The Great Irish Christmas: Our guide to getting through the next month
Take some returned emigrants, drunk uncles, unwanted vouchers, and New Year's Eve among other things. Lace with alcohol and hey presto, Pat Fitzpatrick has the definitive guide to the Irish Christmas, 2011-style. Illustration by Jon Berkeley
The Returned Emigrant: Dave is bitter after being "forced to go and live" in Australia because there were no jobs here for people with a Masters in Greek and Roman Civilisation. And now he's back for Christmas to tell us all that Ireland is a backward dump with rubbish weather and, by the way, you're all ugly.
His older brother Eric had to drag him out to the pub on Christmas Eve last year when their mild-mannered father was heard to say, "Thank you for flying halfway around the world to tell me that I belong to a third-rate nation of losers, you ungrateful pr . . ." All right, Dad, calm down.
Dave spent most of Christmas dinner telling the family what he would be doing on Bondi Beach instead of here in this dump. His mother put a stop to it with, "How long before you go back, Crocodile Dave?" Mammy can be very cruel.
After dinner he got stuck into two bottles of Australian Shiraz ("like, the Irish can't even make decent wine"). Then it all came out.
He spends most of his time hanging around with a bunch of lads from Borrisokane, who drink in a place called The Thirsty Mick. One of them, Floody, still sets fire to his own farts. It's that bad. The worst thing about emigrating isn't being away from home. It's being away from home with a gang of lads from Borrisokane.
When Eric asks why Dave doesn't hang around with other people, he starts weeping and says, "Have you ever met a group of Australians? And to make it worse, Eric, Mammy doesn't even love me anymore."
Ah, shut up, Dave.
"So, Leonard, I hear you're doing the cooking this Christmas."
"I am indeed, I am indeed. Kicking it off with an amuse-bouche of prawn cakes on lemongrass skewers, followed by carpaccio of West Galway rabbit. Main course is goose stuffed with veal and a dessert of Bulgarian tiramisu. I believe it's the kind of meal that would be popular for Christmas in New York's East Village."
"Just as you'll find that turkey, ham and spuds are popular in Ireland, Leonard."
"Which is why I'm avoiding them like the plague, my good man."
"You're a langer."
There are many types of uncle that pop in on Christmas Day. Most are drunk because, as they put it themselves, it's great when your children are old enough to drive.
At least you think that's what Uncle Mick said when your cousin poured him in the door last year, whispering, "Sorry, he's a Christmas-and-weddings drinker, so it only takes a few to get him going." "So he just had a few?" "Well, no, he's had half a bottle of Powers, but sure it's Christmas." You looked over and Mick was trying to lob the gob at his sister-in-law. That's your mother. "Will ye be staying long?" you asked.
Then there's Uncle Des. He is a disciple of Father Stone from Father Ted. Not that he'd ever tell you, though, because that might amount to a conversation. And Des is where conversations go to die. You made a face at his daughter Maria when she dropped him over last Christmas. The bitch just shrugged and said, "It's my Christmas, too," as she sped off down the road. Her wheels spun.
Des is usually propped up in front of Where Eagles Dare on the telly because he likes war movies, as far as anyone can tell. To be fair, one year he said, "Isn't Christmas grand?" to your brother Comedy Jim who shouted, "Come in quick, lads, Des is going off on one." Des hasn't said a word since.
They say the only good thing to come out of the Celtic Tiger years was our new motorway system. Try telling that to Derek. It has ruined his Christmas. The in-laws, who were three hours away before the M7, are now within striking distance. Not that he's allowed to hit them.
Derek loved his Christmas. It was the only time of the year he could have a bottle of Stella and seven Quality Street for his breakfast, sing along to Oliver! with another few Stellas and then crash out on the couch before dinner. But there's no beer buzz and, "Consider yourself, one of us!" these days, now that they can make it to Collette's parents in 90 minutes. Damn you, M7.
Derek knows how this will play out. They'll arrive and Collette's father, Jerry, will want to know how long it took and what way they came. One and a half hours, Jerry, M7. After that, nothing. At least before the motorway they could share a bit of banter about getting stuck behind a cattle truck at Roscrea, but now the only conversation Derek can have with Jerry is done and dusted in 10 seconds. Jerry doesn't drink and, judging by the raised voices in the kitchen, Collette still doesn't get on with her mother. It's going to be a long day. To think he could be at home now belting out You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two. Derek is reviewing the situation.
It's not that Clodagh's kids don't like her. They just don't like her at Christmas. It doesn't help that About A Boy is usually shown during December and the hippy mom in that film is Clodagh with an English accent. Just watching the film with their mother is enough to make Rainbow, Moon Blossom and Meadow Lily look forward to January.
