A typical Christmas isn’t available to some, and isn’t suitable for others. Joyce Fegan chats to people who won’t be celebrating the usual way — but are united in making the best of this most wonderful time of the year.
Not everyone in Ireland will be on holidays this Christmas, nor will they have a tree up.
From nurses on night duty to volunteer workers carrying pagers, and from asylum seekers to atheists, Christmases in Ireland are now as varied as the people who make up our population.
Shaykh Umar al-Qadri is a father of three children, an Islamic theologian, and chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas, because for the celebration of Christmas, when it comes to the religious celebration, I’m not a Catholic.
“But Christmas has become a cultural celebration so in some ways I do celebrate that. I’ll send my Christian neighbours cards and I will receive peace cards also.
“We don’t have a Christmas tree or decorations, and we won’t have the traditional Christmas dinner. We also don’t have Santa Claus.
“We have our own celebration called Eid ul-Fitr, after Ramadan. There are actually three different occasions that we celebrate, and the parents will give gifts to their children. In the Muslim faith, there is no equivalent magical figure as Santa.
“All of my three children were born here and for them Santa is not real.
“We do look forward to Christmas though and we love the lights. We’ll go for a walk in the city centre to look at them and we’ll go to Phoenix Park. They are two things we really enjoy.
“Something else we enjoy is the sales, we love the sales.
“We love the chocolates, the Roses and the Quality Street, and the children will point out the price difference in the supermarket and say: ‘Look, they were €8 and now they’re €4’. It’s very common to have all sorts of chocolates in Muslim homes. Gaining weight at Christmas is not applicable to only Christians!
“I feel no sense of exclusion or isolation. I never have. I’ve previously given a Christmas message on the radio. I don’t feel at all isolated.
“I think Muslims living here feel it’s a nice time of year and that these days are very unique and that there is a festival feel.
“Most people are like everyone else. Muslims are off like everyone else. Some people work in sales and in an office and they’re off like everyone else in the country.”
Ceara Carney, 26, will cook a vegan dinner for her family and source her presents as sustainably as possible, wrapping them in newspaper or sheets of music.
“The last three years I’ve been trying to have as eco-friendly a Christmas as possible. I’m part of Extinction Rebellion, and I have a podcast on sustainability called Book of Leaves. I really love this kind of stuff.
“I have the most relaxing Christmas Day with my family. We don’t have dinner until about 7pm or 8pm, and before that we just sit and watch TV and hang out together. It’s me, my mum, and my two brothers and maybe a visitor.
“We wake up and share presents — that’s really important. I try to do presents differently. We are living in quite a consumeristm culture where we don’t even know what we want and people end up buying toiletries for you that sit in a box for a year.
“I try now to put a lot of thought into presents and buy something people really need. I’ll ask them what do they want. There’s this whole thing of having to have a surprise. But you can just as easily ask people for a list of five things and pick one, and that way it’s still a surprise. I like getting refills of things I really need, like from Lush. I also asked for Mary Robinson’s climate change book.
“Experiences are also a great idea or something homemade. Remember when people used to send a pudding or bread instead of sending a box of Celebrations or Quality Street, full of plastic?
“I’ve a brother who lives abroad and I’ve gotten a tree planted for him with grown.ie. You get this lovely certificate and you’re given the coordinates of the tree and you can go and see it then when it’s grown a bit.
“I also haven’t used wrapping paper in five years. Whenever I get wrapping paper I take it off carefully and I put it aside and I reuse it. I also use the brown paper you get that’s stuffed inside a pair of shoes you buy, that wraps really nicely. You can also reuse newspaper, but maybe the sports pages, so it’s not a sad story. If you have kids in the house you can use old atlases or sheets of music too.
“I use compostable cellotape. You can buy that from loads of places like reuzi.ie, littlegreenshop.ie, or anniepooh.ie.
“If you’ve bought lots of presents or used lots of plastics, you could choose to do one thing like leaving out the crackers that are filled with little plastic toys that we’ll never use.”
Maria Dowling, 30, will be working in Cork University Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) on the nights of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
“I’m from Kerry, but I trained in Cork University Hospital, and I started working here in 2012, after I qualified. I’ve been working in ICU since 2016.
