Minutes, a strange feeling started to creep over me. By midway through, having hugged and greeted old friends and new, and waded through a sea of donated foods, hampers, toys, clothes and gifts that we had all contributed to be sent to drought-stricken families (“Everyone should have some joy at Christmas”), I started to recall that it’s not about the trees and tinsel, the mistimed phone calls, the frozen turkey or the missing presents. It doesn’t matter whether the inflatable sleigh on your roof is pulled by reindeer or kangaroos. It’s not about whether the food is hot or cold, whether it’s sweltering indoors or outside.

Twinkling down like those magical snowflakes over my childhood hometown came the realisation that Christmas is about reaching beyond ourselves. It’s about making new “family” from friends, from community, from strangers who may need reassuring that there is still joy in the world. So thank you Ms Waters and Mr Couani and all your little elves, for sweltering in your festive outfits, and reminding me that just when you feel like “home” is half a world away, you might find it right there under your shiny red nose.

Snow day
By Anne Casey

Waking to the wonder
in my brother’s voice-
his shrill delight
shaking him for once
from his teenage retreat-

I arose to a new world,
without colour:
all crystal-white,
magically softened and
glowing at the edges

drawing us out
with its silent allure
to explore
familiar places
rendered strange.

Past the edge of town,
undisturbed by a soul,
caught by the urge
to jump a wall and run
full-tilt into its empty embrace:

whump! I had sunk,
softly held
in all that whiteness;
cushioned from the world,
I could be there still.

We dragged home
without a word,
mirth stolen by the cold;
the sudden warmth at the door,
my mother’s voice

reluctantly returning me to
to all the colour and clamour
of humanity-
and a pang
at the loss of all that

peace.

Anne Casey is an award-winning Sydney-based poet and writer. Her second poetry collection, Out of Emptied Cups, was published by Salmon Poetry this year