Thursday 23 May 2019

Chestnuts roasting by an open fire…or sushi - What's your Christmas tradition?


Bangers and splash: For Kirsty Blake Knox, Christmas begins by watching family take a dip at the Forty Foot in Sandycove - or at least waiting for the post-swim sausages. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Bangers and splash: For Kirsty Blake Knox, Christmas begins by watching family take a dip at the Forty Foot in Sandycove - or at least waiting for the post-swim sausages. Photo: Steve Humphreys
George Hamilton
Ronan Price. Photo: Tony Gavin
Kim Bielenberg. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Darragh McManus
John Meagher
Kirsty Blake Knox. Photo: Gerry Mooney Newsdesk Newsdesk

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions, and not all are even all that traditional. Review writers reveal what the festive season truly means to them.

Graham Clifford

In the mid-80s, three of my older brothers left Ireland. They joined thousands of other young Irish men and women who left to find work and build a better life. I can recall my mother crying as she watched the boys walk down the boreen leading from our remote home in Co Kerry to the rest of the world. But then in early December each year the gloom would lift when we'd turn on the television to see that train carrying a fresh-faced Alan Hughes pulling into the station where his father would embrace him and drive him home past bogs, mountains and hills. I imagined the bright lights of the city being replaced by comforting darkness. From that very moment, Christmas began for me. And in my mother's face I could see an instant change. Her boys, my brothers, would be coming home soon, too. The ad, complete with Dusty Springfield's  For us it captured what Christmas was all about... and still does.

George Hamilton

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George Hamilton

Christmas, for me, means a football match. That’s a product of my Belfast adolescence as the son of a soccer-mad father. In my teenage years, religious observance was followed by a visit to Cliftonville’s modest stadium in the city where the final of the principal intermediate knock-out competition of the season — the Steel and Sons Cup — would kick-off at 10.45 on Christmas morning (unless it happened to fall on a Sunday — well it was 1960s Northern Ireland).

The match attracted a huge and exceedingly well-dressed crowd, all the dads’ new scarves and gloves ripped from their Christmas wrapping and worn with pride.

Another fond memory is what transpired when we moved to Wicklow almost 30 years ago. I knew we were blow-ins. I’d been told with a laugh it took generations to get over this.

On our first St Stephen’s Day, we climbed the Sugar Loaf. Scrambling down over the rocks at the summit, we came face to red face with the very man who’d explained our situation. Just about to complete his own arduous ascent, he had the courtesy to smile. I hadn’t known scaling the Sugar Loaf on St Stephen’s Day was the true mark of a local. “You’re one of us now,” he said.

John Boland

In 2002, with no domestic obligations keeping us at home, we went to Rome for four days over Christmas. It was a revelation.

Firstly, I hadn’t realised how many of the city’s cafés, bars and restaurants would be open on Christmas Day itself. For someone long accustomed to a cheerless, shut-down Irish capital, this alone was a marvellous boon, as was the bustling intimacy of the city’s heart: a stroller’s paradise largely free of motorised traffic.

We did all the usual things, including visits to the Borghese and other galleries, and a Christmas morning walk to St Peter’s Square, where we joined the throng that had gathered for the Pope’s message and blessing.

We’ve returned three times for Christmas since that first visit, finally discovering an ideal hotel in a lovely old cobbled street just off the Ponte Sisto and only a few minutes walk from Piazza Navona. And behind that famous square we’ve always revisited a beautiful old Victorian bar on Via della Pace, while a few yards from the Spanish Steps there’s the incomparable Antico Caffè Greco with its elderly tuxedoed waiters.

That’s not to forget the cheerful Christmas Day restaurants or the side-street wine bars that stay open late into Christmas.

Kirsty Blake Knox

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Kirsty Blake Knox. Photo: Gerry Mooney

My favourite part of Christmas changes roughly every six or seven years.

Before I became an infidel and lost my faith (in Santa), my favourite part was Christmas Eve.

That was the time of stockings and wishing myself to sleep, after leaving out snifters of Baileys and mince pies for the Old Man.

As a teenager, my favourite time was just before Christmas dinner was served. That was when I was allowed to phone my school friends and compare presents and plan trips to Funderland.

For the past few years, my best part of the holidays has extended outwards.

It now reaches across 24 hours; from noon on Christmas Eve and noon on Christmas Day.

You know that gorgeous stretch when everything is still glittery and exciting. That brief space before the fighting begins in earnest.

I usually choose to leave all my shopping to the last minute so it feels like I’m competing in a souped-up version of Supermarket Sweep.

Everyone is running about semi-hysterical, trying to find Hatchimals, crackers, emergency cranberry sauce, and socks.

There’s great solidarity between Christmas Eve shoppers — I suppose that’s because we share the same guilt. We know we should have planned better, but we’re in this together — and will get through it, we will!

Christmas morning begins after the braver members of my family have gone for a swim in the Forty Foot.

Sadly, I am not one of that courageous — some might say, foolhardy — number. Instead, I have carefully timed my arrival to coincide with the Superquinn sausages being taken out of the oven and the swimmers (finally) growing tired of humblebragging.

Kim Bielenberg

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Kim Bielenberg. Photo: James Flynn/APX

A spinning tree always marked the start of Christmas.

When I was a child, we always celebrated on Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house in Wicklow.

At six o’clock, my grandfather Peter rang a bell, and we were ushered into a secret Christmas room — the children entering one by one in order of age.