“I’ll be working Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day night. So I’ll finish Christmas morning at 8am, go home and sleep, and be back in for 8pm. Leaving to go into work is the loneliest part, but it’s best to just treat it as a normal shift.
“I’ll go home to my family on St Stephen’s Day morning and we’ll do the dinner and all the presents then. There are ways around it. We’ve no nieces or nephews yet.
“I’ve worked a good few Christmases. The fact is it’s not easy, but once you’re in there it’s fine. Anyone who’s in there is really sick, and it’s very hard for families. Once you’re in there, you’re very, very grateful for what you have.
“It’s just a service that never stops, it’s constantly running. There are no snow days.
“We do things like Kris Kindle with the night staff and we’ll exchange presents and we’ll wear — within reason, and what’s appropriate — Christmas earrings or something.
“One year I met one of my colleagues at the door going in and we just looked at each other, knowing we’re all in this together and you have to focus on the patient. You leave your stuff at home. It’s the same approach every day.
“Patients will ask after you and ask about your family on the day. They enquire after you. If it were my mum or dad I’d want someone who was there to look after them. You don’t really dwell on yourself.
“It’s like all the other days of the year. Anything can change within the hour. You could have a huge car crash, or there could be a huge head trauma. It’s a routine that you’re used to. Your focus is on saving that person’s life, not what’s going on at home.
“Your heart is with the patient and their families. It’s a privilege to do this work. At the end of the day you’re saving a life, or if you’re doing organ donation, you’re saving multiple lives.
“It’s not all bad. It is quite rewarding. No matter the day, we’ll always do our best.”
Michael Nugent is the chairperson of Atheist Ireland. He always enjoyed Christmas Day as a child — none of which was religious. Since his wife passed away, he spends Christmas Day with his brothers and sister.
“I grew up in the ’70s, so for me Christmas officially starts the first time I hear ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ by Slade — but it has to be in a shop or on the radio. It doesn’t count if I play it myself. I typically meet friends for a drink or a meal, including an annual lunch with one set of old friends.
“Since my wife Anne died, I spend Christmas Day with my brothers and sister. My brother Gerard cooks the Christmas dinner, and he accommodates my peculiarities by adding vegan options. Also, some of our childhood friends visit home to mark the day.
“When I was a child, our Christmas Days were crammed with activity. None of it was religious. Neighbours would visit in the morning, choosing from the wines and sherries my parents curated. We would watch telly until about three, then have Christmas dinner and exchange presents. Our younger friends would visit to watch Christmas Top of the Pops and The Morecambe & Wise Show.
“We would then stuff ourselves with too much more food, and play Scrabble and cards until the early hours.
“This timetable hasn’t changed much, but my parents are now dead, and my siblings and I are older and more likely to end the celebration on the same day as we started it.
“I do celebrate the annual turning of the season, which is a wonderful mix of ancient traditions from all around the world. Pagans brought evergreen trees indoors at winter, to remind them of the coming spring. Druids saws mistletoe as a sign of good luck, love, and friendship.
“Vikings burned the first Yule logs. Santa Claus was a rich Turkish philanthropist, later rebranded by Coca Cola.
“Slade was a Wolverhampton-based glam rock group who recorded ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’. The Bible doesn’t say when Jesus was born, so Christian bishops later voted for December 25, which coincided with the existing Roman festival of Saturnalia.
“Today, the festival happens to be called Christmas, just as Thor’s Day happens to be called Thursday, but neither are inherently religious. Christmas today is a lovely secular family festival, which everyone can enjoy regardless of their personal beliefs”.
Síle Scanlon, 21, lives in Ballycotton, Cork, and she comes from a family of RNLI volunteers, all of whom know what it’s like to celebrate Christmas with an emergency pager on their belt buckle.
“Ballycotton is a small fishing village so I always grew up right beside the sea.
“Thankfully I am not working Christmas Day this year, but will work most other days in the lead-up to Christmas and also New Year. When at home I will be carrying my pager 24/7 ready to respond if the pager goes off. We will be spending Christmas like most others having — family time and relaxing.
“There are three of us in the house with pagers, so one is never far away.
“My family are very involved in our local RNLI station. In 2002, my late uncle Fergal won the RNLI silver medal for gallantry when he rescued a young man who was swept off rocks while fishing off Ballycotton.
“Growing up, this was a big inspiration for me joining the crew.
