It goes without saying that many Americans value, even romanticize, their Irish heritage. During the St. Patrick’s Day ‘season’ the celebration of one’s Irish roots can be enjoyed by many people from different backgrounds. And that’s not too difficult, given participation only really requires one’s willingness to have a laugh, and a beer.
An Irish-American Christmas, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Participation is not quite as straightforward. Unwritten family rules and dynamics exist that are quietly – or more likely not so quietly – adhered to in our homes. That doesn’t mean they make sense. But somehow, if you grew up in an Irish-American household, you’ve come to understand these dynamics or more importantly, learned how to manage around them.
We know this is not the case for most anyone else. As one of my friends once said, “You need a manual before coming to your house.”
With this in mind, here it is: An Irish-American Christmas Survival Manual. Well, OK, it’s more like a guide. But a guide that I hope may help if you are visiting a spouse, friend, boyfriend or girlfriend over the holidays. By the way, this is Lesson #1: we refer to ‘the holidays’ as Christmas.
Let’s hope these tips help you at least get through the first night. After that, you’re on your own.
1. The Backstory Drama: Your significant other will likely give you an extraordinary amount of information about the backstory of each person who will be at the family gathering. Be warned that at least 20 people likely will be in attendance, so this is a good time to get comfortable and probably take notes. Undoubtedly, there will be some kind of scandal or drama leading up to the day that has already been discussed and relayed to you ad nauseum. You won’t understand this. Nor do you need to. And for God’s sake, whatever you do, do not try to analyze this or offer helpful advice. As Freud said, “The Irish are the only people impervious to psychoanalysis.”
2. Welcome the Irish Welcome: Despite the scandal, drama or fact that some people may not be talking to others, you will be warmly welcomed – over and again – with some food and plenty of drink. The trick here is to accept anything and everything that is offered. I don’t care if it is boiled beef wrapped in half-baked dough (which it might be – we’re not great cooks). Smile, accept it, repeat, “I love my spouse” quietly, even if you privately feel the need to throw up a little in your mouth. Extra points if you can manage a “Thank you for going to the trouble,” as you attempt to keep whatever was offered down.
3. Prepare to Be “Sized Up”: This happens early and often – particularly if this is your first visit. But, it could last years. Parents, kids, grandkids, they’re all in on the act. First, everyone will want to know if you have a steady job (you shouldn’t really even show up if you don’t). All manner of questions, appropriate and otherwise, are asked. Frankly, the first 15-30 minutes of this will feel like a hit-and-run. Yes, this is a test. If you’re lucky enough to get through those first 30 minutes, you may be lucky enough for everyone to start teasing you good-naturedly — to your face. This means they like you. If they didn’t, they’d tease you behind your back.
4. The Matriarch Runs the Ship: She may seem like the sweetest, kindest, most angelic woman you’ve ever met – and in fact, she may be. But make no mistake: The lady can be fierce and is definitely in charge. She is the mother of the ship, and everyone is clear about this — particularly her children. Respect is an absolute when it comes to the matriarch. And she deserves it given she’s probably given birth to and raised at least five children, while maintaining most of her sanity. After meeting her, you’ll also be quickly convinced that she has God (and all the major saints) on direct dial.
If you’re male, you have an advantage here – providing you have a steady job and are a pretty decent person. Over time, you have a unique chance to move “the queen” to your corner. Do that. Over the years, you’re going to need it. Unfortunately, if you’re female, this doesn’t quite work the same way. While you’ll have a distinct advantage if you also have an Irish background and are a good mother to her grandkids, there’s just no two ways about it: You married her son. (Note: This is a double misdemeanor if you married her oldest son.) She will love you, but she’ll watch you every step of the way. This can be very helpful or not (mostly not), but really depends on how you play it. Your best strategy is to warm up to one of your spouse’s sisters – the non-bitchy one (there’s usually at least one of each); she’ll help pave your path.
5. Appeasing the Patriarch: He may be loud, gregarious, outgoing and full of life or more solemn and subdued. Either way, by the time you meet him, he will have mellowed significantly in comparison to the stories you’ve heard. He doesn’t have the same hang-ups about male/female relationships. He’ll absolutely accept his sons’ wives (someone had to marry them!). And though he doesn’t like that a man is with his daughter — and may pretend, or even outwardly state for a long time that you’re not, he’ll eventually accept it and you — as long as you have a job. And grandkids. He wants plenty of grandkids, and his hints are not what one would call “subtle.”
