The Big Shop – or even the Slightly Smaller Shop, given the year that’s in it – is done. The oodies (more on these later) are warming by the geothermal heat pump. The first pitched battle over the timing of the central heating has already been lost. Christmas – or “winter” as Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan insists we’re being forced to call it by shadowy, unnamed enemies of tradition – is almost upon us.
We at The Irish Times are unapologetic proponents of festive traditions – and, to prove it, here is our essential annual guide to themes and topics you’ll want to avoid around the dinner table. Or, if you enjoy your pudding served steaming with a dollop of incandescent rage, feel free to use this as a conversation starter.
Go in peace, or go in seething passive aggression. Unlike some of your nearest and dearest, we’re not here to judge.
1. Fate of the live crib
The opener: “First they came for the Puck Fair, then they came for the wee donkey. What would have been next, Christmas itself? The Ploughing? Nathan Carter? Rural Ireland is under attack by the liberal elites up in Dublin and good on Minister Patrick O’Donovan for saying enough is enough. The people have spoken. We’ve a right to our live crib.”
The comeback: “Get away with yourself, Daddy. That manufactured row over the crib was pure populism by Fine Gael. Lord mayor Caroline Conroy’s decision to cancel it wasn’t an attack on children or rural Ireland or Christmas or the holy family. She was just making the point that frightened farm animals have no place in the middle of a busy city. If O’Donovan and the OPW spent half as much time trying to house people as they did finding new accommodation for the donkey and the goat, they could have solved the homelessness crisis by now.”
Fight factor: 7/10. This was never just about the live crib – not after Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan went on Liveline to declare his decision to move it to St Stephen’s Green a victory for traditional values. These days, ramping up the culture wars is so easy a donkey could do it.
The opener: “You’re not coming to the dinner table in that. It’s not even clothing, it’s an anxiety attack in garment form. I don’t claim to be an expert in fashion, but a penguin-print burka definitely isn’t it. Women in Iran are risking their lives burning their headscarves, while you’re moping around the house of your own free will in that yoke. You’d better take it off before lunch, because if you think Auntie Noeleen wants to look at you sitting there in a giant, manky grobag, you’ve another think coming. Has it ever even seen the inside of a washing machine? I dread to think the bacterial biohazards you’re harbouring in there.”
The comeback: “It’s not a burka or a grobag, it’s an oodie – a cross between a hoodie and a blanket with pockets! It makes me feel like walking burrito and it’s glorious. I don’t need to look decorative for Auntie Noeleen, or anyone else. In fact, since we all need to wean ourselves off Big Oil, there’s one under the tree for everyone.”
Fight factor: 4/10. Rows over the Christmas Day dress code can get surprisingly heated, as will you in your oodie – not that you’ll ever be able to admit it now.
3. Free speech on Twitter
The opener: “It’s hilarious to see all the liberals shrieking about Elon Musk destroying Twitter by reintroducing free speech. The irony! When did you all become so terrified of hearing views you disagree with? I remember when it took effort to get yourself cancelled. These days you only need to be seen reading Harry Potter on the Dart and you’re a fully fledged fascist.”
The comeback: “You can spend all day getting into fights with anonymous strangers online, Ronan, but don’t delude yourself you’re making a stand for freedom of speech. You’re basically in the unpaid service of Silicon Valley. Their algorithms love an irate, bickering, emotionally engaged audience. You work for Elon Musk now and you don’t even get paid for it, you big eejit.”
Fight factor: 3/10. Other than your brother-in-law, the professional troll, people in the real world don’t really care what happens to Twitter. If Elon Musk wants to pull off the fastest destruction of wealth in global history by spending $44 billion on a company worth $15 billion, and then running it into the ground, good luck to him. We say: wade right in because someone might as well knock a bit of craic out of it.
4. Housing for asylum seekers
The opener: “It’s the lack of consultation with the local population I object to. You can’t just bus hundreds of migrants into an area which doesn’t even have enough GP places for its own. Besides, it’s an outrage to expect unfortunate people to live in an office block. It’s inhumane. You wouldn’t see them try it in Sandymount.”
The comeback: “Hold up there a second. Is it the inhumanity of the system you object to, or the lack of services in the area, or the fact that there are no accommodation centres for migrants in Sandymount? Or is it maybe the potential impact on your €5,500 monthly income from your East Wall investment properties? I’m confused, Uncle Davy. Because I don’t remember you worrying much about the state of our direct provision system before.”
Fight factor: 9/10. Housing for asylum seekers, greedy landlords, migration policy – there are a whole lot of hot button issues here to thrash out over the turkey.
The opener: “I take it nobody minds if I do?”
The comeback: “Actually, I do mind. Don’t take this the wrong way, but a grown woman breathing watermelon ice fumes out of a USB stick all over the dessert is rude and pathetic. You were never even a proper smoker, so I don’t know why you’ve insisted on enslaving yourself to an equally pointless, expensive, addictive habit. Put it away and we’ll open another bottle of wine instead.”