“My uncle Eolan is our full-time mechanic here in Ballycotton, my mam Máire is one of our mechanics on the boat, my father John is shore crew, my boyfriend Michael is also on crew as well, as are two of my cousins.
“Some years we take the lifeboat to the Garryvoe Christmas Day Swim to watch over all those brave enough to take the plunge on Christmas Day.
“I can remember being about 13 or 14 and just sitting down for dinner on Christmas Day when my parents’ pagers went off.
“Suddenly we went from sitting at the table to everyone in the car headed to the [RNLI] station.
“There had been a group of three or four people who had gone for a walk to the small island in Ballycotton.
“The rocks between the land and the small island are tidal and the tide comes in very fast.
“On this day, the casualties had become caught out and needed our assistance to get back to the land.
“I absolutely adore being part of the RNLI and, as soon as I walked through the station door at 17, I gained a whole new family. This family are all willing to drop whatever they are doing at whatever time of the day and night to help and rescue someone who could be a neighbour or stranger.
“It just goes to show the importance of the RNLI’s Perfect Storm appeal. I, like the other thousands of volunteer crew, shore crew, and station members, will be ready to launch every single day over Christmas no matter what the weather.
“The RNLI is a charity and receives no Government funding. This means our fundraisers have to work incredibly hard at all times of the year to keep our station afloat. We are rescuing more people than ever, so we are asking everyone to help us continue to save lives by donating at RNLI.org/theperfectstorm.”
Denis Cotter is the owner, founder, and executive chef at Paradiso restaurant in Cork City. He hasn’t had turkey and ham for many years.
“I’ve been vegetarian since my early 20s, so both the turkey and the pig have been off the menu for a fair few decades now.
“Christmas Day seems to be different every year, depending on whether we’re at home, at a friend’s place, with Maureen’s family in Canada, or hiding away in a log cabin up a mountain (I haven’t actually done that yet but I feel it coming on).
“When we’re at home, it depends on whether we have family around to cook for or not.
“This year, it’s likely to be just the two of us, so we’ll be having a quiet curtains-drawn day of peace and quiet. There’ll be lots of nice things to sip on and snack on while we take our time preparing dinner, with card games, book reading and film-watching scattered through the day.
“Christmas dinner has taken on its own vegetarian traditions through the years, and is likely to again be built around a variation on my own cashew loaf recipe from my book For the Love of Food.
“I like to serve that with a beetroot port gravy and all the usual side dishes of roast spuds, sprouts, carrots, etc, plus a braised fennel dish that has become a staple of both home and Paradiso menus. Dessert is likely to be my sister’s plum pudding with classic ‘Irish Mammy’ Bird’s custard.
“I gave up eating meat way back in the early ’80s, so it’s something I don’t think about, it’s just become part of what I am and how I am comfortable in the world.
“It’s a personal ethical issue, nothing to do with health, there’s a million ways to eat a healthy diet. In fact, I think becoming vegetarian for personal health reasons is fairly narcissistic, you’re not that precious, you know? However, right now, I believe that ending the farming and eating of animals has become more than a matter of personal ethics and is an obligation that we have to the planet we’ve managed so badly.”
“I’m a community guard in Dundrum, Dublin and I am a mother of two,” says Garda Linda Byrne.
“I’m working Christmas Eve and I’ve worked Christmas Day in the past. I’d link in with people in the area who I know who are vulnerable.
“When I have worked Christmas Day, it’s an unusual day, you can get a lot more domestic calls, fights within families, and dealing with things of a sensitive nature where drink is involved. Drink driving can also be an issue.
“Christmas isn’t the best time for everyone — mental health problems crop up, people can feel suicidal or go missing. But there are no things like shoplifting. It’s not like a normal day — burglaries not as common with more people at home.
“My kind of role in the lead-up to Christmas is about reaching out to the lonely and vulnerable.
“I’ll finish up Christmas Eve. My husband is a guard too, he’ll work Christmas Eve night and Christmas night, so with two children, aged three and one, there is some juggling.
“We’ll both be off Christmas morning, we’ll do Santa as normal, then he has to be in work for 10pm that night.
“Luckily for us, Christmas Day will work: The children are young so we will just have Christmas dinner early in the day. It would be lovely to be off but it’s just the way it works, it’s just a given.
