We all have relatives that have fled Ireland’s ridiculous economic rollercoaster. And many have ended up in the Southern hemisphere…Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America. And in these new gaffs, the Irish are having a rather sweaty Christmas. Not so much HO HO HO as piping hot turkey? NO NO NO!
By Nicole Buckler, who is Australian Irish.
Once you experience “Christmas” in a sweltering tropical place you realise that humans are mental. We people of the New World have dragged some rather bizarre traditions with us from the Old World…and while they were important to our identity somewhat throughout history, often they don’t make even slightest bit of sense in the New World. But we can’t seem to stop going through the motions with these hollow actions that confuse us more with every year that goes by.
The biggest celebration in the Christian calendar is Christmas. In Australia as children, we put up a fake Nordic pine tree in our lounge rooms, and we decorate it with cotton balls—fake snow… and most of us have never seen snow in real life until we went skiing that time on the man-made snow at Thredbo. And that man-made snow sucks. Badly. When you stack on it at speed you are always in danger of leaving your face behind.
Indeed, we sweat it out in 40 degree heat while we assemble the damn fake tree with fake snow. As a kid I painted the glass windows with holly. I had never seen holly but I certainly knew how to draw it on a window with glass paint. And in blazing tropical heat, Aussies sit down on Christmas day to a big roasted turkey, hot potatoes, and some green veges that melt our internal organs and make us want to have a nap in the pool.
And then there’s Santa. Anyone who dresses as Santa in Australia in hugely thick layers of material quietly melts into their underwear, praying for the aircon to never ever, please God, cut out. The tradition is a total disconnect, simply because so much of culture is connected to the seasons and the habitat where they originated.
Now that I live in Ireland, I often wonder how emigrants to the southern hemisphere feel about their “new Christmas.” Yes they miss their families (and even granny chewing with her mouth open so that mashed potato falls on the dress she has worn every year since 1979). But I often wonder do they think, “AWESOME! Surfing on Christmas day!”…or do they think, “Why am I eating a roasted beast, probably imported from the depths of a Russian gulag, during a celebration that originally started in Ireland as Winter solstice? This just feels feckin’ weird.”
For me, an Australian Christmas is really just a day. It feels like a celebration we convicts have dragged from the cold depths of earth…and we hang on to it, petrified that if we create a weather-appropriate celebration that we will be dishonouring our ancestors’ traditions. And then we will have to fall on the sword to save ourselves from shame. Even before I had flung myself across the world to explore what other people did with their lives, Christmas felt weird in Australia. It was the same as I felt about watching the BBC in Australia. I liked it but it didn’t really apply.
But in Europe, I discovered, Christmas is a cultural event that goes on for two months. I never “got” Christmas until I went to Europe and lived through a cold, dark December. Christmas in Europe is magic, and it gets even more awesome the closer to the Arctic Circle that you get. And the honest truth is that in some countries winter is so shite that the Christmas season makes it bearable, even damn enjoyable.
So let’s talk Christmas trees. In northern Europe, it has true meaning. It is an evergreen conifer or spruce, highly prized in cold countries where most other trees lose their leaves. In cold and dark times, the evergreen stands out. During winter they refuse to get naked from their leaves. So to Europeans, an evergreen represents eternal life, as they remain green even in the harshest of winters. People used to decorate them with fruit to show their resilience throughout the cold months.
The Christmas tree in English-speaking countries is a rather new invention: It became fashionable when Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert (ew). He put up his Christmas tree, a well-established tradition in Germany, at Buckingham Palace, and English people noticed. And the rest is history.
Across Europe, and Scandinavia, “Christmas” the cultural event starts in late November. It is an excuse to go to a nice warm pub with a big roaring fire. Every night. The tradition of young people wearing Christmas jumpers to nightclubs, which actually have bulbs in them and light up like a Christmas tree, is so insanely fun it makes we want to live in a European bar for all of December. This would not and could not fly in Australia. It’s too damn hot that time of year, no one in their right mind would wear a jumper of any shade. We could wear Christmas T-Shirt, but what would they have on them? In fact I can’t even think of one symbol of Christmas that isn’t related to the cold. Even Santa’s sleigh would fail miserably in Australia…the desert sands just don’t cut it. We don’t have reindeer (but we do have camels and water buffalo) and we don’t have snow (but we do have lots of sun lotion, needed at Christmas lest the top 45 layers of skin on your face peel off).
Christmas was devised before central heating existed, when it was just damn tough to get through the freezing times where you’d wonder if you’d make it to March without losing your toes to frostbite. A feast in these times makes utter sense. At the peak of winter, meat sweats keep Europeans warm. Drinking sherry gives the same result. In Australia, donning the sherry jacket just makes us half-drown at the beach and get mouth-to-mouth from an over-excited lifesaver with turkey breath.
Ahhh…but a European Christmas. The stollen. The mulled wine. The stunning winter Christmas markets. The Christmas lights, which start working from 4pm as that’s when the dark descends in Europe (and earlier in Scandinavia). And being able to build an ACTUAL snowman rather than draw one on a window. To watch the aurora, to see ice sculpture festivals, and ice skate outdoors at night in lit-up rinks. To see carollers breathe steam as they sing traditional songs originating in Old Europe. This is the stuff of Christmas.
Before Christian times, the winter solstice was the pagan recognition of the time of year. But once the church arrived, pagan traditions were morphed with Christian beliefs and now we don’t know what the hell came from where. But it does occur to me that this whole Christmas thing in the Christian sense of the festival came from that Jesus dude being born in a manger. He was born in a HOT COUNTRY that had their own traditions at the time, and they still do. New World countries: if you need inspiration for adapted Christmas celebration, check out what the city of Bethlehem does on December 25.
To Irish emigrants: you have my permission to go forth and tell hot country people that they should develop new traditions. Perhaps ones worshipping the sun-god? Let’s take snow men out of the dialogue and put sandmen in.
Are you an Irish emigrant living overseas for Christmas? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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