I remember only one ordinary Christmas from my childhood in Alaska. I was about eight. Our log cabin smelled of pancakes and the six of us were delighted. The spruce tree was plunked between the sink and the dowdy couch, the lights on the tree were the shape of eggs and if you dared to touch the blue or green or red bulbs, they were so hot they’d bite you. Santa brought me a doll, I named her Suzanne. My Dad and brother built Suzanne a cradle to sleep in. I loved the cradle as much as the doll; building such a perfectly slatted present for me was the nicest thing anyone had ever done. When the cabin smelled strong of sage and onions steaming inside of the turkey, Bob Mackey, a quite bachelor with a big laugh who often said ‘that’s right’, arrived with presents for all of us. Mine was a round plastic container, bigger than my two small hands, and full of make up. Real make up. Rouge, powder, lipstick—real winter-sunset pink lipstick. Lipstick so powerful that it continues to out-shine other early memories of Christmas.
Since then all my Christmases have been unusual. There was that Christmas with Richard when I sweated over a sewing machine and created him a brown and gold kaftan bathrobe. All those stitches, all that velvet. It was like my love for him: warm, rich, laborious, sensual. He ran out on Christmas Eve night and bought me a French pot in which to make baked beans, his favourite winter slow-baked meal. I felt like beaning it over his head.
Then there was the Christmas with Bobby, a commercial fisherman, my soul-mate, my perfect captain. Bobby and I walked that Christmas, hand in hand, arm in arm. Our big boots crunched the snow through gaily-lit residential streets in Anchorage. Most houses had two trees decorated, one in the garden smothered with snow, lights on the branches projecting dizzy rainbows; and one inside decorated with tiny white lights, and mono baubles. Purple was in that year. The warmth we felt for each other ricocheted off the amber street lights which were softened by small, constant flakes.
‘So polite of them to leave the curtains half drawn so we can have a good look,’ he said. ‘Kiss me again.’
Giddy and high on each other, we walked through that Christmas not wanting to eat or gift, unaware that by the following Christmas he would be scooped up by a leggy waitress.
My best Christmas ever was in Hawaii, where seasonal affective disorder is cured by plumerias, where Mele Kamakamaka is spent eating pineapples on the beach, where the water calls you in, buoys you up and everything hangs loose in a world wrapped too taut.
I moved to Ballinderreen, Co. Galway, December 6th, 1996, when the village was genuine and quiet; before the three bicyles in each family were replaced by at least two expensive cars, before generation X dwarfed their parent’s homes by building mansions for themselves in the nearest field. It felt strange to land in the village right before Christmas, but I wanted to see what Christmas was like here. The pubs were packed day and night. Music was everywhere. It rained, then rained some more. No shops open on a Sunday. Everything ground to a halt for two weeks. I searched Galway for a fax machine to send important paperwork to Washington D. C. for a possible internship, but never found one. The pubs got hotter, more crowded; I was an exotic creature pursued by men who assumed all Americans slept with everyone. I assumed most of them were married, too merry to be real. Two kind families invited me over for Christmas dinner, I said yes to both and then stewed about how to get out of the other invitation. I chose the family who were good to my father for years before his death.
The four young children were delighted with the present from Santy and a surprise. I loved it that they were content with two gifts. The father and I were served a gorgeous dinner at the small table in the kitchen. I was mortified when the mother and children did not sit down with us. After everyone had eaten in shifts we watched Daniel O’Donnell on the telly and then a program about the life of Hitler and I was convinced that I had willingly moved to hell.
When my daughter, Lily, was three years old my mother, my sister Eileen and her two children, Enid and Kyle, and I went to a charming village called Vera, in Spain, for Christmas. We rented a house and my friend, Vera Svensson, from Stockholm joined us. Vera in Vera brought ingredients for a Swedish smorgasbord in her suitcase for Christmas day dinner. Too cold for swimming, we spent our days walking on sage-covered earth and our nights gawking at the stars. Epiphany week brought a parade of Wise Men to the ancient village. Wild coloured floats were loaded with joyful people wearing crowns who fiercely threw hard sweets to us spectators who were shouting, catching, rejoicing. I had to put the rain-cover over Lily’s stroller to protect her from the sweet-pelting sky. She learned to walk in Vera, and I can still hear the darling Spanish grandfathers at the park—not noticing or not affected by her Down syndrome—cooing encouragement to her, my Galway girl who wore thick tiny pink glasses and stiff red orthopaedic boots.
I often envy people who have the same menu in the same house with the same people with the tree in the same corner and watch the same Sound of Music with the same box of chocolates quietly disappearing. Envy is not a good thing. I atone the envy with monetary contributions to Childline, Doctors Without Borders, Concern and an Anti-Gun lobby. And I remind myself that Lily and I constitute a family. Perhaps we will find other exiles in Ireland to invite over for the day. They will know what it is like to carry another country in your warmest pocket and how good it is to share the same moon.