“Normally there is a nice atmosphere in the station. Everyone tries to make the best of it. This type of work can be hard anyway, but it can be harder on Christmas Day. I live close to where I’m stationed, but it’s harder for people who live far away.
“We make the most of it in the station, but you’re also aware of others working, like nurses and the fire brigade.
“People do appreciate that you have to work over the Christmas period and there is a small bit of a different attitude. We would get a lot of cards into the station.”
Dr Darren Brennan works in psychiatry and is based in the community in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. He will work a 24-hour shift that will bring him up Christmas Eve and he will return to work on St Stephen’s Day. He explains that Christmas can be a challenging time for people.
“I’m training to be GP, but I’m an SHO [senior house officer] in psychiatry, and I’m based in the community in Mullingar.
“I only get one day with my family, as I’ll be working Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day, and then right the way through after that. So I’ll do a 24-hour shift bringing me into Christmas Eve.
“During the day I’ll be in the primary care centre and psychiatric hospital at night.
“There are decorations at the hospital at the moment, and the nurses will have a Christmas dinner.
“My partner works in medicine too, and will be working St Stephen’s Day so we’ll wait for the weekend to celebrate, and I’ll give her presents beforehand.
“My build-up to Christmas has also been very different to other people’s. My week has not been shopping but making sure other people are reasonably well for Christmas.
“While everyone else is enjoying Christmas there are people who are struggling and we are just some of the people picking up the pieces.
“For example, when it comes to mental health, Christmas is a time when people experience the effect of loss the most. You can lose someone and be OK the first Christmas, but it could hit you on the second, third or fourth one. You have that empty seat at the table. There are people grieving, and who have been doing quite well, and then hit speed bumps at Christmas.
“Christmas also places a huge financial burden on people, and that exacerbates existing mental health issues.
You can call the Samaritans on 116 123 day or night, 365 days of the year. Also see aware.ie, pieta.ie, and hse.ie/mental-health.
Owodunni ‘Ola’ Mustapha, 35, is an asylum seeker who lives in a direct provision (DP) centre in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, with her three young children, all of whom believe in Santa. She has been living in DP for five years now, as she awaits the results of her asylum application. She has just been received the Christine Buckley Volunteer of the Year Award. Educated in political science, she does not have a right to work in Ireland.
“I came to Ireland in 2014 and I’ve been in the direct provision system ever since. I’m in the appeals process now.
“With Christmas, my kids believe in Santa. When they write their letters to Santa, I take them and read them. I try to get the most important thing on the list. I start saving for Christmas from January. This year they wanted a Nintendo, that’s over €600. They’ll share it.
“I will leave out the present on Christmas Eve and they will wake up on Christmas morning and see it. They get so excited.
“Some people from the local community try and help us organise Christmas. It makes you know that they understand how challenging it is to live like that this. They help with vouchers and presents. They’ve been so supportive. This is the kind of community spirit the Government needs to be promoting.
“My day-to-day life is about what the Government wants me to do — eat and sleep. Being in the appeals process means I am not allowed to work. I get the kids to school and then I just spend my time volunteering.
“While I’m not qualified to work here, I’m not the kind of person who can sit around and do nothing. So I do things like source people to come in and run sewing, make-up, and knitting classes. I seek out NGOs who come in and explain about supports for victims of domestic violence and female genital mutilation. I’ve been doing that kind of work for three years now.
“Anyone can log on to Facebook and see our page — Ballyhaunis Inclusion Project. You can see some of the issues and challenges we face as asylum seekers.
“This year for Christmas we are teaming up with the Ballyhaunis Chamber of Commerce for an event on December 23. The event will take place outside the centre. The idea is that people from all over the world will celebrate Christmas together. We will sing, dance, and talk to each other about the different kinds of Christmases.
“I was in Achill Island recently [at the time of the protests against direct provision] and it was so disheartening to see — people who had witnessed the Ireland of the past, who’d gone to Scotland and remitted money back home.
“Yes the system is not fit for human habitation, but people still need somewhere to put their head down. [A protest] shouldn’t be the first response.
“If a person feels bad about this system of direct provision, but are not getting involved in ending it, then your empathy is not having an impact. If you feel bad about this system, write to your local TD or councillors and tell them. Otherwise [your empathy] doesn’t hold water.
“There is more than enough noise around DP now and more than enough information available.”