The real spirit of Christmas
For many people opening their homes is all about keeping the tradition of Christmas hospitality going, over many generations
Joan Sheehan photographed in her house in Dungarvan getting ready for christmas with the help of her grandchildren Elizabeth Gill and Emily Gill. Phototgraph: Mary Browne
Ray Simmons recreates a Downton Abbey atmosphere with his magnificent Christmas decor at Woodbrook House, Portarlington. Photograph: Eric Luke
Volunteers preparing food and goody bags for distribution at the annual Christmas Dinner, organised by the Knights of St Columbanus, in partnership with the members of the Royal Dublin Society. Photograph: Eric Luke
Margaret and Graham Smith on the tennis court at home on Lurcombe Farm in the UK
Jane Walsh (far left, red dress) will have 70 of the extended Kenny clan for Christmas this year, a tradition her grandparents started. Photograph: Karen Golden
Eilis Baily making Christmas crafts at her home in Barna. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The mere hint of a notion of opening one’s home to a crowd at Christmas may fluster most of us, but some people have a born talent for creating Christmas memories for relatives, friends and, sometimes, even relative strangers. It’s all about keeping the tradition of Christmas hospitality going, sometimes over many generations.
With families smaller and emigration meaning that for many of us the seasonal bonding will be over Skype rather than around the fireside, those who welcome friends, neighbours, waifs and strays or hold raucous reunions almost seem worthy of protected species status.
In Co Waterford, the cows will get their evening milking before John and Joan Sheehan open their house to cousins and friends for an evening of party games, karaoke and cards on Christmas Day. About 40 will attend this “free-for-all”, as Joan calls it, with the revelling lasting past midnight.
“There are always lots of children. I don’t agree with separating parents from children,” she says. The only adult zone will bewhen the cards come out late in the evening for poker.
Started by her brother, Justin Spratt, 35 years ago, the tradition of bringing everyone together in relaxed fashion at the family home, 200-year-old Coolnagour House, was picked up by Joan eight years ago.
“I’ve always loved the whole idea of Christmas. We need some celebration to uplift us in the dark of winter,” she says.
The cows are milked after the traditional turkey dinner – then, when it’s time for dessert, the doors are opened to more guests. The most meaningful part of Christmas for her is bringing together relations who may not meet from one end of the year to the next.
“The more the merrier. I’m not a stressful person. My advice would be to get everything out of the way in advance. It’s no big deal. People don’t expect much, they just love to call, so you don’t have to have major food. You can just hack away at the Christmas cake and the leftover meats,” says Joan, who has five grown-up children who help out.
The couple have a few days to draw breath then New Year’s Eve sees yet another party, with yet more friends and neighbours calling around.
She makes her delicious almond crumble-topped mince pies laced with rum in batches before Christmas and puts them in the freezer, then warms them up in the oven as needed.
The “same old, same old” decorations and lights are taken out for the mantelpieces and mirrors, with lots and lots of candles filling the big house. It all sounds effortless, but Joan is aware that for many working parents it’s hard to get organised.
But it’s no problem to working mother of five children, aged four to 14, Jane Walsh, who will be having 70 relations from the extended Kenny clan for her annual Christmas bash this year, continuing a tradition started by her grandparents.
And this will be just one of several Christmas gatherings she holds in her home in Galway, including a gathering for the neighbours on the 22nd or 23rd and Christmas Day dinner for 20.
A psychology lecturer at NUIG, Walsh says: “I don’t get stressed or bothered. I love Christmas. It’s about getting people together and a lot of people are very forgiving if something goes wrong; it adds to the humour and the memories.”
Walsh had her huge kitchen custom- built to accommodate her relations, for whom the party is the highlight of the year, especially for the young cousins.
“It’s ever expanding. They come from all over the world,” says Jane. “We love to party and drink a lot and the atmosphere is fantastic.”
