Why I can’t take another Irish Christmas

Christmas has become a commercial behemoth and it reminds Liz O’Neill of her Dad too much. So she, like Americans for the first time, is off to sample the delights of Cuba

Why I can’t take another Irish Christmas

The relaxed Latin drum beat will spill onto the street from the sawdust taverna. A

t the chipped mahogany bar, I’ll watch the hypnotic sway of the beautiful salsa dancers as ceiling fans cut the air and keep time to the rhythm.

With some swagger and a “?como te llamas?”, I’ll be coaxed onto the dancefloor despite a rhythmic deficiency — and because of the rum cocktails.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess.

That’s how I’m picturing December 25 as I fly solo in Old Havana Town.

No shopping, no turkey, no six hours on my feet as commis chef and kids’ entertainer.

No one’s in-laws.

And no reminders of who is not at the head of that table.

I’m swapping it all for mojitos, and sunshine on a Cuban cycling holiday.

Cuba is also a place with few goods, no advertising and little practised religion, but just enough if a genetic imperative leads me to light a candle.

Despite an agnosticism, I still get a great sense of calm from lighting a few candles.

But, we all know the industrial stretching of Christmas from before Halloween until New Year’s Day, has left no room for Jesus.

Twelve days has become 61. New rituals invented by market forces are aimed at bleeding euro from consumers.

Events like the 12 pubs or visiting Santa at a satellite North Pole wonderland in the Midlands, have usurped established traditions such as carol singing, putting baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve and then maybe catching midnight mass.

This year we’ve even caught the Black Friday bug from the US.

It leads to great stress, which is not just financial, it’s existential.

This excess does nothing for our relationships or interior lives.

It’s a time where what we think we lack is magnified.

While Scrooge had his ghosts of past, present and future, in real life, it’s a time when residual regrets, guilt or losses come back to haunt us all.

How many times have you been asked “what did you get over the Christmas?” and how many times did you vow to “go away next year”?

I have been saying it for the past six years, ever since my dad died.

It wasn’t always like this.

Christmas was a big event in our house: literally big — big tree, big turkey.

It was dad’s favourite time of year and he went to endless trouble to make it special for everyone.

My sister Laura got the job of decorating the tree, and new lights were bought. Sometimes they sang and twinkled.

For me there were extra crispy roast potatoes.

For my brother Ger it was making sure the bread sauce was just right.

It was made by steeping a clove-spiked onion in milk overnight.

On the 24th, we’d be in the kitchen, dad with the Santa hat on, and I’d be stabbing the onion with cloves, dying to head out as mum warned against hangovers at the dinner table.

It was always my favourite night of the year.

Now, I hate that clove-spiked onion and there is no chance of getting anyone out on Christmas Eve.

One of the things no one tells you about bereavement is the hole it blows through your family. You have to spend time reshaping yourselves around it and finding your role and responsibilities again.

So events like Christmas are difficult. No one knows quite what to do, and some do more than others.

My family’s loss is no different to anyone else’s.

As time passes, you get on with it, but Christmas is a reminder of all those lost acts of individualised love.

This year I want no reminders.

I’m leaving the holiday season fallow for one year to see if any enthusiasm springs up.

On December 25 I won’t be celebrating Christmas, I’ll be celebrating my freedom.

ESCAPING CHRISTMAS

There are many inviting places in the non-Western world that do not celebrate Christmas.

Asia

Cambodia – having emerged from the 1970s genocide, Cambodian tourism is firmly established with infrastructure improving.

Highlights include Angkor Wat and the floating villages of Siem Reap and Bokor Hill Station.

They are also the kindest people in the world.

December in South East Asia is peak time, so book as early as possible.

Thailand – for a tropical island-hopping holiday with no mention of Christmas.

While the country has had some turbulence lately, it’s mostly calm if slightly more expensive in recent years.

Still a backpacker haven and easy to travel around.

Africa

Marrakesh in Morocco - the nearest non-Western, non-Christmas celebrating region to Europe.

Flights are cheap and you can spend Christmas day at a souk, on a surfboard or exploring the Atlas Mountains.

Safari in Botswana or Namibia - at the pricier end of the travel wish-list, a safari is a once in a lifetime event.

So why not at Christmas time when the November rains add some green to the parched landscape?

There are many tour-operators offering two-centre safaris

Caribbean

Cuba – as outlined above, why wouldn’t you want to go?

Colonial splendour, adventure, music, rum, Hemingway and sunshine, topped off with nothing available to buy.

Santa who?

Flights start from about €650.

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