Huberman family Christmas: ‘We were lucky as kids that Christmas in our house was a fun time. It’s not a given’

Siblings Amy, Mark and Paul Huberman talk about the Christmases of their childhood and more difficult recent ones

If there is one thing guaranteed to make Amy Huberman cry, it is the opening verse of O Holy Night. This most melancholy of seasonal songs has a special place in her heart. It was the soundtrack to the Christmases of her childhood and of memories that have become even more cherished since the death in May last year of her father, Harold.

“Our mum is a really good singer,” says Amy, a successful actor and best-selling author. “She traditionally always sang. She was in the church choir in Cabinteely. It would be O Holy Night. We were always sprinting to make midnight Mass. I’d be in heels going, ‘What time is it?’ Midnight Mass is never at midnight. It’s always at 10 or some time like that. I’ve never heard my mum sing that without tearing up. That was always a lovely tradition.”

Amy is participating in an Irish Times Christmas photo shoot with her older brother, Mark, and the baby of the family, Paul, while her mother, Sandra, watches encouragingly from the sidelines. It is a rare moment for the busy family – one they have come to appreciate following the death of Harold, who passed away at age 84 and following a Parkinson’s diagnosis nine years previously.

Amy Huberman wears earrings, Carat London, Weir & Sons, €240; blazer, Chanel, Ruby Ruby (price available on request); trousers, Pinko, Harvey Nichols, €255; tuxedo shirt, Remus Uomo, €69.95; and shoes, Aldo, €89.39. Mark (left) wears tuxedo, Carl Gross, €495; shirt, Remus Uomo, €85; bow tie, Next, €21; and shoes, Best Menswear, €119.95. Paul wears wears tuxedo, Carl Gross, €495; shirt, Remus Uomo, €85; bow tie, Next, €21; and shoes, Best Menswear, €119.95. Photographs: Emily Quinn

This will be their second Christmas without their dad. Huberman suspects it will be an emotional one. Christmas is intense at the best of times. And the past few years have given her more to think about than ever.

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“With Christmas there is a nostalgia. No matter what your new traditions are,” she says. “There’s a foundation: what was your childhood? That’s what is so lovely about it. It can be a hard time for people as well. People get really reflective at Christmas and going into New Year’s, which I sometimes find even more emotional than Christmas. That time of year – it’s a real reflective time. It can be good. It can be harder. Other times it can be a mix of both.”

A lot of people feel under huge pressure to make sure Christmas is fun. But the reality of their family life is that there isn’t room for fun. We were lucky as kids

—  Mark Huberman

Mark, an actor like his sister, nods. “We’re very lucky. Not everyone had a fun Christmas. A lot of people feel under huge pressure to make sure Christmas is fun. But the reality of their family life is that there isn’t room for fun. We were lucky as kids that Christmas in our house was a fun time. It’s not a given.”

Last year, their first without their dad, was tough, he says. He wonders how this Christmas will go. They might be surprised to discover that they’re still processing the loss.

“The first Christmas without them is that tricky thing,” he says. “You’re dreading it so much. You’ve already prepared for it – through dread. This Christmas might be a bit of a sneaky hit. You think it’s going to be okay and it might not be. You’ve done the hard bit. You drop a guard a bit.”

They’ve also been thinking a lot about their childhood and Christmas. As with many households, their mother was quietly toiling in the background while dad embraced the role of mischief-maker-in-chief.

“When you’re a kid, dads are notoriously good at having the craic element while mum potentially did more of the hard work. The sense of fun in it – Mum wouldn’t have been fun, she was just so busy. Mum would cook the turkey but Dad was the carving king. Dad was one of the people whose mantra would have been ‘Family is key’. There’s an energy that’s not there. You try to fill the gap. It’s definitely different. The first one you’re ready for it. The second one, perhaps less so.”

Their last Christmas together was poignant, says Amy.

“We had managed to get together the previous Christmas despite Covid stuff. I was glad when Christmas and New Year’s were over. In your head you’re saying, ‘oh you’ve done that first one’. You can’t escape that empty chair – they are missing. I find it really, really hard.”

“It is tricky,” says Mark. “He would make cool little biscuit things. There are things that became part of the tapestry of Christmas. Dad’s nature was like: they’re amazing biscuits, aren’t they? Fishing for compliments. And you think, ‘Do we make it the same? No, that was part of what dad used to do. It’s time for it to end.’”

Amy nods, sharing a memory of her own. “I’ve a picture of dad framed in our house. He was smoking a pipe. He had one of those ribbony-bow things that you’d see on a present just on his head. It was very Dad.”

To this day, their mother is the one who puts Christmas together, says youngest sibling Paul, a songwriter who also works as a property consultant.

“We kind of just show up. Or I did, when the meal was ready for presentation. Mum has put so much effort together every year. She misses a lot of Christmas. There’s so much work. It’s not just the turkey. It’s the preparations of the fancy cutlery. Maybe we chip in with the cleaning afterwards. But the heavy lifting is done by Mum. We’re very lucky to have that. I’m still able to have the same Christmas dinner that I did as a kid. There’s a continuity there.”

Their childhood in Dublin was loving – but not without its moments of sibling conflict, as Amy and Mark recall with a smile.

“We obviously scrapped and argued. I remember myself and Mark mostly got on well. One time we had to bring the bins out, and we were annoying each other. I gave you the two fingers. And you were like, ‘I’m telling Mum’. I had 20 seconds to get out of this: I knew we were dead. I said I gave myself the peace sign. You weren’t a snitch. I was being very annoying. Our house was fun – weekends building dens and hanging out together. Properly playing. We were pals. There were fights over the remotes, though.

Mark nods. “You’d have Care Bears on.”

It was a household where the ability to hold your own in an argument was valued. “Humour had currency in the house – being able to hold your own,” says Mark. “Growing up, that’s what it was. You’d see Dad doing it in company or with us: that repetition of terrible gags until they become funny. From the top down, humour was being used as a nice way just to make everyone feel comfortable.”

Every family Christmas is different, however. In Amy’s case, the big difference she noticed since marrying rugby player Brian O’Driscoll – the couple have a daughter and two sons – is the speed with which her in-laws unwrap presents. Her husband is astonished at how long the Hubermans take to get through the gift-giving. In the O’Driscolls, everyone opens their gifts at the same time.

“We were laughing, when you merge families, you realise how different things are. The biggest is that when he’s with my family – about how slowly we open presents. Whereas, there, everyone opens everything at the same time. He couldn’t get over it. We’d be four courses in and we’d be going. ‘Who is going to open their gift next and saying why they bought it?’ There’s a ritual to it.”

Beyond Christmas, Amy is looking forward to a busy 2024. Mark has a lot coming up, too. “I was in a thing on the BBC, Woman in the Wall. That’s going to come out in America on Showtime. And then season three of Vikings Valhalla, filmed ages ago, and that’s coming out in January as well.”

“I have a couple of things,” says. A few things I was in earlier [have yet to air]. And then couple of writing things,” says Amy. “But actually it will be nice. I don’t have any writing deadlines. It will be nice to relax.”

For the It’s Christmas fashion shoot and interviews, see https://www.irishtimes.com/it-s-christmas-magazine

Amy is set to appear in the upcoming comedy series, LOL: Last One Laughing Ireland, hosted by Graham Norton launching January 2024 on Prime Video