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An unusual Christmas

Three women tell of their weird and wonderful Christmas experiences away from home

Christmas with servants
Karen McDonnell

At the age of 15, I found myself at the very centre of haute-bourgeois French Christmas celebrations. I was on my first trip as an exchange student in the late 1970s. I loved French and my hosts were charming. From Paris, we decamped to stay with their grandparents in a hidden valley in Normandy. I learned how to sing French carols in the tiny church (“Il est né, le divine Enfant”).

But, Christmas dinner after midnight Mass? I spent the night thinking about Christmas at home in Ennis: wrapping paper littering my parents’ bed, then down the stairs to see what Santa had brought. (Santa’s a great man - he visited us well into our 20s.)

In France, we went to great-granny’s house in Louviers for Christmas lunch. When I say “house”, I really mean “mini-chateau”. My jaw was barely back up off the floor when I was informed that Great-Uncle Jacque’s place next door was modelled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Quite.


Maman Claire wrapped me in her Moroccan cape and photographed me in the gardens, as in the picture. The closest I had to come to liveried servants was watching Upstairs Downstairs – now I was part of the French version. A huge oval table was flanked at each corner of the room by four smaller tables. Place names were inked on thick cards. We had fois gras for starters. I loved it, much to the amusement of the French cousins. Silver platters of game were served with puréed chestnuts. Dessert was a delicate concoction of blackcurrants, ice-cream and meringue. I even drank champagne. I knew, sitting there, away from my family in Ennis, it was a lifetime's memory in the making.

Christmas with the Naval Service
Rebecca Cronin

It was 1993 and we were living in Dubai. I was 11 year old. My parents, who had both been in the Naval Service some years earlier, had volunteered to host some British Naval officers for Christmas dinner. Their ship was docked in the harbour. (HMS Chatham, I think it was.) Mum was head chef and Dad was head entertainer for the day, although, it didn't work out like this. My Dad was 'on duty' and received the dreaded call from work. Off he went and on Christmas morning my stressed-out Mum was left with her two children, three strange men, a pasty turkey, raw vegetables, no sauce in sight and no idea when her husband would return.

Mum decided, in a somewhat panicked state, that the children and the three men could entertain themselves for a few hours by going bowling. The bowling alley was closed and it was raining. Sitting in the taxi outside the bowling alley on Christmas Day while the rain poured down, our Pakistani driver asked: “Where going now?” Why, the ice-rink of course. Looking back on it now, whatever about us, it really must have been the most random Christmas day for those three Royal Navy Officers.

Christmas on the road
Sharon Ní Icí

In 2009, I had made the journey to Australia with my one-year working visa in one hand and the Lonely Planet in the other. I arrived on December 1st and had been sleeping on the floor of an apartment in Melbourne that an old university friend shared with her boyfriend. As Christmas drew near, I felt as though I would be better off seeing some of Australia, rather than imposing myself on her and her in-laws.

I booked a two-week bus trip and decided to spend Christmas and New Year with 19 strangers. Christmas Day was spent driving along the Great Ocean Road and eating questionable noodles for lunch on a park bench in Warrnambool after a swim in Martyr’s Bay. Hall’s Gap at the foot of the Grampian Mountains was our stop for the night.

The group rustled up some watery spaghetti bolognese in the hostel kitchen (we were the only occupants) and, at 11pm, with a noticeable lack of Christmas cheer, I walked in the pitch black night through the town. There were hoards of kangaroos and, with my pockets full of change, I tried to find a pub and/or telephone to call home. All the pubs were closed, so I found a payphone and, one by one, the group took turns. I spoke to everyone at home and, for the first time that day, felt a lonely pang for home.

All of us were longing for a proper dinner, back-to-back movies on television, presents and the cold smell of winter in the air.