Flying home to Ireland from Germany for Christmas feels like the best thing in the world. Although I love Munich’s overpopulated Christmas Markets, and the aromatic glühwein which is so sweet yet so delicious that I drink it to the point where I feel like a giant gummy bear has impaled my stomach with an equally giant candy-cane. I long for Ireland, where Christmas presents are brought, more logically, by a fat, bearded man coming down a chimney rather than an infant Jesus busting through the window like a thief in the night. Ireland, where the heavy commercialism of British and American television means that Christmas only begins when the Coca-Cola advertisement interrupts Eastenders, Coronation Street or The Late, Late Show. The Irish Twittersphere goes off like the 4th of July when this happens.
At Christmas, Ireland is at its most beautiful and romantic, and Dublin becomes a place broken by the sky. The cold, short foggy days are accompanied by jubilant songs like Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody”, while during the long, clear nights, the soft crooning of Shane McGowan singing “Fairytale of New York” follows you down the streets and the darkness is held at bay by hundreds of lights, breaking the city into great blackness so close above and a sublime orangey-yellow glow so tightly around you. On Christmas Eve, Bono busks on Grafton Street for charity, followed by countless gifted amateur musicians, who are either on their break from school, or are old and only play or sing at family parties after a few drinks and the constant pestering of relatives.
That’s why I book my flights nearly every year. There is no place on earth like Ireland at Christmas. I think the main difference is that people aren’t completely overcome by merriment. Instead, everyone young and old, seems to be infected by the wonderment and nervous excitement of children waiting for their presents.
As an expat, however, I don’t get the opportunity to enjoy the atmosphere or the beautiful city that much. Because Christmas at home is like a trip home at any other time of the year, but on crack. Everything just happens so fast. But I suppose when you return to your country of residence and look back, it’s a bit like childbirth; you just seem to forget the pain.
The first few days are like a return to your teenage years. You don’t have to do anything, no work, no rent, no general paperwork. Instead, you can lie on your parents’ couch, watch TV, and have a nice home-cooked meal you didn’t cook yourself. The only thing that makes it better is if you haven’t been home in a couple of years. Then, for your parents, you’re the present. Suck it siblings. But you bring back presents anyway and get extra points. ‘No Mary, he did! Presents he lugged halfway around the world. The dote’. I live in Germany, so technically, it’s more like a tenth of the way across the world, but I’m not correcting anyone.
And then it starts, and you’re sucked into the chaos like a provincial cow in a hurricane. The thing about Christmas is, while everyone is off work, they all have things to do. So when I go home, this means I have to meet people for lunch in the city center, after spending two hours in traffic for a forty-minute journey and then meet someone else after. Or, since Dublin is a small space, you meet someone you haven’t seen for years on the street and you try speaking to them about what you’ve both been up to in the elephant stampede of holiday-shoppers, the conversation only stopping as forceful bodies push you both in opposite directions and you shout ‘yea, best of luck!’ from what has become the other end of the street.
Then it really starts to accelerate as the extended family and family friends enter the picture. Tea, drinks, dinner – it’s bedlam. The anarchy of the dinner table knows no equal. It’s rapid fire – ‘Sam, pass the peas, so how’s Germany, are the people nice?’ ‘Here you go, yea they are really ni-‘ ‘And the gravy there, they’re alright are they, yea? How’s the economy? This one is in the dogs’. That’s just one person, and invariably at least another two are trying to catch up with me simultaneously.
But when the turkey’s gone, it relaxes and you can easily talk to your family without the pressing urge of a short trip and a Christmas ham. However, unfortunately by that time, I’m either too tired or slightly intoxicated to ever clearly remember what exactly happened. But that’s Christmas and Tiny Tim couldn’t ask for a better one.
There is a huge difference between being an expat at home during Christmas and being an expat at home during any other time of the year. The first few days are comparable, but in mid to late December, it’s just the eye of the storm. While on a regular trip, you have the time to get bored and think of what you’d be doing back in your country of residence, at Christmas you don’t have that time. Everything seems to happen at super speed and things blend into one another. You just don’t have time to think of the differences and even the famed ‘reverse culture shock’ is fleeting.
But the main difference is that Christmas at home, isn’t really home. I mean in one sense, it’s the defining characteristic and when you think of home, your mind drifts towards Christmas dinner. But it’s not the everyday reality. The three weeks surrounding December 25th are like a special world, while the other forty-nine remind you of why you left and how much you stick out now.
And I think some part of you acknowledges that. It’s the best time to look back on, because it is so special. The bad sides of home like small arguments, terrible public transport, awful queues in the shopping market, etc. can just be put down to being the hectic Christmas period. And the good sides are even better because everyone is in a good mood. It’s probably why most people go home then, rather than Easter.
Sam Malone is an Irishman living in Munich, Germany. As a masters graduate in continental American literature, he is qualified in two things: being a nerd and reading books.
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