Unfiltered truth: the stories behind the Christmas photos

There’s more than meets the eye in these seasonal snaps. Five people share their most memorable festive photographs, each one telling a poignant tale of its own

We all know that social media doesn’t reflect reality – especially at this time of the year. Behind the heavily filtered photo of the beaming faces or the festive table setting, there’s probably a row broiling along with the turkey. We asked five people with a large social media following to share the story behind some of their festive images.

Paul Flynn, chef

I hadn’t seen this photo for many years and, as old pictures do, it brought memories churning their way into clarity.

I don’t remember my parents being affectionate like this all too often; they didn’t always get on. They quietly lived apart – it was just easier that way – but they stayed together, as that’s was what was done in those days. Mam lived over the chemist in the square, Dad in a cottage overlooking the bay. I shared my time between both. They reared eight children, it wasn’t always easy. He came to work at the chemist’s every day and would go upstairs to check the form – sometimes it was good, sometimes it wasn’t. If there was a prevailing wind he would have tea, cream crackers and Kilmeaden cheese; if not, a quick head round the door would be enough to send him back down to the sanctuary of the shop.

I can’t take my eyes off this photo, I find myself scrutinising their expressions. I’m not certain it’s love, but I am sure it’s affection. Perhaps it’s two people catching a glimpse of what brought them together in the first place.

My father spent six years in a seminary and left it for my mother. He by all accounts was utterly crazy about her – she was a very glamorous lady . His mother never forgave him. He looks happy but perhaps a bit wary with his Cafe Creme cigar in one hand and his ventolin inhaler on the table within easy reach.

Mam is having the craic; she at least at that moment loved him .

To the left in the shadows is Máire, my future wife. It was her first time in the house. We were home from London but she was only from “Kilmac”, 15 miles down the road near Dad’s home place. They got on.

She is clearly but furtively enjoying a well-earned turkey sandwich, glad of a few moments respite in this crazy house. Earlier Mam had made the two of us kneel before the crib in the sittingroom for numerous photos. I was naturally mortified , but she was already getting ready for the unannounced wedding .

Photographs are treasures – I could have glossed over what this memory really meant to me, but why would I do that? The passage of time can sometimes see you detach from your emotions; in this case it has brought them all back.

Ellie Balfe, freelance digital director and content consultant

This picture, which I posted to Instagram on December 25th, 2016, looks like a fairly standard Christmas Day hug between a grandmother and granddaughter. But for me, it was far more than that. For me, it was one of those wham-bam, stop-you-in-your tracks moments. These are two of my life's leading ladies and they had come through an eye-wateringly hard year. Anna, my daughter, had hip surgery which left her in a brace and immobile for eight weeks. No walking, no normal toilet visits (don't ask), awful pain, skin rashes, muscles weakening beneath her dressings. She was four.

My Mum has a cancer that has been debilitating her for years. Last year, she was in hospital with secondary, but major, complications. She was in hospital for eight weeks at the same time as Anna was in her cast. My daughter and my mother. Utterly taken down. With things looking bleak for mum, we lobbied the Minister for Health to release a cancer drug that was slated for a 2018 date due to costs. But this was 2016, and to wait would have been too late. Thankfully he allowed it pass through the red tape in time for her.

And around the same time, after Anna was freed from her brace, she decided to get out of the old buggy we had to use to carry her almost five-year-old frame, and just walked. She was wobbly. But walking. So for me, this picture is a victory embrace. There is something between them; something only soldiers know.

Aisling O’Loughlin, founder of exquisite.ie

I posted this photo on Instagram in early 2015. It's from an icy Christmas Eve outside my parents' house in Shannon, Co Clare. I was planning a trip to Bunratty, and managed to get Louis (then aged one) strapped into his baby seat. On a whim, I gave him my car keys to play with as I dashed back inside to get Patrick (aged three). We all know what happens next. Little Lou locked the car from the inside and we spent the rest of the evening staring in at him, as a locksmith failed to get the door open. Thankfully he fell asleep and seemed blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama as night fell and temperatures dropped. I had to borrow a special device from the Garda station in Shannon and, to Patrick's delight, smashed the driver window. It was the kind of eejit mistake you make when you're sleep-deprived and not thinking very clearly.

Louise McSharry, broadcaster, writer and beauty columnist

This photo of my dad and me was posted on Instagram in December 2014, with the caption “My dad and I have never looked more alike. (And hopefully never will look more alike, either.)”

I was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma, and had lost most of my hair, which I was fairly good-humoured about. My abiding memory of this time, though, is that I was really looking forward to the Christmas break after I finished my chemo treatment on December 23rd. The idea of being in my family home while I was sick, and being taken care of, was endlessly appealing. I was surprised when I found myself crying in the hospital that day. I couldn't really explain why. Yes, it was a tricky one as my veins had decided not to co-operate, but that wasn't what the tears were about. Noeleen, one of the incredible nurses who runs St Vincent's Ward in the Mater, told me it was totally normal to feel emotional. It wasn't really where I should be at Christmas, she said. I agreed. Christmas that year looked exactly as I'd hoped, filled with cosiness and kindness. I couldn't shake the feeling of sadness, though. It just wasn't the way things were meant to be.

Eimear Varian Barry, content creator and model

This is a photo I posted on my Instagram last Christmas on behalf of a client. It looks effortless, but a huge amount work goes on behind the scenes. I do the concept, the styling, negotiating the price, looking through the contract, hiring the photographer, modelling, agreeing the caption content, the invoicing.

I hate the term “influencer”. I usually describe myself as a content creator, which means that I have a social media profile, and sometimes I do collaborations with companies for money. The fee for a post could be anywhere between £50 (€57) in the early days, to up to £500 (€567) for a major brand. I’ve been doing it for two years, but this month is the first time I’ve been able to actually pay for childcare with what I make.

I fell into it by accident. I moved to the UK, where my partner Daniel is from, in 2013. We were living with his parents, with no jobs and one suitcase of belongings between us, and suddenly I was pregnant. To make money, I started buying 80s clothes in a charity shop, steam-cleaning them and selling them online. I would link to them from my Instagram account. I had the baby, and I would post photos of our lives too. The first time I had an inkling I could make money from the photos themselves was when this small company wrote to ask me if they could send me a free nursing pillow.

Daniel and I have come so far in such a short period. But it’s survival. You make it happen when you become a parent, because you have to make it happen. I love what I do, but I don’t want to be putting myself out there forever. We have two kids now and one on the way. I’m just happy to not have to worry about the food shop. I would like to maybe some day afford a home of our own.

Emer McLysaght, writer

This will be our 10th Christmas without my lovely Dad, who died of cancer in 2008. He loved the festive season and would always light a candle in the window on Christmas Eve "to guide the lost souls home". That always sounded so sad to me, so keeping on his tradition invariably brings a lump to my throat. Some years I share "Dad's Christmas candle" on Facebook or Instagram. It feels like I'm keeping his memory going, and guiding his soul home.

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