Then a candlelit tree, decorated with German jellies and chocolate, spun around on a clockwork stand, playing ‘Silent Night’.

To my grandparents, the spinning tree must have marked some kind of continuity. The clockwork stand has spun around at Christmas for over a century, and originally came over to Ireland from Germany. Occasionally it stutters and stops, before starting up again. I remember some years when it almost completely packed it in, but then sprung to life again with a surprising last verse.

As children we were supposed to gaze in wonder at the spinning tree decorated with sweets, and occasionally we would make a grab for one of the chocolates. But after a few rounds of ‘Silent Night’ and a couple of other German carols, our attention was inevitably drawn to the presents in the corner, which appeared on Christmas Eve. The excitement of Christmas had arrived, and not long afterwards our goose was cooked.

John Meagher

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John Meagher

It starts to happen in early December and there’s no getting away from it. It’s the dreaded T word. Someone will say to me, “So, have you ordered the turkey, yet?” And my heart sinks. Ugh. Turkey. Again.

If Christmas dinner — I never call it ‘lunch’ even though I eat it in the early afternoon — is supposed to be the most sumptuous meal of the year, why is its centrepiece so tasteless, uninspiring and downright expensive?

I’m as big a carnivore as the next man — or woman — but I would chose virtually any meat before turkey. It’s a wretched thing to cook and so easy to mess up, and its flesh can have all the soul-sapping pleasure of a strip of tofu.

I’ve suggested to family that maybe we should abandon this awful American import and go back to old Irish tradition and try goose this year. No joy. And there’s no takers for infinitely superior tasting fowl like duck and chicken, either.

So turkey it is — and all the trimmings… the flatulent-friendly sprouts, the cremated roast spuds, the carrots that nobody wants and the puke-inducing gravy that makes washing up such a chore afterwards.

And then, for days afterwards, there’s the hideous turkey carcass smelling up the place and providing a challenge to even the most gifted cook to make something remotely edible from it.

Just once I’d love a Christmas dinner that doesn’t involve a monstrous bird, the tyranny of stuffing and all that waste.

Are you listening, Santa?

Darragh McManus

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Darragh McManus

The best thing about Christmas for me is… the fact that it makes you more sociable.

I’m not quite at the level of having Sartre’s “hell is other people” tattooed on my neck, but I am a bit of a cranky misanthrope. Usually I don’t particularly want to engage with others, outside a small few. I’d sooner ignore reality — and the rest of humanity — by doing something more worthwhile, like reading a book or staring into space.

At Christmas, though, you don’t have the choice. This time of year forces you to unbolt the door and stagger, blinking, into the light of social engagement.

Note: this isn’t some Dickensian tale of an icy heart being melted by the “warm fuzzy feelings” of the magic of the festive season. I find a lot of Christmas objectionable (obnoxious consumerism, mainly), some of it baffling, and most of it boring and exhausting.


Though I resisted this for a long time — through surly teens and too-cool twenties, even into my “still keeping it real” thirties — I finally realised a truth about Christmas.

It’s nice to be nice. It’s nice to spend time with friends and family. And Christmas makes you do that. It compels a change in your behaviour; it’s basically impossible to be a reclusive malcontent during those three or four weeks. Come January 7, of course, normal service will be resumed. But til then — what can I say? Happy Christmas, everyone.

Ronan Price

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Ronan Price. Photo: Tony Gavin

I hate turkey and ham. There, I said it. Maybe it’s something to do with my childhood memories of a dry old bird and a hairy lump of gammon. And don’t get me started on the balls of snot known as sprouts.

But it presents a difficulty every December when deciding whether to accept family invitations to dinner. Or, when it’s our turn to host, calculating whether my invitees would be willing to be adventurous.

Given a choice, I’d much rather eat anything but the usual banquet of banality. My kin are less fussy but open to experimentation. One year, we tried that Frankensteinian portmanteau of a five-bird roast from Aldi (or was it Lidl?). It was, um, horrific.

I spent another December 25 afternoon trying to recreate a monkfish kebab thing we’d had on the Algarve. In the absence of a traditional charcoal brazier, it was merely acceptable.

My most successful Christmas adventure was a massive platter of sushi that took all morning to make. But the rolls and rolls of maki, nigiri and temaki vanished in a flash. It was healthy, filling and didn’t put us to sleep after. Several bottles of wine did, though.

It’s food for thought anyway before you put in that order for an overfed, flightless carcass.

Catherine ­O’Mahony

Growing up in Cork, the best part of Christmas Day was the walk my sister and I started to go on as young adults to escape the fug that faced us otherwise as everyone settled down after lunch by the fire with a box of Dairy Milk and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

My sister would drive and we’d head for a west Cork beach and brave the cold and wind as we marched along by the shore. I remember the sense of escape.

And then we came home to turkey and crisp sandwiches on sliced pan, with a cup of tea. Those were the days.

What I don’t miss a whole lot is what became for a few years a tradition when we were students — an anti-fox hunting protest every Stephen’s Day.

A rather lackadaisical participant in the whole thing (I hated the notion of hunting but secretly could see the appeal of a spree on a horse with your friends right after Christmas), I would mouth the slogans listlessly while more committed campaigners screamed “Murderers!” at the generally bemused-looking red-coated hunters.

It never made a blind bit of difference — the hunt always went ahead regardless.

I suppose our intentions were honourable, but our feet were very cold.

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