In forty-one years, this is only my sixth Christmas away from my home in Ballygibbon. Despite not living in Ireland for most of my adult life, I have a Christmas homing instinct that, at this time of year, generally finds me packing my bags, rooting in the drawer for my passport, and getting on a plane bound for Dublin airport. So you’ll understand that my Christmas traditions are deeply embedded.
There’s the Christmas Eve ritual of going out for a massive family lunch (it used to be that only the lunch was massive, but in recent years, participation has extended out beyond my immediate family). After that lunch, we visit my Nana and other relatives. These are people who, as a child, I saw almost every day of my life, and Mammy still sees every day. But on Christmas Eve we used to visit with the purpose of exchanging Christmas presents. One year, when I was in my late teens, and after Daddy had lost his job at the shoe factory, we made a pact with our extended family to not exchange gifts any more. But the tradition of the Christmas Eve visit continued and, as the years have gone by, the gift-giving has gradually crept back in.
After tea on Christmas Eve, my family would stand together in our hall, light the Christmas candle and say a prayer. Until I was in my late teens we always opened our presents on Christmas Eve but, for some reason, we gave up that family tradition and now hold off until Christmas morning. Once the candle was lit, and the presents opened, it was time to make a trifle, chop up the potatoes and vegetables for the next day’s dinner and, from my early 20s on, accompany Mammy to midnight mass in Edenderry and afterwards go to Byrnes pub with my friends.
On Christmas morning when I was a child, my sister and I would sneak into the sitting room as soon as we thought it was safe (i.e. when there would be no chance of running into Santa) to see what presents were under the tree. After breakfast we would get ready for Mass, visit the Tyrrell family grave, and then home to get in Mammy’s way as she prepared the biggest dinner of the year.
More recently I’ve fallen into the tradition of popping across the road an hour or so before dinner to visit my cousins Michael and Theresa and their kids. Theresa is a terrible woman who spikes my multiple coffees with Baileys, so I walk back across the road rosy cheeked and tipsy!!
Oh, the Christmas dinners Mammy makes. I don’t know how we fit around the small kitchen table when I was a child – Mammy, Daddy, me, my sister, Nana, aunt Cissie, aunt Lillie and uncle Jerry and my three cousins Sean, Declan and Colette, and our uncle Tom. Over the years the cast changed, and my strongest memories of Christmas dinner involve my parents, my sister and my uncle Tom. How we stuffed ourselves on plates stacked high with turkey, ham, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, Brussel sprouts, celery and carrots, bread sauce, stuffing and gravy. It was heaven. It was served on the best plates, only brought out for this one day of the year, in portions big enough to kill a grown man. We always went back for seconds. For dessert we had Christmas pudding or sherry trifle (or both), and somehow there was always a little room for Mammy’s Christmas cake at the end.
Those who could, walked the mile to the graveyard to get some fresh air. Those who couldn’t, loosened the waistband of their trousers and sat in front of the turf fire in the sitting room, watching television. Before long the next round began. Christmas night in our house has always been a crowded noisy affair. My uncles Jimmy and Mike came to visit with their children (all much older than me), and some other relatives. It was time for making and drinking copious amounts of tea, cold turkey, ham and stuffing sandwiches, cake, biscuits and sweets, all while talking, playing cards, and telling stories.
In the small hours of the morning, when most of the guests had returned home, Sean, Declan, Colette, my sister and I would get ready for bed. The boys slept on the sofa-bed in the sitting room, and Colette hopped in with me. It took us a long time to get ready for bed, laughing and messing around, deciding that we still had room for a bag of Tayto or another biscuit from the biscuit tin, while the tired adults washed a mountain of dishes.
Over the years the cast of Christmas changed. We lost some precious family members and gained some others. In the past decade my maternal aunts have played a greater part in our Christmas Day. And through it all, our traditions have evolved gradually, and probably don’t bear much resemblance to the Christmases of my childhood. But in my mind, I like to think that my Christmases are indistinguishable from each other. And in a way they are, because the thing that binds them together is that they are about spending time with the most important people in your life, eating good food together and laughing until your sides ache.
This year it feels a little like Ballygibbon Christmas on tour. My cousins Sean and Yvonne are living in Spain now, just a few miles away from Carina, and in a few days, Mammy and Antoinette are flying over from Ireland to join us. Yvonne’s cooking the turkey and Mammy’s home-made Christmas pudding is coming with her on the flight. I think a big Christmas Eve dinner is in order, and a trip to the Almeria Christmas market.
Though we’ll be spending much of Christmas off the boat, the girls and I have spent a lot of time decorating Carina. We’ve strung stars, angels and bells around, together with some decorations I had stowed. We made a Christmas ‘tree’ and this past weekend we made a mountain of cakes and gingerbread biscuits for the little Christmas parties I’m having with my English language students all week.
Only two more days of work and then I’m on holidays. The weekend will see more baking. This is the first year in about ten that I haven’t made Christmas cake, pudding or mince pies. But attempting them on our small on-board oven just seemed to be more trouble than it’s worth. So, instead, I’m attempting tiffin and truffles for the first time, made from my mother-in-law’s recipes. Christmas would seem all wrong without a lot of baking and making.
So my traditions evolve. But at the heart of every Christmas, whether at home in Ballygibbon, in the UK with Julian’s family, in Arviat with the Mains (Hi Martha!), or here in Aguadulce, lies a heady combination of good food and good fun in the companionship of people I love.
A very very happy Christmas to you all.