A tale of two Christmases: culchie vs city

Christmas is meant to be a time of rest and reflection . . . but Waterford Whispers' Gerry McBride spends the day torn between the city and the country

 

Six years ago, I moved up to Dublin with my then-girlfriend, now-wife. It’s been long enough for her to accept all my Monaghan nuances, not least the fact that I still say “up to Dublin”, despite how geographically incorrect that statement may be.

Towards the end of each of these six years, we’ve found ourselves facing a quandary; where do we go for Christmas? To her parents house in Dublin, or (ignoring all compasses) head down to my folks in Carrickmacross? Christmas dinners with one’s parents are a finite commodity, and neither my wife nor I would happily miss one.

Although both mothers insisted that they “didn’t mind” if we didn’t make it to see them at Christmas, we drew from personal experience and successfully ascertained that an Irish mother’s “don’t mind” actually translates as “it would shatter my heart into a thousand unfixable pieces”, thus presenting only one true solution; to head to both houses, having two sets of Christmas dinners in a six-hour period in the process.

This daunting challenge is made possible by the fact that country dinnertime and city dinnertime are two very different things. In the country, you have dinner (at one o’clock) and tea (at about six). City folk have lunch at one, followed by dinner at six or seven. It’s the reason that I miss so many appointments in the city, by telling people that I’ll see them “around dinnertime”.

It’s this rift in the food-time continuum that allows me and my wife to have dinner at dinnertime with my folks, and also dinner at dinnertime with her family, a bit like how Phil Collins managed to play Live Aid in both London and Philadelphia.

With a heavy day of eating ahead of us, we start with a small Christmas breakfast of a light-to-middling fry, with a few Scotch eggs and maybe the better part of a selection box (or a whole one if it’s the baby-sized selection boxes with the Freddos and the bags of Buttons).

Then it’s off “down” to Monaghan, via Slane in a bid to better enjoy the winter scenery (also, a culchie will only ever drive up the “big road” when absolutely necessary; it’s a sign of foolishness, like paying full price for something that you could have gotten cheaper elsewhere). Besides, the N2 is a joy to drive during a quiet Christmas morning, the only day of the year when Wexford teenagers aren’t selling strawberries every 15 miles.

To wander outside on Christmas Day in the countryside is a wonderful thing; regardless of what the weather is, everything just feels more festive. Conversely, Christmas Day in the city looks like every other day, except for the lack of quite so much traffic.

In fact, I find the eerie quiet of driving through Dublin on a Christmas morning to be quite unsettling, as if I’m about to find out that there’s been some dreadful military coup which caused a mass exodus while I slept.

Upon arrival at my homeplace, me and my wife might take a stroll to the nearby lake while waiting for everyone to arrive at the house, taking in the chill of a winter’s morning while enjoying the hint of turf fires in the air.

Only on the rare occasion will this idyllic setting be betrayed by coming across a cache of something dumped on the roadside. Dublin may have its faults, but it’s not often you’ll walk down Grafton Street and find a discarded water storage cube full of washed diesel sludge on the footpath.

Unlike in my in-laws’ house in Dublin, in which all rooms are accessible 365 days a year, Christmas Day in the country is the one day of the year where we are granted entry to the front room of the house, the fabled “good sitting room”.

Like in the vast majority of bungalows in the country, the front room at home is off-limits throughout the year, despite being the best decorated room in the house with the most comfortable furniture.

This is the room where Santa Claus would leave presents when I was small, the thrill of which was amplified on Christmas morning by the fact that not only did I just somehow receive a bunch of toys from a magical entity while I was asleep, I was also in the mythical “good sitting room” without my mother yelling at me to get out and not break anything.

Present exchanges in the two households never fail to tickle me, as each family tackles their gifts in such a different manner. In the city, my in-laws excitedly open their presents as and when they get them, gleefully thanking you for their new jumper or bath bomb gift set or whatever it is, before moving to the next package.

Up home, it’s a much more measured, cautious procedure. You can hand someone from the country a present and it might sit unopened for an hour. This is not ingratitude; it’s more like they don’t want to sully the act of gift-giving by actually opening the thing.

It’s not uncommon when leaving to head back to Dublin that I’ll have to wait until my mother opens her Christmas present, as she’d been too busy making sure we all had glasses of Shlöer and lunchboxes of leftover turkey to do so.

Regardless of how mild the weather may be, Christmas is a time for my dad to light the open fire in the living room and stoke it to such a level that keeping your Christmas jumper on becomes at best uncomfortable and at worst downright dangerous.

Just as my mother works hard in the kitchen to make sure the Christmas dinner is as delicious as possible, my dad works hard in the living room to make sure that every window and door in the house has to be thrown open.

“Do you have an open fire in your house in Dublin?” he asks me, fully aware that we’ve got gas central heating. Knowing exactly what he wants to hear, I say “No, Dad, we’ve a gas fire that we never switch on because it’s too expensive.”

We have this exact exchange every Christmas, and it never fails to please him. I must admit, an open fire is one of the things I miss the most about living in the country, even if it is only lit once a year at Christmas.

Food wise, our country dinner (also referred to as our “starter dinner”, or “dinner primer”) skews more traditional than the meal served up in the city.

The Christmas feast lovingly prepared by my mother has barely changed over the 30-something years I’ve gladly eaten it; homemade soup for starters, followed by turkey and ham, mixed vegetables, potatoes, covered in gravy or white sauce, washed down with sips from a level glass of wine poured by my dad. Trifle for dessert, tea or coffee, and a big box of USA biscuits.

After a sufficient recuperation time, a much slower return journey to Dublin follows, to give the digestive system time to prepare itself for dinner number two.

The city dinner is a little more of a wild card; my wife’s family are far more adventurous in their tastes, and like to try different things. One year we had goose; the next, lobster. Starters range from French onion soup to prawn cocktail to crab claws to goat’s cheese tartlets. There’s a cheese course after your dessert.

Coming from a more reserved culinary upbringing, I had never eaten food like it in my life, and loved it all. Well, except for the spiced beef. I like my meat and my clove rock sweets separately, thank you very much.

The food served in both houses may differ, but there are more than a few things about both Christmas dinner experiences that are basically identical.

In both homes, crackers are pulled and declared a waste of money, and a decree is made to never again bring Christmas crackers to the house.

Both mothers constantly fuss over their dinner guests, while being pleaded with to sit and eat their own dinner before it gets cold, in a tone of voice not dissimilar to a group of friends begging their drunken mate to stop trying to climb a tree.

Two dinners will test you: four courses with my folks and five with hers, for a sum total of nine courses of rich food, before you get started on the After Eights. Sitting reading this, you may think this task impossible. When faced with the actual challenge, your stomach steps up and gets the job done, like those stories about how a mother was able to lift an entire car off her stricken child after the adrenaline kicked in, Incredible Hulk style.

We wrap up dinner number two and make our way home, having completed another 140-mile, 7,000 calorie Christmas.

Although many of the people I tell this story to respond by saying that we must be crazy to spend “the whole day” driving around, to be honest the drive has actually become one of the more enjoyable parts of our Christmas; it gives us the perfect chance to have some quiet time to chat and laugh with no TV in the background as we make our way through an actual, honest-to-God winter wonderland.

And as a bonus, with all our yuletide visits and obligations out of the way, the rest of Christmas week is all ours. Honestly, when the front door swings behind me on Christmas night, I don’t draw fresh air until the 28th of December.

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