First there's the Christmas food. Clodagh, as the kids call her, is a self-loathing vegetarian who insists that her children eat meat to avoid the mistakes she made in her life. So she cries her way through Christmas Eve for the soul of the poor turkey as she stuffs breadcrumbs and sage up what she calls his poor butchered arse.
Then there are the presents. It's usually either knitted Peruvian headgear or the following speech: "Great news, funky daisies, your present this year is the knowledge that right now a family in Africa is getting used to their new goat." They're not sure which present is worse. It didn't help last year when Moon Blossom asked Clodagh, "Do you think they'll put the goat in a pot?" and Clodagh cried the whole way through the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special.
Finally, there's the booze. Clodagh doesn't touch a drop the whole year round -- bad for your chakras -- but at Christmas she likes to open a bottle of elderberry wine made by her friends Frank and Yoko, who live a life of unrelenting misery in a yurt outside Longford. This will often lead to a second bottle, which will often lead to her blubbing her way through Pretty Woman. Meadow Lily asked her last year why all the tears and Clodagh replied "patriarchy". Ah, Jaysus.
Remember getting up at six o'clock to open socks and scarves around the tree in the freezing cold because Daddy is a sentimental old fool? That's very last year. The closest you'll get to that now is people sitting around the tree with laptops and smartphones, forwarding electronic vouchers to each other. That's when the trouble starts.
"Why did you get me a voucher for a facial and a fish pedicure that can only be used at seven o'clock on the morning of January 15?"
"Because you are my sister and I love you."
"Because it was 65 per cent off back in late November if I bought in the next 15 minutes."
"I should feel worse about your crap present, but I don't. Check your email."
"A two-course early bird special for two at an Asian restaurant near the M50 called the Wan King China Man. You shouldn't have. Seriously."
"I know. Who are you going to bring?"
The Mandelamas Couple
It's not that Holly and Seamus don't like Christmas. They are just very enlightened people who can't enjoy themselves without feeling guilty about oppressed minorities. I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas? You see? That's racist.
To make up for centuries of oppression, they have invited a group of friends they met at a world-music happening in Sligo to come to their place for what they call Mandelamas. Seamus spends the whole morning making his favourite fusion dish, chicken tikka nachos in a black bean sauce. As he says himself, there's no reason for anyone to feel left out. Guests are asked to dress appropriately.
First to arrive is a West African called Charles who comes dressed as Santa. Holly is mortified that Charles should arrive in clothes inspired by a Coca-Cola ad. Seamus says, "Yo, my man Charles, I'm not meaning you any disrespect, but we were hoping our guests would come in their national costume. It's not supposed to be fancy dress." Charles asked why they weren't dressed as leprechauns. Holly hugged him for a whole minute, repeating the phrase, "Sorry, you're so right."
At this point Kamran, the Pakistani guy from the Maxol station, arrived to the door dressed as one of the three wise men. Holly burst out crying. "This is the worst Mandelamas ever," she said.
The Anti-Christmas Couple
Hugh and Maeve share two strong beliefs: Christmas is simply awful and you're a complete gobshite if you think otherwise. They met at Trinity while studying philosophy, so don't get into an argument with them over this. It's not worth it.
For them, Christmas is about locking the door on the outside world and agreeing that they are better than everyone else. Hugh will usually unplug the Sky box on December 15, with a "goodbye, cruel world" in his Stephen Fry accent, which sounds more like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons. For the next three weeks they will sit on the couch watching illegal downloads of Mad Men, The Wire and Wallander (the Swedish, more dreary version.)
They will both share the same thoughts: I miss Love Actually. I would kill for a tin of Quality Street right now. Mulled wine makes me sentimental. I love an auld hymn. I'd love to say this to my partner but don't want to be dumped for being a low-brow Philistine because I'm not what you'd call a catch, and will probably die alone. So I'll say nothing. I wonder what's happening in the EastEnders Christmas special.
Stephen's Day, 9am, and the dads are queuing outside the electronics superstore share their tales of woe. Barry had intercepted his son Alex's letter to Santa looking for an iPad and foolishly reckoned he could save money with a non-Apple tablet. Alex opened it on Christmas morning and called Barry a gobshite. That's a bit disturbing coming from your eight-year-old on Christmas morning. OK, I'll get you an iPad.
So now he's standing behind some poor eejit who thought it was OK to get an Android phone when his 11-year-old asked for an iPhone 4S. Behind them is a guy who got Extreme Slap My Bitch Up Revenge Sex Nazi Slaughter 4 for PlayStation 3, which would have been fine, except that his seven-year-old daughter has an Xbox 360, you silly billy. Not that she put it that mildly.
Still, even now, in the 9am half-light and four degrees below on Stephen's morning, the three men agree they wouldn't have it any other way. As Barry puts it, find the right electronic distraction for your child and you won't hear another word from them until they're 14 and need money for cigarettes. His daughter Chloe started playing Angry Birds a year ago and he hasn't heard a word from her since. So, yes, he'll do anything for his kids. As long as they shut up.
