Fintan O’Toole: The Irish Christmas is a fiction of home

Beneath the seasonal franticity is something fragile, fleeting and precious

The arrivals hall in Dublin Airport's T2 is awash with festive cheer as family and friends welcome their loved ones home for Christmas


Most of us live in two Irelands. One is physical, a latticework of streets and lanes, fields and hills. The other is mental, a nexus of relationships and connections, of love and loss. One exists in space: it resides on solid ground and is bounded by the seas. The other exists in time: it abides in memory and is therefore bounded only by memory’s porous and shifting borders. These two Irelands are usually quite separate. The point of Christmas is to bring them together, to make it seem for a few days as if they are not two but one.

It’s true of all cultures, of course, that the place people feel beneath their feet is not the one they have in their heads. We all belong (or struggle to belong) in both real and imagined places. But it’s true in a special way for migrant cultures, and ours is certainly one of those. We have an intense sense of place and an intense experience of displacement. We’re like creatures who evolved to live in one climate but had to learn to live in another.

The Irish gene code is mapped on to townlands and drumlins, alleys and terraces, boreens and main streets, housing estates and villages. Our thought processes work best at the Ordnance Survey scale of 1:5,000 – zone out too much and we lose our bearings. Our politics and our literature are steeped in locality like pickles in a jar. Even the national scale is a stretch – for all our nationalism, we struggle with the idea that we own the State.

We’re off

And yet our lives are utterly opposed to this instinct. We go. At the first sign of trouble, and often at the first whiff of opportunity, we’re off. We breathe the air of Elsewhere – out of necessity sometimes but also out of desire. We’re rather good at being citizens of Elsewhere, at insinuating ourselves into other contexts. And maybe the reason we’re so good at it is not that we forget home but that we remember it. We carry Ireland in our heads and perhaps we sometimes secretly feel that that’s the best place to have it, that it is at its loveliest when memory and distance have filtered out its complications and infuriations.

But even if we don’t go, it’s no use. We can’t avoid living in two Irelands because even if we stay our children go. Or our brothers and sisters. Or our best friends. You could spend your whole life in your own little Irish parish and yet a part of you will always be living Elsewhere because that’s where a bit of your heart is. There’s no getting away from your connection to someone who got away.

So we say that Christmas is all about home, but we know that word is not simple. The question “Are you coming home for Christmas?” always has a possible answer: “But I am home.” For the child who has left, there are three stages of home. First, it’s obviously “back home” – the corner of Ireland that is entangled in the neurons of your brain like wool in briars. Then, you are homeless, drawn between where you are and where you used to be. And finally you are at home again, settled, a part of the new place, the home that is not “back” but forward, not your past but your future.

At home

And if you’re the parent of the child who has left, that “But I am at home” is the answer you both dread and desire. You dread it because it is a kind of sundering. The physical distance that has been between you is now also a psychological distance. It is one thing for the child to migrate; quite another for his or her sense of belonging to migrate too, following eventually in the wake of the departed.

The moment comes when your child belongs where you are not and it is natural to dread it. But natural to desire it too – if their home is now Elsewhere, it is usually because they have found love there. Why would you not want that for them? There is no straight answer – you do of course and you wish you didn’t have to.

So the Irish Christmas is a fiction of home. It is a work of fuss and travel and shopping and making up beds and peeling sprouts and spuds and collecting turkeys and soaking hams. But it’s also a work of the imagination. It is a ritual in which we pretend for a few days that there are not two Irelands, that the physical place we inhabit and the people who inhabit our hearts fit together as naturally as family photos in their frames. At Christmas, Ireland looks like what it might be if we were not an emigrant culture, if history had not unsettled us and left with such a complicated relationship between people and place. The Irish Christmas is a kind of alternative history in which everything, and everybody, is at home.

And it’s all the more lovely for it. There’s a frantic, vulgar, crazy Christmas. But beneath it, there’s something fragile and fleeting and,in its very precariousness, rather precious.   

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