'We've made our own traditions': Christmas for the Irish abroad

What is Christmas like for the Irish who’ve made their home overseas? Four ex-pats talk to Helen O’Callaghan
'We've made our own traditions': Christmas for the Irish abroad

Emma Murray

Oxford Street is magical, we'll go to Kew Gardens

From Malahide but living in London, author of new book Winging It Emma Murray hasn’t been home for Christmas in a while. “Pre-Covid, we retired my mum from doing Christmas dinner. My sister, Lisa, lives in London too, so we took on Christmas dinner and our parents come over to us. Lisa’s doing it this year.

“I desperately miss an Irish Christmas. We’d generally go to Mass at 10pm, then to the local pub where you’d run into people you hadn’t seen since last year, a brilliant excuse to catch up. On Christmas morning the whole family would visit neighbours for drinks. We’d have dinner about 4pm. And then TV in the lounge, drinking Irish coffees, eating chocolates. Our cousins — fantastic craic — would be over. They were the best Christmases and I miss them so much: the atmosphere, the buzz of being around family and friends, everybody in good form and up for a party — that ease of slotting back into familiar surroundings, like you were never away.

“I moved to London 20 years ago. Christmas is more subdued now. I only have a small portion of family here. We’ll be lucky to have that this year, with Covid. So my husband, Sam, and I and the girls — Ava’s 11, Anya’s 9 — will be on our own on Christmas morning. There’ll be a little less atmosphere than in Ireland.

“The kids will play with their presents. We’ll be in our PJs ’til we go to my sister’s. We won’t be over-nighting there. We’ll get a taxi home — early enough because of the kids, so it’s not like we’ll have that adult chat and a couple of drinks when they’re in bed. What’s nice about London is it gets Christmassy very quickly. Oxford Street is magical, beautiful, always worth a trip. We’ll go to Kew Gardens with the kids and some friends. They do all the dancing lights — it’s really a stunning effect.

“And my parents will stay with us for a few days after Christmas. It’ll be great for the girls, having their grandparents around.”

We’ve made our own traditions here

Michael Morey
Michael Morey

For life/career coach Michael Morey, who married his German-born wife, Birgit, in August, southwest Germany is home now.

“It’s where I want to be for Christmas,” says Michael, originally from Cobh, Co Cork. “It’s my fourth Christmas here. For the first few, Birgit was trying to make it homely for me so we had turkey, which isn’t usual here.

“I love traditions — one of the reasons I like it in Germany. We’ve got our own Christmas traditions now, though it takes a while to grow into new ones. A tradition on December 5, St Nicholas’ Eve, is The Bread Man (Der Weckmann), a figure made from sweet yeast dough, which we have with our evening meal.

“The big Christmas dinner is on December 24. We’ll have Kasseler — cured smoked ham steaks – with Sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. This year Birgit’s making sherry trifle, definitely not traditional — the recipe’s from an Irish Christmas recipe book. After dinner we’ll go to Mass and once home we’ll exchange gifts and sing songs — like ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘O Tannenbaum’.

“What I miss about Christmas in Ireland: I come from a large family so there was always a big gang of us. I miss that. There aren’t many children around us here, so I miss the excitement of kids at Christmas. But being a godparent is big in Germany — godparents always give children a cone full of sweets at Christmas and Birgit will be doing that for her goddaughter.

“And I’ve a good friend and neighbour living across the road. I want to have a whiskey with him. I’ve my eye on an Irish whiskey – that’s a Christmassy thing I want to do.”

Christmas Eve dinner is our highlight

Dermot Murphy
Dermot Murphy

Originally from Kinsale, Dermot Murphy works in the European Investment Bank and lives in Luxembourg.

“Here the high point is Christmas dinner on December 24. Christmas Day is like a relaxed Sunday — there’s very little hype. It’s more of a compact experience, which I like. On Christmas Day you wake up and you’ve a whole day to relax. For me that’s what Christmas is — going out for a walk, a lot more visiting of friends but in more relaxed mode.

“The Christmas markets are lovely in Luxembourg. They’ve got a long tradition over hundreds of years. There’s a nice chateau near where my husband Toni and I live and every year we go to their pre-Christmas market and have our first gluhwein (mulled wine) of the year.

“I like that it’s quite normal to have a white Christmas here — it almost approaches the Christmas postcard image. I’ve seen it become more commercialised over the years but you’re able to escape the commercialism more than in Ireland. It’d be unusual for people to put up Christmas decorations the second week of November.

“There’s less in-your-face commercialism — maybe when you’re abroad you’re more detached. I don’t have extended family here so there isn’t as much pressure to buy. I like being able to escape the tacky Christmas music – it’s not blaring out from every street corner.

“But a nice thing about Ireland is going to the pub, having the craic. I miss that typical Irish spontaneity — ‘let’s go out for a jar’ – and you never know who you’re going to bump into, maybe an old school friend.

“Of course I miss seeing my family but this year I saw them all six weeks before Christmas. My mother sends the Holly Bough every year — a true Cork tradition and pure nostalgia. We’ve built up quite a collection now.”

Christmas is a one-day holiday in New York

Jeanette Reilly
Jeanette Reilly

Working in the TV, film and media industry, Jeanette Reilly is from Artane in Dublin and has made her home in New York with husband James. “Over here, Christmas is just a one-day holiday. The day itself is the end of it. Thanksgiving is bigger – it goes on for four days. I remember being so sad one Christmas Day because we’d invited people over for dinner and then I realised ‘oh, James has to go to work tomorrow’. There was no St Stephen’s Day. After that he promised he’d take St Stephen’s Day off and he has.

“Because so many of us in the Irish community here are away from our families at Christmas we tend to have a lot more gatherings, at least up to Covid. We would all go to one person’s house. Everybody would bring something — I’d bring a traditional trifle. What I really miss about Christmas in Ireland is seeing my mum and dad and all my extended family.

“I used to love the whole going out on St Stephen’s Day, everyone with their glad rags on, the clubs in town all open — you couldn’t get a taxi home so you’d be walking past Fairview Park wondering why you thought these heels were a good idea.

“New York is fantastic at Christmas and over the years I’ve had people come to visit me . I always go home to Dublin in the New Year, at the beginning of January, for three weeks. It’s a tradition I started and one I look forward to.”

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