If you’ve read any of my prior posts you’ll know that I view holidays as an excuse to get away and experience. Last Christmas I set off for southern New Mexico and west Texas in search of adventure, serenity, and new mountain bike trails. I toyed with skiing in Ruidoso (not enough snow) and mountain biking in Big Bend National Park (too far away).
There was a time when I had a more traditional approach to the holidays–when turkey, ham, and large gatherings were the norm, the expected. I did that, in fact, for almost thirty years, with a few exceptions.
My favorite exception occurred in December 1990. I was spending September to June studying everything around me in Cork, Ireland. I’m Irish-American and my ancestors are from County Cork, so in a way I was going home.
Living in Ireland is the best thing I’ve ever done. Sure, I was cold, hungry and broke much of the time, but I was also invigorated by the seemingly inherently articulate nature and the deep level of intellectual engagement that were somehow mundane to this singular group of folks known as the Irish.
Christmas Eve, 1990.
Both my American housemates had gone back to the States for Christmas. As they left they looked at me with the same expression I’ve come to expect when I tell people I’m spending the holidays alone and by choice. It is a look marked, in equal parts, by pity and disbelief. I hate it.
They left and I had the flat to myself for the first time since we’d moved in four months earlier. We lived at One Ferndale Villa, The Lough, Cork, Ireland. Ireland had, at the time, a peculiar addressing system. Each house had a name like it was some kind of English country manor. I lived on Lough Road but didn’t live at say, 15 Lough Road. I lived at One Ferndale Villa and there was no sign, plaque, or otherwise signature that that was the name of our cozy three-bedroom, two-story flat. My boyfriend lived at a place called Creaga, which at least was chiseled into the stone wall the marked the entrance into his courtyard.
It was Christmas Eve and I was left alone at One Ferndale Villa. Many of my Irish friends were meeting at the pub that night (really) for a few pints. Just like in America, many Irish college students were returning home and anxious to see their hometown friends. I was under the impression that staying home with the family on Christmas Eve was not an Irish tradition–at least not for college kids. Nope. College kids got pissed for Christmas Eve and got hangovers for Christmas.
I met my friend David at one of our usual places, and he introduced me to his friend Maebh (pronounced mave), who was studying in Belfast. She had the thick Brooklynesque accent that Cork was known for and was a wonderfully engaging young woman–intelligent, articulate, and straightforward. I developed a one-night woman crush on her.
The three of us drank and talked politics–two things the Irish are adept at. John Major had just replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and the British were releasing wrongfully convicted suspected IRA bombers: the Guilford Four and the Birmingham Six. Also, the Irish were hell-bent on maintaining their neutrality as the United States, England, and the rest of the United Nations were getting ready to invade Iraq in what would be known as Operation Desert Storm. I also sat and listened in disbelief as David and Maebh discussed the US involvement in Central and South America, country by country, leader by US-backed dictator/leader. I was shocked at my country’s carelessness (I was only 19) and embarassed at my ignorance. David and Maebh forgave me; I couldn’t help it, I was an American.
Politics gave way to Christmas Carols–old-style carols, some in Latin, and some with words like yule and wassail. As a member of the University College, Cork’s Choral Society, I had learned some of these carols. We launched into the Latin version of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” aka “Adeste Fidelis.” The ENTIRE pub was singing along. In Latin.
We took our dead carols into the streets, which were flooding from the pouring rain. I’d lived in New England for 22 years where sleet is a season, but Irish rain is something to behold. It is cold, piercing, and relentless. But we didn’t feel it–maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the company, maybe it was the Christmas Spirit–but we splashed, twirled, skipped, and sang in Latin for the steep three miles that led back to One Ferndale Villa.
Merry Christmas, readers.