Coming home for Christmas: the highs and the lows

The festive season is laden with emotion and being together 24/7 may not be the perfect answer to months or years apart

‘It’s only one day” the voice of reason bleats as all around people splurge, hoard and party in preparation for the most emotionally charged 24 hours of the year.

But who listens? Anyway, here in Ireland we are pretty good at making at least a week out of Christmas. Egged on by relentless advertising and a herd mentality, it’s hard not to buy into the stress of having to make Christmas “really special”.

For returning emigrants and their families here, the emotional stakes are even higher.

It’s such a precious time when a dispersed family of different generations is reunited – but that brings its own pressures.


"You may want to do everything, be everything, solve everything," says Ann Campbell, vice-chairwoman of the Family Therapists Association of Ireland (FTAI).

The reality is that it takes time to acclimatise to being back together. Not only will adult offspring have changed during time away but they in turn may be shocked to see how their parents have aged and be dismayed by a diminishing of abilities which, as children, they always took for granted.

Challenging time
It's a challenge for hosts and visitors alike if somebody is sleeping on the sofa for days, the hot water keeps running out and a well-intentioned helper is forever putting things back in the wrong place in the kitchen.

It may not be the darling grandchildren’s finest moment either, uprooted as they are from home and routine, and wound up with excitement and sugary treats.

Throw too much alcohol into the mix and the mood can begin to darken.

“We all have the best intentions of not saying something and then, a few drinks later, everything is being said in a most unhelpful way,” agrees Campbell.

Not-so-great expectations
But a little self-awareness and lowering of expectations can go a long way to keeping it a memorable Christmas for all the right reasons.

There is this idealised version of how it always was, or how we always wanted it to be, or how it might be, says Campbell. Be open to considering what might suit more people best, she advises. A bit of flexibility can make a huge difference: hold onto a bit of what you want yourself but be prepared to give and take.

Nicola Courtney, who is flying home from California tomorrow with her Brazilian husband Fabio Lignini and their two children, Lucas (nine) and Lia (five), is always conscious that the four of them descending on her parents' lovely quiet house in Dublin is "a big ask".

She also has to remember that, as her dad says yes to everything, “just because he said yes doesn’t mean it’s okay”.

Obviously there can be a few frayed nerves. “I always try to make as little extra work for them as possible but I’m not sure I succeed.”

She likes to cook a couple of nice meals – although it can be hard to wrest control of the kitchen from her parents – and they give them bottles of wine here and there “and a voucher for a meal out after we go”.

If all else fails, they can retreat to another room or go out the door for a walk – easy to do in Dublin, unlike back in LA County, which has been her home since going out there to work for the animation company DreamWorks in 1995.

Christmas is just not the same in California and Nicola loves being home – “being with my family, nothing mad, just being there; seeing the cousins together; Dad’s turkey; picking at the ham when you’re not supposed to; throwing off the Christmas clothes in favour of pyjamas; the one packet of Snax”.

Family ties
The other thing she relishes about being back in Ireland, at any time of the year, is how her children are changed by the experience and seem to grow in confidence.

“Normally for us it is just us. No family on either side here to pick up any slack so we’re a very tight, self-sufficient unit,” she explains from Glendale in California.

“When we’re at home they could be gone for hours and I don’t give it a second thought because they’re with Auntie or Uncle or Grandpa/Grandma. I have a great photo of Lucas and my Dad walking off down the road to get the Luas into town – he was about three and I think it was the first time he’d ever gone on a little adventure without one of us.”

Young adults who have experienced a different culture abroad can return with a very idealised, fairytale version of coming back home to Ireland, says Tony Moore of Relationships Ireland. "That can be a problem of expectations on both sides – for them and for their family and friends."

Emigrants may be returning from cosmopolitan hotspots such as Singapore, New York or Hong Kong to a small, rural community here.

Reality bites
"Initially it's all very nice and, after 36 hours, reality kicks in," Moore says. They're bored and there is another week to go.

“That can leave family and friends disgruntled, feeling ‘we’re not good enough for you now’, he points out.

His advice? “Suck it up . . . lower your expectations, smile politely and get on with it.”

However, once “all the stupid hype” of Christmas Day is over, there can be the chance to get out into lovely countryside and reacquaint.

“That quiet time is fabulous ,” he agrees, “before all the nonsense starts again for New Year.”

Another trap is letting the looming goodbyes shadow the here and now. Moore urges parents not to think about themselves and to be upbeat about their adult children going back to the lives they should be living.

It’s a sad reflection on the “season of goodwill” that the weeks afterwards are the busiest time of the year for therapists. Both Moore and Campbell say that issues with Christmas come up all the time among clients.

It may not be what brings a couple for counselling, explains Campbell, “but it definitely comes into it”.

“It has a way of eating into other parts of our life even if we don’t want it to. It really is all-consuming.”

'I remember it now, as one of the happiest Christmases we ever had'  

Writer Brendan Sweeney has spent most of his adult life abroad but usually managed to make it back home to Ireland for Christmas.

