This was a class assignment.
Late November 2009. The lights were up all over town, and the decorations glinted in the early morning sun. Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time, and all those other hoary old tunes you love to hate, were tinkling out of every store, and the message was buy, buy, buy. Pictures of Santa and his reindeer soaring happily over snow-covered chimneys were plastered behind the chocolate counter of the supermarket.
The one concession to the location was the toy Santa driving a 4X4 pulled by kangaroos.
It was roughly 38°C.
I was busy failing to adjust to this bizarre vista. Christmas should be cold. It’s should involve scarves and mittens, your breath fogging in the air and your teeth chattering. Amid the banksia plants and the arid grass of Western Australia, the sun crackling my skin, I sat in my suburban house and watched a Guinness ad on YouTube. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried.
I got home in time for Christmas. On the flight to Kuala Lumpur I sat beside an elderly Australian lady who was flying to visit her son in London. She was at least five generations in Australia- an ancestor had been a Kerry convict. She had never been to Europe. But she was looking forward to Christmas in wintry England. “A real Christmas” she called it.
That winter, the first ‘bad’ one we had in Europe, I often thought of that woman. How did she cope in London, where the pure white snow turned into slush in a matter of minutes? They even had to drag a steam train out of retirement to get motorists out of the city.
Did she think it was a real Christmas when she saw the chaos snow caused?
Being so far away from home that year made me think about Christmas differently. I had never had to travel further than twenty miles to get home before. It was impossible to feel the Christmas spirit in the heat. Sure the decorations were up, but just like Hallowe’en before it, there seemed to be little or no difference in the mood of the general population. No-one wished each other ‘Merry Christmas’ as they parted. No-one seemed to feel very festive. And of course no-one asked “Are you ready for the Christmas?”When I landed back in Heathrow things were completely different. It was only ten days to the big day itself and you could tell. Many of my co-passengers were returning home for Christmas- a young Englishman was smothered with kisses by his family, before disentangling himself with an embarrassed “Hi Mum.” The staff were greeting each other with surprising jollity for 6 am, and most of them were wearing Christmas ribbons on their lapels. It wasn’t far off that scene at the start of Love Actually.
Landing back in Shannon, the Aer Lingus pilot wishing us a Nollaig Shona, I underwent the same treatment as that young Englishman. Pulling out of Shannon with my parents, even the neon sign reading ‘Welcome to Ireland’ seemed Christmassy.
Coming home for Christmas is a staple of our culture. Advertisers know that depicting emigrants returning home for Christmas is guaranteed to tug at heart and purse strings. As far back as the eighties the ESB did it with a very young Alan Hughes returning to his Irish mammy to the soundtrack of Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Back. Mastercard did it on two separate occasions. There is of course that beautiful Guinness ad that made me cry- you know the one… “Even at the home of the black stuff, they dream of a white one.”
Christmas simply doesn’t mean as much to Americans or Australians as it does to us. America has Thanksgiving, a real family holiday minus the commercialism and present-giving that Christmas entails. As I found out it’s damn-near impossible to feel festive in 40 degree heat. Christmas is a summer holiday for the Australians, and there’s a reason why us Northern Europeans moved Jesus’ birthday from March to the dead of winter. We need something to keep us going through these grim and gloomy months.
Christmas is the time we revert to childhood, even for the briefest period on Christmas Day when we scrabble with a sibling for the last Caramel Barrel.
Those six months in 2009 were the first time I had been away from Ireland for longer than two weeks. Coming home was something special. It probably won’t be my last time being away from home given the current mess Ireland is in.
Coming home for Christmas will never get old. Landing in Ireland with the fields dark and lights on in the window will nearly be worth going away in the first place.
And if I can’t get home? Well I don’t want to think about that.