“Home” for the Holidays

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It’s that special time that comes just once a year when the talk about town turns to plans for the holidays.

Are you going home or staying here? Are you staying put or getting away from the daily grind? Where will you celebrate Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day, depending where you’re from), or where will you ring in the New Year?

For a lot of us, it can be a time of mixed emotions, whatever you decide to do.

If you’re going home, wherever home may be, you need time off work, you hum and haw about going to all the effort of decorating your place just to come back to a massive clean up first thing in the new year, and you’re counting down the days (on your advent calendar) until you see your family and friends once again.

The biggest transition – aside from trying to figure out how to stuff as many Canadian souvenirs into your suitcase as possible as gifts but, given it’s mostly empty so you can bring food and “stuff you can only get at home” back with you, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem! – is mentally preparing yourself for the journey ahead and returning to your old stomping ground and everything that means ‘Christmas’ to you.

There really are very few such familiar words that stir up quite so many feelings.

The joyful reuniting like a scene from ‘Love Actually’ – an obligatory watch this time of year – or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ for you old schoolers, or ‘Home Alone’ and ‘Elf’ for those of us desperate to hold on to the magic of Christmas from our rose-tinted childhood memories. I had to switch over while watching Love Actually last weekend as the tearful embraces were almost too much to bear, knowing I’d be missing it this year. The only consolation is that I won’t have to worry about the emotional goodbyes at the airport in the New Year, although that’s no way to live your life – avoiding the “Hellos” as “Goodbyes” are too hard.

Going home means catching up on all the local news and gossip, which seemed so mundane and trivial when you lived there, but somehow takes on a shiny new significance now that you’re back. Like a warm blanket or hot chocolate, home cooking or waking up in your old bed, which transports you right back 15 years in one blink of a jet-lagged eye.

On the flip side, if you’re staying put, wherever you are in Canada, it will inevitably be something of a culture shock being away from everything you know and love/hate in equal measure, especially your own private family traditions that nobody else is privy to.

In my case, that means one final dash into town on Christmas Eve to make sure you’ve got all your presents accounted for and wrapped (normally quite hastily and with a bottle of booze in one hand) under the tree so that you can go to “Midnight Mass” which actually starts from 6pm, presumably because the tradition that goes hand-in-hand with mass at home in Ireland is for everyone to pile into the pub afterwards. It’s the one time of the year the pub closes early to make sure everyone makes it home bright and early for Christmas morning. Unless there’s a lock-in, in which case you’re doomed!

Christmas morning usually entails waking up later than intended (unless there are kids about of course, then the whole house is up from 6am whether they like it or not), putting on your Sunday best and having chocolate for breakfast as it’s Christmas and chocolate is perfectly acceptable at any time of the day or night during the holidays. Just ask Santa.

The Bird - 2007Everyone quarrelling and scrambling to get the dinner ready in time . . . whoever suggested having the biggest and most organisationally challenging meal of the year in the early afternoon was obviously not feeling the Christmas cheer, and didn’t take into account the majority of us who may have had a few too many “Cheers” the night before!

The official start to the most indulgent day of the year in my family is my brother making THE best Irish coffees, as is everyone’s prerogative to think their family makes the best of food and drink on Christmas Day. Followed by breaking open a bottle or two of champagne to get the holly jolly mood going.

Next comes the flurry of gift exchanges, squeals, hugs, high fives or handshakes of thanks, and the always poignant feeling of anti-climax that comes from weeks of preparation, money and stress spent over what to get your loved ones, only to be all over in a hurried haze of hallucinatory, brightly coloured wrapping paper.

Not to forget the total blow-out of a full spread, the crackers pulled and popping, donning your silly paper crowns that fall over your eyes or mess your hair, and the dubious honour of winning nail clippers or spinning tops, with everyone sharing such ridiculously corny jokes you’d only get away with uttering but once a year.

