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Column: It hasn’t been an easy Christmas – but the best traditions remain

TheJournal.ie’s regular columnist Lisa McInerney finds that Christmas 2011 was a muted affair – but there were some traditions that we should be glad we’re rid of.

Lisa McInerney

I WENT ICE-SKATING for the first time this Christmas.

It’s been the thing to do for the last couple of years now, a chance to get together with your friends and have a hearty laugh, even knowing that you’re all going to look stupid and come away with more battle scars than your typical Ken Loach hero. The greatest injury was to our collective pride; the rink was full of demi-oxen, flailing wildly, crashing into the barriers and performing unintentional splits. It looked like a bag of octopuses opened onto a spitting grill.

“Whoever thought it was a good idea to teach the Irish to ice skate?” I asked myself, and I might have answered myself too, if I’d been able to stay upright long enough to get cerebral about the whole thing.

It was a fun and relatively inexpensive evening out, and despite the fact that there’s still an ominous creaking noise whenever I twist to the left, I think I could be persuaded to go again. Provided that artificial ice rinks remain commercially viable, I might even make it a new Christmas custom.

For the times, they are a-changin’. Of course, we naturally adapt our Christmas customs when we have families of our own – drop the bits we used to find tedious, create new traditions from our new circumstances – but the shift is faster these days, and not always tied in with personal preferences. It seems we’ve gone from having nothing to having everything in just a couple of decades, and we’re now sliding backwards with gathering speed. And the more I think of it, the less point I see in mourning it. Acknowledge it, yes, but don’t mourn it. We’re far too resilient for that.

Christmas 2011 meant re-prioritising… what was most regrettable was that we kept apologising for it

On Christmas Eve, a relative apologised to us for only being able to give a small present to our daughter. She was embarrassed that she hadn’t been able to buy presents for young and old, but her business was suffering, and she simply didn’t have the personal funds to be able to splash out as she had done in recent years. We told her not to be silly, that we weren’t even slightly put out. We were in her home, enjoying coffee, biscuits, and a laugh. Why would we need a goodie bag too?

This was the first Christmas in my adult memory that family members didn’t buy gifts for the grown-ups. This was the first year that most of my friends didn’t bother with the post-Christmas sales. Glad to see the back of 2011, yet fearing what’s to come in 2012, it’s been a financially-subdued season for a lot of us. And while it’s no fun to have to budget where you have traditionally been extravagant, or to have to go without at a time of year when your senses are being battered with messages to indulge, treat and spend, being shoved to think outside the box isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Christmas 2011 meant re-prioritising. The spending levels dropped, and there weren’t as many gift bags under the Christmas tree, but in my experience, what was most regrettable was that we kept apologising for it.

The reality is that there were plenty of families for whom Christmas 2011 was painful, with festive cheer bulldozed by loan repayments and newly prohibitive household costs. Unemployment, or cuts to hours or wages, means that what was once affordable can become suddenly, terrifyingly expensive.

But you don’t have to delve too far into our past to find a time when money was just as tight for the average Irish family. Before credit cards and seasonal loans, Christmas meant saving small weekly sums from January so that the following December was doable. I know this as “manage-money” (I’m sure there are different local terms for it), a system you set up with a friend, where you give her a few quid each week that she keeps on your behalf for Christmas, and in turn, you mind her money for her. The idea is that with your savings under the control of someone else, you won’t be able to dip into and deplete it. Kind of like a micro-bank, with added tea and biccies.

It’s one of Ireland’s more practical Christmas customs; there are plenty more frivolous. Women’s Little Christmas (6 January), a day when the menfolk would traditionally take on the household duties as a thank you for the hard work of their wives over the festive period, is still huge in Cork and Kerry. We’d never heard of it in Galway. Our 6 January custom was “The Twelve Candles”, with each candle assigned to a family member, lit on a board, and watched intently. The first one to go out was supposed to signify the next death in the family. It’s bizarre, macabre, and I can confidently report, completely ineffectual. They’d never heard of it in Cork.

I feel a cautious hope, not for the State as an entity, but for our individual tenacity

The muted Christmas of 2011 made me wonder which of our recent customs will be largely forgotten in the coming years. There are plenty I’d happily nominate. The gym extravaganza of January and February, where treadmills are pounded and instructors besieged until the guilt of Christmas indulgence drops back below the threshold of reasonable effort. Setting the alarm for Stupid O’Clock on Stephen’s morning, so you can scuttle into town to buy a reasonably-priced-at-last pair of boots. Bawling at bartenders for shots of liquors you couldn’t smell without retching. Having your nose spread halfway across your face by a coked-up malefactor as you stand in a taxi queue at three in the morning.

Shrinking one’s Christmas to fit new economic status might be uncomfortable, but there may be benefits in there somewhere.

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It hasn’t been an easy Christmas, and who knows what 2012 will bring? And yet, I feel a certain, cautious hope, not for the State as an entity, but for our individual tenacity. Maybe we can no longer go to New York for Christmas shopping, or even to the capital. Maybe there will be fewer women going to expensive functions this Little Christmas. But this Christmas, I still got to laugh with my friends, and the kids still got bright parcels under the tree, and there was roast spuds and pud and gossip and, for some wonderful reason, ice-skating.

The chaos of Ireland’s economic collapse was painful, but it forced change, and maybe the odd new beginning we can bear to ring in, after all. Out with the old and in with the new, they say. Or maybe out with the new and back in with the old.

Not that we need to go back to living in wattle and daub, mind. But the things the Irish like to tell themselves they’re known for – hospitality, craic, clanship – cannot be bought or sold. And they’re exactly the sentiments tied to the celebration of Christmas. What a foundation to rebuild from!

And sure, why wouldn’t you teach the Irish to ice skate? We’ve always been a festive bunch, even when we slip, crash and fall.

Happy new year, everyone.

Read Lisa McInerney’s previous columns in 2011 here>

About the author:

Lisa McInerney

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