Christmas cards and decorations filled shops as early as October, brilliantly twinkling lights were strung above Grafton Street, carols were piped out of every department store, and shoppers carried more bags than I thought possible. The Christmas season in Ireland seemed almost as consumer-driven as cynics claim America’s to be. And I loved it! I returned to Pennsylvania for the holiday (I look forward to family reunions, a giant Christmas tree, and goofy stories retold on a yearly basis, especially when all this is accompanied by freshly baked Christmas cookies), but not before I experienced a bit of Ireland’s Christmas spirit. Everything from chatting with Santa Claus and US Embassy employees at a Christmas Dinner, to which the Mitchell Scholars were graciously invited, to shopping for authentic Irish gifts in quaint Dublin shops and learning my first Irish phrase, the holiday season was a particularly special time to be in Ireland.
“Nollaig shona duit agus SlainteI”, the rhythmic equivalent of “Merry Christmas”, is the only Irish phrase I’ve even come close to correctly pronouncing. My flatmates taught it to me while sitting around our miniature Christmas tree and taking in a few of the great movies that can only be watched between December 1 and 25. Love Actually was one of these, and in this, there is a scene that accurately sums up the Irish (and I suppose British) tendency to pepper conversations with swearwords. Hugh Grant, a youthful Brit who’s new to the job of Prime Minister, greets a young female secretary who proceeds to call him by his first name before uttering three profanities while attempting to apologize. The scene underlines not how crude the female secretary was, but rather, how expletives here are simply viewed differently than in America. During our Mitchell Scholar Orientation in September 2007, Marion McKeone spoke to us about what she termed “Irish speak”. We might all speak English, but we certainly have our differences! My flatmates have also explained to me that when an Irish person says “no” they really might mean “yes”. So when I offer a cup of tea, I know that an answer of “no” does not necessarily mean the tea isn’t desired!
Tea drinking has become a vitally pleasant part of my primary research. Over the past two months I have been conducting in-depth qualitative interviews that will eventually result in a paper about the transition to university life for Irish students. So while sitting in coffee shops and cafes, I click on my digital recorder and listen to stories from young Irish people about their lives, the ups and downs, their families and friends, and, in several cases, about their favorite holiday memories. One man from County Cork told me about a St. Stephen’s Day tradition of his youth. On the day after Christmas, he and his siblings and cousins would dress as scarecrows, beat on their mum’s pots and pans, and call from door to door, collecting gifts of money.
Before I left for Ireland, a friend gave me a journal and told me to write everything down during my relatively short-lived twelve months abroad. I didn’t listen to her at the time, but I have quickly realized that whether learning about seemingly odd traditions or simply finding a favorite time of day in Dublin (on days when it’s not especially grey, at dusk the sky turns various shades of orange and purple and seems like something out of a fairytale), I need to cherish each experience.