Fight factor: 6/10. Nothing kills the mood faster than one person with a pointless, expensive and addictive habit lecturing someone else about their preferred pointless, expensive and addictive habit. We say this every year and you still don’t listen: commentary on other people’s dietary and lifestyle choices is best avoided.
The opener: “I do like Ireland. Very much. But one thing puzzles me. Why does no one here seem to appreciate Bono? He is a good guy, no? Dedicated to his art, his wife, his family and his activism. And now it turns out he’s an amazing writer too. Did we tell you about the incredible night we had at the 3Olympia?”
The comeback: “I’ll just stop you there, Moritz. We’ve an old saying in Dublin: everyone’s got a Bono story and no one wants to hear it. Why is it we hate him again? I actually can’t remember. Something about tax dodging, was it? Wasn’t there also a weird poem about Ukraine or something? Yeah, no, anyway, I’ll be honest: he’s rich, talented, with deep wells of self-confidence and boundless capacity for creativity and joy. We can’t stand it.”
Fight factor: 1/10. Ignore the bluster, there’s no real potential for conflict here. Hating Bono has become so much a part of our national identity that we can’t give up now, especially not in front of the daughter’s U2-loving boyfriend visiting from Hamburg. But our hearts aren’t really in it any more.
7. Energy shaming
The opener: “You could have toned down the Christmas lights this year. It’s mortifying. The house is lit up like a Google data centre and our older neighbours are sitting in the cold, petrified to put the heating on, Putin is using winter as a weapon of war in Ukraine, and the planet is burning. Where are the Brussels sprouts from this year? South Africa? You’ve beaten your own air-miles record again. And don’t get me started on these single-use crackers.”
The comeback: “Who stole your organic, plastic-free lollipop, Saoirse? I swear you’re just sick over the fact that your new Tesla costs as much as my trusty little diesel to run. I thought we had agreed you’d lay off the energy shaming for the weekend. I actually think I preferred you when you were just a vegan.”
Fight factor: 8/10. Sanctimonious commentary on other people’s lifestyle choices generates enough sparks to power the national grid. Still, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without someone making a land-grab for the higher moral ground.
8. GAA violence
The opener: “There were some gas scenes at the club county final. Bit of a shemozzle in the parallelogram, as Michael O’Hehir would have said. All the pearl-clutching about fisticuffs is ridiculous. The reality, is you can’t have fit young men engaging in a very physical contact sport without some degree of physicality. Winning is a ruthless business. It’s kill or be killed out there.”
The comeback: “Would you listen to yourself? All those euphemisms about fracas and handbags just minimise what’s going on the pitch. This country has a complete cultural blind spot about the GAA, and the GAA has a blind spot about violence. What kind of role models are they for young lads, gouging each other’s eyes out?”
Fight factor: 8.5/10. For all they admire toughness on the pitch, when they’re away from it, the most ardent GAA supporters can be very thin-skinned. Brace for unacceptable scenes at the dinner table.
9. United Ireland
The opener: “Our greatest days are still to come. I don’t cry easily but I had a lump in my throat when Mary Lou said it at the ardfheis: we will unite Ireland together. It’s about working together to bring out the best of North and South, put the sectarianism behind us and forge a new vision of a more progressive, shared and equal future, an Ireland where all are welcome.”
The comeback: “That’s beautiful. You’re ready for a new national anthem then? The prospect of higher taxes? And how about a new flag while we’re at it? Are the people in the north ready to give up their NHS? Are we ready for unionists in Leinster House? I’m all for a united Ireland too, as long as we’re all clear it doesn’t just mean ‘bigger Republic of Ireland and payback for 800 years’.”
Fight factor: 10/10. You thought the Civil War got ugly?
10. Sad, beige parenting
The opener: “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but that’s an awful dreary rig-out on little Ellie. Why do you always have her dressed like she’s the stain you couldn’t get out of the carpet? All that beige gives her the complexion of cold potato soup. If she had a donkey and a basket of turf, she could nearly be an exhibit in the Famine museum. What happened to a nice bit of pink on little girls? And why is everything in her Christmas stocking brown or grey too?”
The comeback: “Granny, muted, gender-neutral tones are really fashionable. Besides, she loves beige. Not every toy has to be primary-coloured. There’s no reason our house has to look like a clown vomited all over it just because we’ve had a baby.”
Fight factor: 9/10. For a trend that is inherently insipid, this has the potential to be surprisingly incendiary. Adherents to what American Instagrammer Hayley DeRoche identified as the “sad, beige” parenting trend tend to be wedded to their taupe ideals. And remember the golden rule of Christmas: commentary on other people’s parenting choices never goes down well.