Since it’s difficult for lots of families with young children to travel on Christmas Day, Jane holds the party on the 29th and feeds everyone from large casseroles baked in her grandfather’s Le Creuset pots, spending no more than €50 on the main course.
The guests bring cheeses, desserts, wines and kegs of beer. One aunt always brings celery sticks filled with potato, while last year they were weighed down with lovely cakes. Jane’s husband, Alan Walsh, is always on clean-up duty.
“He doesn’t seem to mind. He was raised in a B&B, Cruckhawn House in Tubbercurry, and is very sociable himself.”
Alan was so nervous about meeting the in-laws he wore a tie to his first Kenny Christmas bash. “It’s a brutal form of initiation for the boyfriends. They get a barrage of slagging and anyone who survives the test is made of stern stuff,” she says.
Ray Simmons has recreated a Downton Abbey atmosphere for the “waifs and strays” who come to stay at Christmas, in his early 18th-century country manor near Portarlington. It was in the library that Jonathan Swift wrote the bulk of Gulliver’s Travels. Simmons sets his dining table in elegant historical fashion, with china, silver, crystal and flowers. A designer and member of the Gloria choir, he loves to entertain.The 24 guests around his table are a mix of friends, friends of friends and total strangers, some of whom arrive on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with no more than a letter of introduction. During the big snow of three years ago, six people with cancelled flights turned up at the door of his mansion for Christmas dinner.
“I just love it,” says Ray. “It started on a very small scale 20 years ago when I discovered that so many people spend Christmas on their own, then as the table got bigger the guests grew in number. Some people you meet once and never meet again, and others you make firm friends with.”
The house is lit only by candlelight and no TV or technology is allowed. “If someone is caught watching TV, they go on dishwashing duty,” he says. On Christmas Day, they play charades in the drawingroom and on St Stephen’s Day they play Pictionary. People come and go as they please, enjoying long walks, reading, playing cards or chess.
Everyone does their bit to assist in the production of the meals, with all the running to and fro required, since it’s a grand house designed to be run by servants.
“And we’ve had no staff since the war,” he jokes.
“The table settings are formal, but it’s a very casual Christmas. I can camouflage my kitchen mistakes with the porcelain,” he says.
Sometimes being a Christmas host is about reaching out to others where they live, rather than bringing them into your home.
Eilis Baily, an award-winning baker and member of the 11,000-strong Irish Countrywomen’s Association, makes brown bread, Christmas cakes and mince pies and delivers them to neighbours, bachelors living alone and a friend with MS, for whom she bakes weekly throughout the year. In her home overlooking Silver Strand in Barna, Co Galway, as crafts promoter for the Barna ICA guild, she holds Tuesday morning crafts groups, where homemade Christmas gifts and decorations play a part.
Her own Christmas Day will be quiet, with her husband and eldest son – the younger son is living in Australia. And so her own Christmas celebration will be more like the one most of us will have, a quiet time to relax and regenerate.
Eilis will already have been spreading Christmas cheer in the days before, showing that you can make Christmas for someone just by calling round with something small and homemade.
DINNER FOR 500
For more than 20 years, Eugene Collins has been one of the 340-plus volunteers who help organise the annual free Christmas Day dinner for 500 of Dublin’s homeless and others in need at the RDS. He helps source the contents of the gift bags that the guests are given. “I spent over 50 years in the wholesale cash-and-carry business, so I use all my contacts,” he says.
This Christmas Day will be the 89th time the Knights of Columbanus (knightsofstcolumbanus.ie) has hosted the event, which for many years took place at the Mansion House, until the number of people in need exceeded the size of the venue.
More than 1,700 additional meals will be delivered to other city-centre venues and charities. And each person who receives one of these meals will also receive one of Eugene’s special bags.
The bags hold up to 40 items, which means there’s an average of a staggering 88,000 items to be collected, stored, sorted and bagged. There are hats, scarves, toiletries, cans of food, chocolate, fruit, Bovril, and sandwiches, which are made fresh on Christmas morning.
