When I was sixteen my family celebrated Christmas in Ireland, where we gained a new but enduring family holiday tradition. Saying we spent Christmas in Ireland sounds glamorous, like we might be the kind of family that took annual trips to Disney World each February school vacation in addition to a week on the Cape each summer, but we weren’t. In fact, we usually took one vacation each summer, and it was a long weekend somewhere accessible in the family midnight blue Mercury station wagon from our home in northeastern Massachusetts. Places like Naragansett, Rhode Island or Quechee, Vermont.
We had our Christmas in Ireland by way of a business trip. My stepdad Arthur frequently traveled to Ireland for work, but similar to our family trips, his Irish business took him to the Dew Valley Cooked Bacon Factory in County Tipperary — not the Guinness HQ. When the bosses asked him to travel over the Christmas holiday in 1997, he agreed if his family could come along too, and they agreed. My sisters and I (there were three of us, all in high school) got passports and geared up for our first trip out of the US.
The weekend before we left for Ireland we celebrated Christmas at home with our traditional family brunch and presents from Santa. Our plan was to journey in a “U” shape around Ireland from Dublin down the coast and back up to Shannon before flying back to Boston, but we’d be spending Christmas in Tipperary with the MacCormacks.
Arthur had met Morris MacCormack at the Dew Valley Cooked Bacon Factory, and he and his wife Catherine had invited us to spend Christmas Day with them and their three young children. For that leg of the trip we stayed in a small cottage nearby. I’m not sure how it got there, but inside a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree made things festive despite its scraggly branches, and come Christmas morning my mother surprised us with our Christmas stockings, stuffed in advance and flown all the way across the ocean as a home-away-from-home holiday treat.
Later, in the warmth of the MacCormacks living room, my sisters and I played with their children (Katie was the oldest, then Mossie, then Niamh) and tried our first sips of hard cider. Another first came at dinnertime, when we were each presented with Christmas Cracker at our plate — a holiday tradition in the UK, its commonwealth countries, and Ireland.
Crackers are made from a cardboard tube wrapped in festive paper to look like a wrapped piece of candy. Like a wishbone, two people take hold of each end of the Cracker and pull until it pops and breaks (the pop coming from inside like a cap gun), revealing contents that include an ill-fitting colored paper crown, plus a small toy or trinket. Sometimes the Cracker also contains a joke or riddle. Morris showed my sister Courtney how it was done, and we all followed suit and donned our paper hats for dinner, despite knowing (with absolute certainty) that they weren’t flattering. The fun of participating in an Irish Christmas tradition trumped vanity.
Without fail, we have kept up the Christmas Cracker tradition at our annual family holiday brunch, and we continue to wear the paper crowns and trade the trinkets inside. Anyone who won’t wear their crown gets a hard time from the rest of us, though I noticed in more than one picture over the years some of us (including me) slip them off when the camera comes out. Only my sister Courtney remains a proud crown-wearer in all photos.
Continuing the Christmas Cracker tradition reminds us of that merry Christmas in Ireland in 1997, when despite being far away from home and our extended family, we learned that Christmas spirit can glow healthy and strong anywhere — so long as you have those you love the most with you, along with good company and good food.