After a lifetime of proper German holy xmas, all the beeswax candles and playing the recorder in the family carol quartet, the hushed atmosphere of quiet rituals (no tv, family only, classical music etc.), I walked into the hurricane of an Irish xmas.
The first thing that threw me was the tree. In my future in-laws house, the tree was situated in the corner of the front room. The front room, decorated in my mother-in-law's favourite pink, was only used for special occasions. For everyday family life there was the cramped tv room - or 'den', as it was renamed after my future in-laws had visited the US.
From the first of December, however, the front room was opened and remained so in order to allow visitors to view the tree. This was a small white plastic affair, hastily decorated with blue, red and pink tinsel, gold baubles and a couple of ancient play-do decorations from R's distant childhood. A string of multi-coloured electric lights kept on flashing irregularly and on my first viewing, I suspected a faulty connection somewhere - which was received with great laughter all round.
Throughout December, the regular string of visitors to my future in-law's house increased dramatically, and every visit included a viewing, a glass of sherry, a mince pie, the exchanging of xmas cards and the placing of a wrapped gift parcel under the tree. By mid December, the tree was more or less covered by parcels. These were daily lifted and shook by passing family members to guess their contents. Even bets were placed.
While the tree as such had been a slight disappointment in comparison to my mother's, I was more baffled by the card business. This is how it looked to me (and still does): People write seasonal sentiments on xmas cards and then proceed to exchange these cards in person while verbally repeating the exact same seasonal sentiments written on these cards.
I was told that there would be no stockings on xmas morning as these were reserved for small children only. It took me a while to get the hint and we provided one small child two years later.
There was also no chance for breakfast in the morning as all female members of my future family-in-law, in their dressing gowns, were working their way through items on a secret task list in the kitchen, before getting dressed in splendid finery and leaving the house, in stages, to work their way through more secret tasks, such as going to mass, chauffeuring old folks to church, singing carols in some hospital ward, buying more cream (shops were open!!) and dropping off last minute presents and, yes, personally handing over more xmas cards.
By midday, the family was once again at home and for the next two hours or so the house began to fill up with a seemingly endless stream of coming and going visitors. Neighbours, colleagues, cousins, friends, friends of friends home from abroad, and a couple of priests. I was sent around with plates of canapés and R was taking orders for drinks. There was laughter and gossip and singing and yes, more xmas card exchanges.
When the last visitors had left, the family sat down for xmas dinner.
1 smoked salmon on soda bread
2 soup with Melba toast
3 turkey and ham, stuffing, gravy, mashed and roast potatoes, celery (boiled, unfortunately), Brussels sprouts
4 sherry trifle
5 xmas pudding - with flambé whiskey (?)
Before the trifle, strange longish parcels wrapped in shiny paper were held in a complicated cross-over chain of hands around the table and pulled resulting in small plops (or not). This produced great hilarity with funny little trinkets and small slips of paper, which were unfolded and found to bear important jokes to be read out loud.
By now I was totally lost.
After dinner all proceeded to the front room and after much debate a Santa was chosen, who, wearing a Santa hat of course, would spend the next hour lifting one parcel after another from under the tree, reading the gift tag and throwing it across the room to the recipient, while the dogs tried it catch it midair.
Parcels were unwrapped immediately with much shouting, running or crawling acros the room and hugging etc. while the dogs sniffed their way through the growing pile of torn wrapping paper in the middle (the coffee table had been thoughtfully removed).
That over and done, it was now time for a good cup of tea and the last mince pies.
After a brief interval, glasses of bubbly were passed around and the birthday cake for R's sister (who for obvious reasons is named Noelle) was carried into the room and the next party began. You know, candles, singing, cheers, presents etc.
This is only a glimpse. There was much more, incl. charades, reciting, singing, children dancing and crying. But this should give you an idea.