The wonders of coming home for an Irish Christmas…

A collection of thoughts and memories on coming home for an Irish Christmas and its special connection with our diaspora.

Many things have changed in Ireland, especially in the last decade or more with the ever-increasing involvement of technology and the internet in our daily lives. Then there’s the old adage, ‘the more things change the more they stay the same…’ Now, I may not fully agree with all that but there is some truth in it especially when it comes to the Irish Christmas experience.

For the record, no country does Christmas quite like us Irish. We do the full-hog, none of that American malarkey where it’s all over at midnight on the 25th with Christmas trees stuffed in bins and thrown onto skips on St. Stephen’s Day. We do the full stretch.

Similarly, our ‘Brexmas’ friend’s across the water seem to run out of festive puff very soon after the big day despite having nearly killed themselves with the stress to have everything resembling an M&S and John Lewis vision of Christmas. Now, we Irish stress ourselves out to the max too, pre-Christmas, especially these days as it so bloody commercialised, but we do keep the Christmas spirit going for longer.

Bord Fáilte should look at marketing Ireland as a Christmas destination – ‘Come to Ireland where Christmas Day is not just for Christmas!!’

Not us, we Irish blast on full of Christmas cheer right up to the 30th of December, after which any flagging festive spirit gets a bolt of invigoration as New Year’s Eve approaches. “Happy Christmas Fergus and happy New Year to you and the family’, the same to you Maeve and all the O’Connor’s, and many happy returns…” It is simple, lovely and us.

Tearful scenes at mmmmmmmmmmmm
Tearful scenes of joy at Irish airports when loved ones make it home for Christmas.

You only realise these differences when you have lived abroad or spent a Christmas or two away from home. We take the festive season very seriously on this island. We really go for it and sustain it as long as we can. It suits our psyche maybe to be ‘merry’ for a long week mid-winter even if some of us feel far from merry on the inside, at times.

In the 80’s and 90’s waves of young people left the country, mainly for the US (illegally in many cases), Britain, and Australia because our economy was the pits and jobs were scarce, unless you were lucky, ‘had pull’ (now, now it’s Christmas) or came from a well-to-do family. For the rest, it was the boat or plane.

‘Come to Ireland where Christmas Day is not just for Christmas!!’

On the bright side, this added a whole new and wondrous dimension to the Irish Christmas experience, hail ‘the returnee Christmas emigrant’. Previous emigrant generations did not have the luxury of returning home, never mind for Christmas, although some did when they could such was the desire to be at home for Christmas.


Christmas in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s…

Back in the 50’s, 60’s and even the 70’s it was common enough for some hard-living Irish men to work all the hours to get a few bob together for the boat home for ‘da Christmas’. This would also involve the purchasing of a new suit, a pair of shiny shoes and a few spare shirts, the outfit set-off by a garish bright tie, a shade of red or pink, or the ‘the Kilburn Cruiser’ as it was known as in Irish London.

These hardy men drank and smoked their way over and back to the auld sod and blew every penny while there. They were some of our uncles, granduncles and neighbours. Sadly the whiff of money, bad aftershave and flashiness was sometimes all a front and belied a sadder tale of loneliness, alcohol dependency and shame.

Annual joyous reunions at Irish airports at Christmas
A familiar scene of welcome at Irish airports during later December in the 80’s and 90’s.

Some of these, mainly men, were often too embarrassed to return home because they had not managed to ‘make it’ as they saw it, in the big smokes of England. They were caught up in the vicious cycle of ‘the lump payment’ perpetrated by unscrupulous (mainly) Irish subbies (sub-contractors), but that’s a whole other story. Jimmy Murphy’s play ‘The Kings of Kilburn High Road’ and subsequent film starring Colm Meaney portray this era very well.

Back to Christmas…

I have faint memories of these men and women in great form home for the Christmas. They would visit all the houses around and be a constant feature in the pubs buying drinks for all and shoving silver coins into kid’s hands. We thought that they were millionaires.


Coming home for Christmas in the 80’s and Naughties…

In the late 80’s and 90’s we saw increased numbers of the Irish living abroad coming home for Christmas. These were younger than previous generations in the main. They could afford to fly home from America, Britain and elsewhere as they were earning more money. The era of ‘the returned Yank’ had come back 90’s style.

Holly an old favourite at Irish Christmas time.

Men and women in their 20’s and 30’s landed in their 1000’s at Irish airports into the arms of tearful families who waited all year to have their loved ones back home for Christmas. I have often watched these scenes on RTE’s ‘Reeling in the Years’ and it still brings a tear to my eye.

Young Irish men with bad mullet hair-dos, dodgy moustaches and woeful leather jackets looking dazed from long-distance flights. While their teary-eyed female counterparts, cherub visions in 80’s stonewash denim, hugged their mammies and daddies.

You could always tell who was home from where when out. The American returnees would greet you with ‘What’s happening’ and bizarrely left their money on the bar counter, paying for rounds from the pile, just like they did in Queens, the Bronx and downtown San Francisco. The London heads called you ‘Mate’ and were generally better attired, ‘the London look’ of the time, whatever that was, New Romantic, Post-Punk, Grunge etc.

Emigration, even today, is an integral part of the Irish Christmas experience. Coming home for Christmas is one of those special warm-in-the -belly feelings that you will never forget, ever…


Irish emigrants today and Christmas…

Today’s Christmas returnees are a bit cooler maybe, better educated, are more confident and have better jobs in the main that their predecessors. They are better groomed and up with the latest trends with suitably affected accents to boot. That said they too are as ecstatic and excited about coming home for Christmas as any previous generation.

The places that they are coming from may have changed somewhat, Vancouver and Sidney are the New York and Boston for this generation. Australia has also been a rite of passage too for the last decade or more, with London still a big draw for young Irish people looking to expand their horizons, mate.

Your mammy's Christmas dinner was always the best!
Your mammy’s Christmas dinner was always the best!

The places that they are coming from may have changed somewhat, Vancouver and Sidney are the New York and Boston for this generation. Australia has also been a rite of passage too for the last decade or more, with London still a big draw for young Irish people looking to expand their horizons, mate.

There is also an increasing scattering returning from various parts of Europe and the Middle East. The scenes at arrivals will still be joyous and the post-festive departures will still be sad, that won’t ever change. Today thanks to more affordable air travel and modern communication technology closer contact is kept with loved ones abroad than ever before.

After all who wants to miss mammy’s Christmas dinner, her special little touches, her gravy, spuds-three-ways, your father hovering in the background interjecting where he can with nuggets of wisdom, or simply helping out (or get getting in the way). Sprigs of Holly around the house. Magic.

Home is where the heart is (my final cliché).

Have a great Christmas one and all, especially our returned emigrants!

Enjoy, be safe and treasure it all because Irish family Christmases’ are precious, no matter where you roam.

Nollaig Shona Daoibh…

2 Comment

  1. Tom Mahon says: Reply

    Very funny piece and apt too lol…

    1. Glad you liked it Tom…


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