6. The Telling (& Retelling) of the Stories: There’s not much to say about the never-ending stories. They will be told, and retold, often. Each telling is funnier than the last. And if the details change, so be it. You may know the saying, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The Irish invented that saying (or they think they did) and for good reason. Note: While a mention of your spouse’s ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend is expected during the “telling of the stories,”’ any significant focus on the ex may be a subtle hint that you need to up your game.
7. The “Irish Whisper”: Ah, the “Irish Whisper,” or as my husband likes to say, “When you want everyone to know what you’re talking about.” The matriarch typically perfects the “Irish Whisper,” and she starts with the loudest “whisper” one has ever heard, followed by an announcement to a table of 30, “Don’t you dare tell anybody!” The subject could be anything, really. But typical topics involve cancer, health, divorce or losing one’s job. Just pretend the whisper is not the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen or heard in your life. It is. Just pretend otherwise.
8. Protect Your Own: This will likely be the most difficult for you – as an outsider – to understand. People will fight, dramas ensue, some siblings may not be speaking. But when it comes down to it, it has been natured and nurtured (read birthed and beaten) into us to protect our own. Even if, at that moment, we would like to punch “our own” in the face, we would never let anyone speak a bad word about him or her. If your spouse brings up some drama about a sibling, you will be best served to just nod in this situation. Better yet, as my siblings’ spouses have agreed — try the blank stare.
9. All Hail the Children: If you think the stories of yesterday can last for hours, wait until you hear (and rehear and rehear) the stories of the grandchildren. They will go on for days, maybe an eternity. Continue to “ooh” and “aah,” as you hear the stories of the 20-something incredibly intelligent, gorgeous, kind, supremely talented grandchildren. Prepare to be convinced that these children, despite all logical evidence to the contrary, can and will save the world. On the upside, the “Protect Your Own” rule applies double to the grandchildren. The good news: If you’re an “outsider,” your kids will be wrapped in the security of this unwritten rule, for better or worse. And really, there could be worse things than having 25+ people standing in your corner, even if those same people did make each and every one of you dress up in a sheet – as either Mary or Joseph – for the annual at-home Christmas nativity play.
10. Dinner-Table Dynamics: There are times for intellectual conversation about politics, the state of the world, religion and national events. This is not one of those times. First, there are likely so many people at the dinner table (or dinner tables and kids’ table) that quantity conversation seemingly trumps quality. This is the time for banter. And not just everyday banter — loud, funny, quick-witted, back-and-forth. Be warned newcomers: Trying too hard to get in on the banter could be terms for early dismissal — yours. It usually takes four to five good visits before you get the hang of this. My now holiday-experienced sister-in-law was once so overwhelmed by this dynamic, she had to take a break in the middle of dinner, exclaiming, “Why is everybody yelling!?!” We looked at her dumbfounded. No one was yelling. This is what dinner looks and sounds like. She smartly befriended me early, so I told her to take five minutes, have a glass of wine and get back in there. Girl’s been a champ ever since.
11. Mass Time: After the stories and the banter, the issue of Mass time will inevitably come up. This despite the fact that only (maybe) half of the siblings have attended church over the past year. Everyone goes on Christmas. Together. Period. There will be discussion about whether to attend the shortened kids’ Mass (and who sits in the crying room), the beautiful midnight Mass, or the high holy 10 a.m. Mass. A non-unanimous decision will be made, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, because the matriarch decided weeks ago – and has already informed Father McSwiggins – which Mass you will be attending. Next up is the discussion about who will go early and save three pews for the 25 of you. That doesn’t matter either. The matriarch has already decided that too.
12. After-Dinner Drinks: Many and plenty. If you’ve successfully made it through the first part of the evening (and you’ll know if you did or not), this is when things get really good. While some people may have pulled an “Irish Goodbye” (slipping out without a word), the reality is that you’re probably all there for at least the night, if not for several days, despite the fact there are only three bedrooms.
But you’ve finally reached the part of the evening where the drinks, the jokes and the stories are flowing (and now are actually funny and good). And it slowly dawns on you that for all the lunacy that you have just been exposed to, there has been twice the amount of love and laughter.
The night, indeed, was good. And although your head may be spinning, you realize you wouldn’t want it any other way.
In the seasonal spirit of sharing, I hope my start on An Irish-American Christmas Survival Guide serves someone well. Merry Christmas!
Patty McDonough Kennedy is a marketing consultant, speaker, trainer and entrepreneur. She has lived and worked in a number of countries, and mostly writes about life, motherhood, and business and the fabulous mess that can be. When she has other general musings and observations – she’ll throw those in there too. In addition to her own writing, her blog ((Laugh Lines)) also features guest posts to bring different perspectives. Contact her at pkennedy@humanworks. guru