Kevin is terrified of running out of drink at Christmas. He doesn't care how many people call around to his house as long he has enough gargle in the house to kill each and every one of them.
Every year, around August, he makes a list of who is likely to call to the house over Christmas and what they like to drink. The way Kevin sees things, it's all right to break out the 48-pack of BackenSlapper from Lidl at three o'clock in the morning when people are starting to eye up the Toilet Duck. But as he never tires of telling wife Lorraine, if an Irish man walks into this house sober or just mildly langers over Christmas, he's entitled to expect a can of his favourite drink. When Lorraine asks what about an Irish woman, Kevin mumbles something about white wine.
Kevin has spent three months buying up whatever drinks are on special offer in supermarkets, which is good news if you know him but bad news if you live in his house. Industry experts predict that by early December every year he is in a position to manipulate the Irish market in Carlsberg. Lorraine predicts that if he buys any more booze she won't be able to get down the hall into the jacks.
She says the same thing every year; you'll never get rid of all that lot. And the same thing starts to happen around mid-December. People he hasn't seen for a year and local alcoholics pop in for a couple of cans. The result? Well, you know that guy stocking up two trolleys in the off-licence of your local supermarket on Stephen's Day, while whispering desperately into the phone "Just don't answer the door, Lorraine love, I'll be home in 20 minutes. Jaysus, Irish people love a drink." That's Kevin.
Feast or Famine
The Christmas Day diet of the average Irish person has evolved over the past 150 years with one guiding principle -- you never know when the Famine might come back. So fill your boots.
It starts at 4am, when a fresh tin of Quality Street is opened along with the presents. The rule is eat four by the tree and bring four back to bed. Breakfast is four mini spring rolls each, washed down with a refreshing glass of cava. Sure, it's only once a year.
Then Mam produces a packet of Kimberley Elite biscuits with the words, "Sure, weren't we poor long enough?" Everyone agrees they'd go to mass if they could move. It's a quarter past ten.
Dinner is turkey, goose, spiced beef, ham, sprouts, carrots, parsnips and five different types of potato if you include the stuffing. Dad, now drinking cava from the bottle, makes a moving speech about how we should be grateful to splash out a little bit after all the hardships endured by generations of Irish people.
The food completely fills the table so people take their plates back to the couch, where they play games on their phones. Dessert is apple tart, Christmas pudding and pavlova. By four o'clock, you can hear a pin drop in the TV room, except for the rustling of a crisp bag or sweet wrapper as people struggle to stay on board the sugar and salt ride of their lives. There is an ironic cheer when Homer's pants burst in The Simpsons and then everybody falls asleep. They are woken up by the sound of Dad firing up the deep-fat fryer and it's turkey fritters, Scots Clan and mince pies all the way to bedtime. Everybody agrees we deserve it after such a hard year, not to mention the terrible sorrows borne by our ancestors down through the years. This fresh box of Choc Mallows is for them.
New Year's Eve
Here are the six stages of New Year's Eve.
1) As a youngster you sat in with your parents watching Gay Byrne or Pat Kenny ring in the New Year with people like Twink and Red Hurley. You sensed that everybody involved was missing out on something.
2) At 17, you went to a rugby disco, drank seven pints of snakebite and got off with your cousin by mistake during the snogathon at midnight. What a laugh. There's the true meaning of New Year's Eve. Alcohol abuse and accidental incest.
3) In the next, more mature phase, a gang of you headed off to Dingle for the night, where you downed seven pints of snakebite and barely stopped yourself from getting off with your cousin again. They call that learning to hold your drink. Fair play to you.
4) Then you got a girlfriend but ye split up on December 29, because Christmas time is stressful and her sneaky friend caught you getting off with someone on Stephen's Night. Sly. You ended up watching RTE's New Year's Eve show with the old man. Neither of you could figure out how Linda Martin could still look like that.
5) Then you got married and foolishly organised a New Year's Eve party in your place. But this is Ireland, where it is illegal to go to a party without first going to the pub. So everybody headed to the pub. But they forget to tell you. So you and her indoors wound up consuming three bottles of Lidl prosecco and four packs of mini spring rolls before your so-called friends barreled in the door at six minutes to midnight with a box of Budweiser and a shifty randomer called Shocksey who locked himself into the downstairs jacks by mistake. The next day it took ages to clean the house, not to mention the two hours to get Shocksey out of the jacks. Curled up on the couch later watching Love Actually for the third time in a fortnight, you decide you're finished with New Year's Eve for good.
6) So the next year, the two of you ring in New Year's watching the telly with an old familiar feeling -- you're missing out on something.
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