Wednesday 23 October 2019

Ian O'Doherty: Christmas is coming... time to panic and look busy?

Classic festive movie: Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life
Classic festive movie: Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Well, 10 days to go.

The Irish tend to fall into two groups when it comes to how we approach Christmas.

For some, it's a well-earned break at the end of the year; a chance to take a deep breath, put their feet up for a few days and take this much needed opportunity to decompress a bit.

For everyone else, Christmas is a time of vaguely suppressed panic, the constant fear of forgetting something ('Where are the sprouts, you said you were going to pick up the feckin' sprouts! We can't have a Christmas dinner without the sprouts! That's it! Christmas is ruined!') and a general sense of impending doom.

The reason for such unnecessary aggravation?

Well, the older I get the more convinced I become that people are simply addicted to feeling the pressure. In fact, feeling stressed and frayed and constantly on-edge are, in many families, simply part of the tradition and people would just feel weird if they were relaxed about everything. Hell, I'd even go further than that - we get so stressed because, deep down, we like it.

My mother was a legendary Christmas-stresser. No problem was too small, no inconvenience too slight, to prevent a semi-meltdown and it all came from that self-inflicted sense of obligation; an obligation to make sure the dinner was perfect, the presents were the best ever and always, always the sense that she wasn't having fun unless she was fretting about something.

Of course, over time, families get used to their own internal dynamics. That's why, even when I was older, had long left home and would return only for Christmas dinner, we all retreated to our tried and trusted family roles - the Da would bravely stay out of the way and the Ma would insist that everyone leave her alone in the kitchen before having an epic meltdown over the prawn cocktail because nobody had offered to help her.

And as for me? Well, no matter how old I was, whenever I returned for the dinner, I immediately became a grumpy 15-year-old again, sullenly complaining that we had to watch the bloody Only Fools and Horses Christmas special for the umpteenth time.

A family of people who all enjoy cooking should be a blessing on Christmas Day, but not when it's a family of people who are also quite competitive about the food they make.

The one year the Ma finally relented and allowed me to make the gravy, she grudgingly conceded that it wasn't as bad as she thought it would be and then produced some she had made earlier, in expectation of a disaster.

All of these small irritants are the things that drive people bonkers over the festive season - the inevitable retreat into comfortable familial roles, the way everyone knows just what buttons to press to get a reaction, the sheer boredom that comes with making small talk with relations and, always, the sense that you would rather be anywhere else.

That's why, a few years ago, I was faced with a choice - fight against Christmas and try to avoid the whole thing or simply embrace the mood, accept that there are things you can't change or improve, and just go with the flow.

Let's be honest, Christmas is a bit like the Borg - resistance is futile and you can only fight against it for so long before you drive yourself and everyone else entirely mad.

Yes, yes, I know there are some intensely irritating things about this time of the year.

The 12 Pubs of Christmas remains, bafflingly, a thing.

Have you ever met someone who goes on these ridiculous jaunts? They tend to be the type of people who find safety in numbers, who think that a festive comedy jumper is a substitute for having a personality and they're the bane of every barman's life.

Don't agree to do one. Nobody will like you, the staff will automatically assume you're an eejit and the locals will insist that you're barred.

Similarly, this is the one time of the year when it's difficult to get a taxi and there are few things more likely to send you into a fit of pointless, frothing rage than a taxi with its light on driving straight past you. Taxi drivers of Ireland - please, turn off your light. It's just cruel.

Then, of course, there is the person who will tell you that Christmas is, actually, a pagan festival - as if you've never heard that before. Look, we all know Christmas was originally a pagan festival, every culture has some form of a mid-winter break and you're not unveiling the Third Secret of Fatima, you just sound like a 14-year-old.

But these minor irritants aside, there is so much to enjoy.

What other time of the year would you ever be bothered watching It's A Wonderful Life?

It's not Christmas until you've made sure Clarence got his wings and no movie about a banking crash, a mental breakdown and an attempted suicide has ever filled so many people with a sense of Christmas wonder. If you can get to the end of Capra's classic without a big lump in your throat and a manly tear in your eye then you, my friend, are probably a psychopath.

And then there's the dinner - the best meal of the year. I've been thinking about the dinner since Halloween. The turkey and ham are ready and waiting and my usual Christmas Eve dinner of smoked ham, batch bread and English mustard is a tradition I held on to long after my parents died.

And that's the thing - the older we get, the more opportunity we have to shed the stuff we never enjoyed and to keep the things we did.

So enjoy your Christmas break - after this year, we've all earned it.

Indo Review

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