The donated items are stored in pallets in the RDS until Christmas Eve, when volunteers unpack them and get everything ready for assembling in bags the next morning. It is a giant logistical undertaking.
And that’s not even counting the arrangements for the dinner itself. The volunteer quota is full for this year, but there’s always next year, and the organisation is always looking for donations.
MY COMPETITIVE CHRISTMAS
This feels like a confession, but I am a relaxed, noncompetitive person. On occasion, I enjoy a good lounge. The one time of the year I hear of other families participating in this wonderful activity is Christmas. I’ve heard rumours of convivial reclining by the fire, hours watching Christmas movies, the occasional snooze.
Yesterday I received an email with a five-page document expounding, hour-by-hour, the timetable for this Christmas. I was surprised to see “downtime” scheduled in (between the third round of the tennis tournament, part two of the putting championship and just before the shooting competition).
This perhaps has to do with the near aneurism experienced by Uncle Steve on day four of the tennis last year.
Over the years I have become used to the rivalry (read: hostility) among the 15 or so relatives that arrive at my grandparents’ house, but introducing new people into this mix is a challenge. Guests tend to find one event in particular a little strange. Are You There Moriarty? involves being blindfolded and flailing around on the ground attempting to hit your opponent with a rolled up newspaper.
Without exaggeration, there are (small) blood-stains on the livingroom carpet, beside the dancing Santa (and my mother wonders why that was the last Christmas my ex spent with us).
Scars fade but family is forever. I just hope I’m not paired with Uncle Steve again in the tennis.
YOU WON’T BRIE-LIEVE THE DIFFERENCE A CHEESY THEME MAKES
Baby Cheeses is a party with a bang of Christmas off it. Every year, we supply mulled wine and crackers and ask our friends, colleagues and associated ne’er do wells to call by with some cheese in the run up to Christmas. It began life as an early evening meet-up, for people we might not see too often, before heading out together. Now it has become something of an irresistible joke – and each year the cheese efforts get feta and feta (sorry). The numbers increase each year, to the extent that this year Sheridan’s Cheesemongers have offered our punters a discount for Baby Cheeses purchases.
We kick things off in October or November with an invite heavy on the dairy-related puns: “Seasons cheeslings! Halloumi friends! It’s almost time to free ourselves from the daily rind, cheddar inhibitions and comté-gether.” In the run-up to C day, we decorate the house – last year this meant a giant, German mirrorball, silver slash-curtained walls, and a smoke machine. This year, the idea is: welcome to the ice house.
Our apartment is in the city centre, so there tends to be a big flow of people throughout the night, as friends and family drop in and out for an hour, and it means people don’t have to commit their whole night. This also constantly refreshes the night. It’s like Tinder in real life. Or just real life.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s also too much fun, and hosting a party means that instead of running around in December trying to catch up with everyone, you know you can catch them all in one evening. Here are some other lessons we’ve picked up along the way.
Pick a theme. Any theme. But not one that involves fancy dress. That allows you to fill your invite with loads of terrible puns. Chances are that your guests, like you, will also be morons who find this stupidity hilarious.
Pick another theme. Decorate accordingly. You’re halfway there. And remember there is no such thing as a mirrorball that’s too big.
Invite the neighbours. And if they’re not into it, offer to put them up in a hotel for the evening. It might seem extravagant but it could work out as a small price to pay for local harmony.
Start early, at say 6pm. So the more respectable members of society can drop in when it suits them and leave before you do something to embarrass both of you (hello mother).
Finish early. The music at Baby Cheeses finishes after midnight, and everyone is gone by 2am. It keeps the neighbours happy, and gives us back our home. We’ve arranged a cut rate for our guests at a local nightclub so the party doesn’t have to stop (hello Mother).
And the best lesson of all . . . hire cleaners for the day after, and book a table for lunch in a restaurant that serves good Bloody Marys.