There’s nothing quite like the pangs for home that thump through one’s heart come Christmas in a faraway land, not least with the travel restrictions imposed by Covid. As the big day approaches, Turtle Bunbury interviews members of the Irish diaspora living in cities such as Beijing, Zurich, New York and Toulouse about their favourite memories of Christmas in Ireland: the traditions, the reunions, the home-cooked dinner, the fireside laughter and the all-important presents beneath the Christmas tree.
‘There is so much faff about the food on Christmas Day,’ says chef Liz Cairns, ‘but, to be honest, I’d be quite happy to have a glass of something cold and bubbly in one hand, and a sandwich in the other.’
The Christmases she spent at her childhood home near Clones, County Monaghan, were centred upon such a massive banquet on the big day that the family were able to enjoy the succulent excesses through until the new year.
‘The ritual began every Christmas Eve when my father came home with two dead, silky, white geese, one in either hand. He’d roll up his sleeves, out with a hatchet knife, stretch out their long necks on the aluminium draining board and chop off their heads with a hatchet knife. My sisters and I would all watch in fascination. 1-2-3, whisssshhht.’
The next time they saw the geese, they would be sizzling on a sideboard, ready to be served up alongside sausages, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts and red cabbage.
The banquet reached its crescendo with the arrival of a Christmas pudding, soaked in as much brandy as possible to ensure ‘a lovely halo of blue flame’.
‘For me, Christmas has always been about people. The more people who come through the door, the more Christmassy I feel. The same for the dinner, the more people around the table, the better. Obviously, that has been tricky these last couple of years but, without friends and random people showing up, you miss out on the last-minute mayhem and Christmas becomes a bit like a normal Sunday lunch.’
Throughout Liz’s childhood home, ivy sprawled along bannisters and doorframes while sprigs of holly stuck out from every picture, and this is a tradition she has brought to her home in Leicestershire, along with a Tayto bauble hanging proudly at the heart of the Christmas tree.
Liz and her English husband Andy relocated to England in 2008. Jasper was seven when they left Ireland; their daughter Pippa was three.
‘If our son Jasper had his way, our house would be full of Irish flags and shamrocks. His mind is set on returning to Ireland the moment he leaves school. Maybe it’s his red hair?’
The children will be visited by Santa Claus whose elves actually wrap each item in their stocking in newspaper. ‘I thought everybody had newspaper wrapping until recently!’ confesses Liz. ‘It turns out that was a tradition passed down by my grandmother who was from Cornwall.’
This Christmas, the Cairns will play host to Andy’s family, but the dinner will be a relatively calm affair. ‘I really enjoy all the cooking and the tasting,’ says Liz. ‘But I think it Christmas should be more about sharing what you have than trying to impress people with a goose that’s been stuffed with 12 other birds. I almost think it’s the one day of the year we should be eating sandwiches. We will have the smoked salmon though – Irish, of course.’
Turtle Bunbury is a bestselling author, historian and podcaster based in Ireland. His best-selling 2021 book, The Irish Diaspora is described by BBC History Magazine as ‘impeccably researched.’ Sebastian Barry applauded his 2020 book Ireland’s Forgotten Past as ‘a stirring atlas of Irishness.’ Turtle is co-founder of Vanishing Ireland, a podcast chronicling the life and times of Ireland’s oldest generation through their stories and distinctive voices. He has also researched and written hundreds of family, house and corporate histories.
You can find Turtle’s extensive archive body of work on www.turtlebunbury.com