Christmas in Exile

It’s that time of year again and I have just been to the attic to get all the Christmas things to decorate the house in the usual way. But, as we are now living permanently in Ireland after many years of living abroad, I remember Christmas during postings in other places.

Christmas was a time of celebration but also of loneliness; separated from family and friends ; trying to recreate the kind of Christmas we remembered as children. And, because I’m not Irish, it meant mixing two sets of traditions with that of the country we happened to be in at the time.

I celebrated my first ‘foreign’ Christmas in Australia. The temperature climbed to 40 degrees on Christmas Day. We had no air conditioning (the Aussies thought it was for wimps). I put the candles in the freezer to stop them from melting (a tip I picked up from an Australian friend). But we soldiered on, cooking the traditional Christmas dinner; turkey with all the trimmings, sweating over the plum pudding (which nearly burned a hole in the ceiling when we lit it) and trying to pretend the plastic tree in the corner was the real thing.

Christmas in Paris was a different story. On Christmas Eve, we went to midnight mass, in black tie and evening dress, followed by reveillon (French for a late night booze-up) at a friend’s house, where we drank champagne and ate oysters and partied on until it was nearly time to go home and give the children their presents. ‘Did you meet Santa?’ they asked. ‘Yes,’ my bleary-eyed husband replied, ‘but he wasn’t looking very well.’

When we finally reached the elevated status of ‘His Excellency’, and were housed in official splendour, Christmas suddenly became a rather plush affair. Or, that was the general idea.

The harsh reality hit me on Christmas day in the vast kitchen of the embassy residence; a beautiful old villa in Wassenaar, a suburb of The Hague. I had decorated like mad in an attempt to turn the rather formal reception rooms into something resembling cosiness, not forgetting to decorate the official portrait of President (at the time) Mary Robinson, who was looking at me rather sternly as I placed sprigs of holly above her perfectly coiffed head. The children had arrived home from boarding school and college and I had invited a couple who, like us, were a little lost and lonely, to complete the gathering. It was going to be our first Christmas in Holland and the setting was perfect.

But below stairs, things turned ugly as I was faced with challenges I had forgotten to pencil into my agenda. A huge, raw turkey, no help (would you ask anyone to work on Christmas day?) and a cooker I had never used before with instructions in Dutch. A drawing room full of by now rather jolly guests and family members, drinking champagne and eagerly awaiting a Christmas feast of ambassadorial proportions. I served some more champagne to soothe the hungry hordes and went back to the kitchen. With the help of a technically gifted child, I finally managed to get the oven to light and find the implements I needed and Christmas dinner was eventually served. The couple later broke up (low blood sugar?).

Christmas in Brussels was more of the same, except that I was now decorating Mary Mc Aleese and the festivities were often marred by a rather tired husband who, after long hours of meetings (mostly about fish) at EU headquarters, would spend most of Christmas asleep, while we celebrated around him. I remember one night just before Christmas, when the phone rang at around four in the morning. ‘Ten thousand extra tons of mackerel,’ shouted his excited voice. ‘Another victory for Ireland!’  I haven’t been able to face mackerel since.

When I really think about it, my very first Christmas ‘in exile’ was spent in Sweden with a couple, like us, newly married and of mixed nationalities. He was from Columbia and she was American. We were in our early twenties, just married and each with a new baby. We hadn’t a clue about cooking but between us, managed to produce the best Christmas dinner ever. Was it the candle light shining on polished wooden floors, the Christmas tree, the dark, or the softly falling snow outside? No. It was the spirit of Christmas.

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