That feeling of being over-full but satiated, and greedily eyeing up seconds for round two later on. Going into a turkey coma on the couch, watching the classics on TV with your family and that comfortable, unspoken feeling of belonging that’s hard to find anywhere else.

Staying in your second home

This year marks my third Christmas staying put in Canada, and my first wholly spent in Vancouver as we normally try to get away to unwind in Whistler, in the picture postcard perfect village that’s unlike anywhere else in the world at this time of year.

This Christmas will be the polar opposite to anything described above. Firstly, a big group of left-behind immigrés from our “Van fam,” as we like to call ourselves, is gathering at a friend’s epic party house for the celebration of the century. It’s my last as an unmarried lady too until my wedding in Mexico next November, so I intend to go out with a bang!

As is tradition, there’ll be turkey and spuds and gravy and every kind of stuffing you can think of, and more copious amounts of booze than you’d ever hope to enjoy in the comfort of your own home. While it will be unforgettable and we’ve a lot to give thanks for, I imagine for all of us there’ll be that niggling sense of loneliness and longing that goes with wondering what you’re missing back home.

Don’t get me wrong, from experience and from watching my fellow immigrants’ journeys across social media, the expat communities all over Canada are what makes the life transition that much more bearable as you know you’re not in it alone, but nothing beats waking up on Christmas morning in your old bed.

Social media in itself softens the blow as we can simply Skype/Facetime/ Viber/Whatsapp/telepathically connect with our family at any time, depending on the detrimental-to-normal-contact-hours-and-conversation time difference, wherever you are.

We’re in the right place too as Canada spends more time online than any other country save for the US, according to comScore. New research from Brigham Young University also found that families who connect on social media feel closer in real life, which is true for any new immigrant. I studied in the south of France ten years ago before the advent of social media and the only contact I had with home was through snail mail and a weekly phone call on an old school communal phone within our student residence.

The problem is that, while it’s clearly better now than for our long suffering ancestors who often said goodbye to their families forever and never saw them again, it just isn’t the same as being there. You can’t reach out and touch those pixellated faces on your smartphone or computer screen. You can’t hug them or wrestle them for the last piece of pie (my attempt at being Canadian. At home, it would be for the last decent chocolate from the obligatory ‘Roses’ or ‘Quality Street’ tin, or both, or the last cold drink in the fridge!)

You can stare wistfully at the screen and exchange pleasantries, or barbed comments as only your close family bond will allow, but the distance between you is still palpable. I always joke that it’s a pity Canada is so bloody far from everywhere, and especially for us over on the west coast with the overwhelmingly huge expanse of land in between us and the east, which is relatively close to Europe. You feel the familiar emptiness – that something missing – and you know they do too, but that’s an immigrant’s legacy. You either get on with things and make the most of it, or you do anything you can to get home.

Some of us make entirely new and self-contained family units for ourselves here, either by choice or by force due to economic circumstances, and never look back. It would undoubtedly be easier to have close family members here, although you can’t pick up everything you know and love and drop it in your adopted country, even if you wanted to.

It can seem ungrateful to feel sad or lonely at this, or any, time of year in this great country. It can come across as “hashtag #FirstWorldProblems” as Twitter or Jimmy Fallon and JT would so eloquently put it. After all, we’re lucky to be alive and all that, and life ain’t that bad. So, it’s different here. So, they may not have all the same traditions or Christmas songs or feelings of home. Home is what you make of it, no matter where your heart may be.

And if you’re still feeling alienated or a bit out of place, a “12 Pubs of Christmas” rendez-vous with a few like-minded hooligans friends will take your mind off things for a while. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!


Originally from Ireland, with a background in TV and radio, Rachel is a Corporate Communications & Social Media Manager, living in Vancouver for the past five years. She enjoys waxing lyrical about the similarities and differences she observes between Irish and Canadian culture, as she considers both her home. Connect with Rachel — Irish Girl in Van City.

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