Tuesday 10 December 2019

There's no place like home for Christmas

Time spent with friends and family over the festive period is particularly special for those who live abroad.

Melanie Morris
Melanie Morris

Melanie Morris

Christmas. I think it's the only time left in modern living when you can take a genuine pause. When everyone abandons their usual routines, rituals and habitats to switch to a totally different wavelength and (like it or not) head home to adopt an alternative dynamic.

As an Irish tween of the 1980s, I was one of a huge generation of emigrants who moved to the UK the minute I had my UCD parchment in hand. The B.Comm didn't directly get me the job with Lynne Franks PR (she who was the inspiration for Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous), but it gave me the confidence to venture abroad with friends and set up a new life in London.

However, for the whole of the seven years I spent living in the fast, fashionable lane, I spent my time counting down the days until the Christmas holidays and the prospect of going home to warmth - of friends, places, family, and fun.

I can still feel the excitement of leaving our Marble Arch offices for the last time before the holidays. I'd usually come home on the latest flight, the Friday night before Christmas, and stay as long as I could into the New Year.

London was always empty by the time I'd be driving home to quickly grab my suitcases and on to Heathrow. Ever the festive cliché, I still have memories of racing around a deserted Trafalgar Square, Chris Rea's Driving Home for Christmas tinkling away on my old MGB car radio, and feeling that I was about to jump out of my skin with anticipation.

I never packed light: I needed a lot of clothes, and then there were all the presents that had to be transported home. I felt there was huge cachet in finding gifts for family and friends that they couldn't get back at home in Ireland so would trawl the big department stores and the designer sample sales I was lucky to get to through work.

There was no Marvel Room in the Brown Thomas of those days, no pop-ups in Arnotts, and the most exciting 'gift card' you could get in '80s Dublin was either a book token or a voucher for Golden Discs.

These were the days before internet, email and mobile phone, so once you'd been enveloped by the enormous decorations and welcomes of Dublin airport, you'd lash home, kiss parents and siblings, dump bags and head in to town to one of about three bars where you knew you you'd find your pals - Keogh's on South Anne Street, The Buttery Brasserie (now the Grafton Lounge in Royal Hibernian Way), and The Bailey on Duke Street.

Once ensconced, news of whatever parties were happening over the festive fortnight would filter out to the fore. Add the family traditions (for me, they included the huge, posh buffet Sunday lunch at The Royal Irish Yacht Club, Christmas Eve lunch in White's on The Green and beagling on St Stephen's Day), plus a New Year's Eve at someone's holiday home in the country.

The novelty of being a returning ex-pat made the rounds of coffees, lunches, gatherings, parties and late nights exciting. You were fresh blood, a novelty. Amusingly, most of the time was spent hunting in the same packs of Irish friends that you'd do the rest of the year in London, as most of my buddies were fellow emigrants, but in Dublin, we had an alternative stomping ground.

The Shelbourne on Christmas Eve was - and remains - a must before everyone gets swallowed into 48 hours of family goings-on, its heavy, revolving wooden doors straining with people shrieking greetings and holding glasses of something that'll get them through Midnight Mass later on.

I don't think, thankfully, that much has changed in the past 25 years and while it might be easier to hunt down your pack thanks to social media and smartphones, the fun of socialising around the festive period is the utter randomness of who you'll bump into, and where.

We forego our regular haunts and are willing to give uncharted territories a try because so-and-so is just back from, say, Dubai and will be going there later. And thus the adventures begin, memories are made and new traditions evolve.

In a world where weekends have shrunk, vacations are frequently interrupted and families are dispersed around the globe, Christmas really is the last bit of time out we can bank on; we slip from alpha to neutral. Back in the '80s, to return to my Lynne Franks desk in January with any form of functioning voice would have been categorised as a fail, and I don't think ever happened. The countdown would already be under way to do it all again in approximately 351 days' time as I'd try work out what's the longest time I could possibly take off.

Decades on, I still feel the same. There's a subconscious liberation in knowing offices are closed, switchboards are on auto and emails are being left unchecked. Deadlines disappear for a fortnight, allowing me the headspace to say what the hell, to stay out late, to rise even later.

It's the holidays after all, and everyone's home. Live a little.

I still have memories of racing around a deserted Trafalgar Square, Chris Rea's Driving Home for Christmas tinkling away on my old MGB car radio, and feeling that I was about to jump out of my skin with anticipation.

Irish Independent

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