“This was pretty uncomplicated until I started bringing my Danish wife back with me and eventually my two daughters as well,” he tells The Irish Times.

The main bone of contention was heating – at his parents' house in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan.

“Plucked from their cosy well-insulated flat in Copenhagen, it was always a shock for my kids and my wife to experience just how cold my parents’ house could be,” says Sweeney, whose first novel, Once in Another World, was published earlier this year.

"Since my father has always been impervious to the cold himself, he would parry our cries for more heat with some disparaging remark about us being mollycoddled in Denmark. "

His Irish-speaking father from Donegal micromanaged the various heating systems – they veered from solid fuel to oil or a strange combination of the two depending on what was most economic – as though, Sweeney says, “he were steering an intergalactic spaceship through an unusually turbulent corner of the galaxy”.

“His attitude was: there was no reason to strain the system; if no one was in a room there was no need to heat it; and everyone knew that it was healthy to sleep in a cold bedroom.

"And woe betide anyone who forgot to switch off the immersion tank."

In honour of the newborn

The year they arrived for Christmas just three weeks after their eldest daughter, Astrid, was born, the house was as warm as it could be – in honour of the newest addition to the family.

It was bitterly cold outside when everyone went off to Midnight Mass, leaving Sweeney’s brother, Kevin, to look after Astrid.

“Bells rang though the frosty air and, as though on cue, it had started to snow by the time we headed back home,” he recalls.

But the “schmaltzy Hollywood aura” was shattered when they walked into a darkened house to find Kevin close to hysteria.

“A burst pipe had flooded the upstairs landing, the fuses had blown and water was seeping through the ceiling into the living room. The central heating was, of course, kaput.”

As the house settled into what seemed like a state of terminal cold and darkness, Sweeney’s Scottish mother sprang into the breach.

"Despite the lateness of the hour she rang our local plumber, somehow negotiated her way past the protective defences of his wife, and persuaded him to visit us early the next morning."

Trump card
"Her trump card was, of course, newborn Astrid with her little thatch of red hair."

Thanks to that plumber and the help of neighbours, everything was back to normal for Christmas Day.

“I remember it now,” Sweeney adds, “with great fondness, as one of the happiest Christmases we ever had.”

From tan to turkey home from Australia

When Brendan Lavery first went out to Australia he thought Christmas there was “absolutely brilliant because it was completely different – you’re sitting on Bondi beach with a beer in your hand and going for a swim”.

But over the years the novelty wore off and he began to miss the traditional festive season back home.

“As you get older, you get more concerned about people in your family and you want to spend time with them.

“And you’ve got the heat of Australia – sometimes it’s just too hot.”

So, for the first time in 22 years, he’s back in Dublin for Christmas this year, with his Australian wife Annmaree and their three children – Calum (15) , Cormac (13) and Sinéad (10).

Let it snow
The youngsters needed no persuading to leave the sun and surf behind during what is their summer holidays from school. They're just hoping that they get to see snow for the first time in their lives.

The four-and-a-half weeks they’re here is likely to be an intense time of family catch-up. Although based in one brother’s house in Glenageary, they will spread their time between Brendan’s four siblings and his mother.

“We just go from day to day – there is always something happening,” says Brendan (49), a self-employed builder who has been returning home on average once every three years – but usually during the Irish summer.

So what’s it like being back among his family of birth?

“It seems pretty much the same; everybody falls back into their positions. It works really well – it gels,” he says. And the children blend in well with their eight Irish-born cousins, who range in age from 15 to 29.

Annmaree notices how Brendan’s accent instantly becomes stronger when they come here and how, being the baby of the family, he goes back into that role – an observation he immediately disputes.

However, just three days after leaving a hot and humid Sydney, he is relishing the once-familiar countdown to Christmas.

He had forgotten, for instance, the necessary pursuit of the perfect tree – in Australia they’re all plastic.

Then, he recalls from childhood, the last thing you see before you go to bed on Christmas Eve, is this tree in the corner with the lights on and the presents underneath.

“I am hoping my kids will pick up on that,” he says.

He has attempted to recreate this in Australia, “but it is bright at 10 o’clock at night and you are trying to send them off to bed – but here it’s dark. It’s good.”

He likes all the fuss about the fresh turkey too – where it comes from, who is going to cook it, who is going to make the stuffing.

In Australia the turkey is frozen and a lot of people don’t eat turkey anyway – chicken and salads would be a common Christmas Day dinner.

Family time
The other side of Brendan not having been home at this time for 22 years is that his mother hasn't had her whole family together around the Christmas dinner table for 22 years, points out Annmaree (48), a child and family health nurse. This will be only her third Christmas ever away from her mother and siblings.

“It’s fine but it’s funny, ” she remarks. The Laverys, “a very family-orientated family”, always make her feel very welcome.

“It was a big choice for us but I think the time is right,” says Brendan about coming home. “Christmas is a special time – family time – and reminds us, me anyway, of who we are and how important families are to us.”

Is there a danger of building everybody’s expectations too high for the big day?

“We’ll get back to you on that one,” he laughs.