Peace and harmony, how are ya? Lost in the Christmas chaos
A day marking the birth of Jesus is often more like the Second Coming than the first
Safe space? “I found my hyperventilating father cowering in the shed, pretending to get turf.” Photograph: Getty
Christmas Day spent at home with family seems such an idyllic idea in theory, but let’s be honest: the reality can often prove quite the opposite. Greasy-haired, hungover siblings; carrots welded to a pan and red wine spilt on your mother’s carefully ironed white table runner; sherry trifle sitting upside down on the back kitchen floor; and not a stitch of clean clothing to be found for Mass.
Those few early-evening festive drinks you decided to have together in town last night inevitably wore on until closing time, leaving the whole lot of ye rather foggy this morning.
That coat you bought for Christmas Mass looked much better without the beer stain on the arse of it, and fingers crossed that the priest doesn’t smell the stale cigarette smoke off your scarf.
Of course, there is some solace in spotting your equally mouldy-looking friends and neighbours in the pews ahead, knowing they’re not quite sober either.
After Mass, though, is when the fun truly starts. Alarm bells ring when you come across your hyperventilating father cowering in the shed, pretending to be getting turf. The shed is his “safe space” and serves as solace from the short-tempered, stressed-out chef more affectionately known as his wife. Christmas Day has unleashed in her this primal need to polish wine glasses, dispense tap water into jugs with mint and lemons, and perform myriad other superfluous kitchen tasks.
She has kicked into Marco Pierre White mode, and kitchen minions had better be on their best behaviour to avoid her wrath.
For a day that is supposed to be pious and peaceful, a sacred celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, our house can often remind me more of the Second Coming than the first. The Second Coming is the prophesied occasion when Christ returns for the Last Judgment, the preface to which is the apocalypse, humanity’s last day on earth, a period of reckoning when bloodshed and chaos reign supreme, which can only be ended by our saviour.
Okay, perhaps I am exaggerating, but I could certainly draw some parallels between that scene and the anarchy of post-Mass, pre-dinner kerfuffle in our house on December 25th.
Christmas Day five years ago is a good example of the kind of pandemonium I’m talking about. While juggling what seemed like endless numbers of pots of potatoes cooked in various ways, balancing a ham on a window sill and rescuing singed carrots as well as stirring the mulled wine, my mother, in the midst of absolute chaos, did something very, very silly.
She took two scalding hot trays from the oven and, failing to find a worktop space, mindlessly handed one of them to poor, unsuspecting Niamh (that’s me), who had just walked in the door. It felt like my hand had melted and stuck to the tray.
Although I’m sure I cried and whinged like a toddler, my mother’s reaction was like nothing I had seen before. I’m pretty sure she was more upset than I was, because it’s not often in our house that we receive genuine sympathy. I’m well accustomed to the usual “feck off, Niamh, you’re not that bad . . . I’m sick listening to ya” response. This time was different though.
As I spent the day sitting beside the bathroom sink full of ice-cold water, nursing a blistered hand, my guilt-ridden mum hovered over me, intermittently sobbing, saying sorry in hushed tones and passing me several courses of mixed berry pavlovas, all the while attending to a large extended family.
It was that year I realised she was not the devil incarnate sent to test our patience, but just a really stressed-out host wishing everything would be perfect for those she loves – and how lucky are we to have that?
This Christmas will be hard for many, many people. For some, it is just a day to get through, a painful reminder of who should be sitting at the table but is no longer around.
I feel guilty for being lucky enough to have a fluttering mother hovering over us and a brother who will bring so much joy on his return home from the US. I feel guilty that I can meet all of my friends and extended family, when all some of us are longing for is to be at home. But guilt is a waste of precious happiness.
So I suggest we all resolve to revel in the chaos and savour the shambles of a Christmas spent with those you love.
Niamh Towey is a journalist with The Irish Times