Four years ago I spent Christmas in Ireland by myself. I had moved to Ireland that year to study for my master’s degree at Trinity College Dublin. I arrived in September on a one way ticket with the expectation that I would not return to the states until my degree was finished the following September. So I found myself in my little flat in student housing on Christmas Day in Dublin. There were a few students in my building who also remained for the holiday with similar reasons to mine for not returning home, i.e. the price ticket of a plane trip across the Atlantic. But there were also a few students who didn’t celebrate the holiday, a few who had no family to return to, and one or two who couldn’t be bothered with leaving in the midst of such important research.
As I saw people in my building leading up to Christmas Day, I suggested a Christmas dinner around 4pm in my flat. Not a single person confirmed that they would come up out of the 15 or so students left for the holiday. So I went about the next couple days thinking that I would be spending the day by myself.
I had been told by quite a few Irish men and women not to expect snow for Christmas. Ireland is actually a relatively temperate climate. Major weather usually consists of rain and more rain and maybe some more rain after that. As I remember it, there had been a lot of rain that fall leading into winter. Darkness starts to comes on around 3:30pm each day in Ireland as November turns to December and it can feel as if the cold rain has seeped into your bones. At least that’s how if felt on those walks home from campus in the afternoon through that season. Finishing the semester had felt like a long sprint and I was ready for a break. And it was right as we were approaching the end of our semester when the snow started to fall. And boy did we get snow. I felt as if the whole island had shut down. Some friends didn’t know if they’d make it out of the country but by December 23rd I had said goodbye to the last one. I approached Christmas Eve with snow on the ground and the thought of Christmas Day by myself. My family sent over Christmas presents. My mom had even sent a pre-stuffed stocking for me to enjoy. As the day of Christmas crept closer, the city of Dublin quieted even more. The only places open seemed to be the pubs and churches. I went to a small Christmas Eve service at an Anglican church in my little neighborhood and as I walked home the bells struck midnight. Christmas Day had begun in Ireland. The air was cold and filled with the smell of smoking peat fires. In that moment I felt surprisingly connected and overwhelmingly cared for. There was something in the smell of the burning peat that connected to a deep sense of home inside me.
I set my presents out for myself that night and woke up to a great little pile of gifts. I made myself tea, started my Christmas music and slowly opened my stocking. I met my remaining flatmate in the kitchen while making breakfast and we relayed pastime Christmas traditions to each other. I was surprised to see this flatmate out of her room. She and I weren’t real minglers, her even less than me. And she had warned me that she’d probably just spend the day in her room watching movies. I lit the advent wreath another roommate had made before she left, leaving it to burn through the day. After opening my gifts and skyping with my family, my flatmate suggested watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in the common room.
It was about 2 when the first knock came. A neighbor from a few floors down wondering if it was okay that he came so early for the 4pm dinner. He had brought chocolates to share. We had only met once before but soon he was watching Christmas movies with us. Shortly after him, a few more arrived, and before 3pm hit, the remainder of the building was in my flat. Some had brought wine, others came with dishes to share, a few came with sweets from their home countries that had been gifts from moms and boyfriends and grandparents. My flatmate and I made a big bowl of pasta to share and we all gathered around the small kitchen table. We had sent some people back to their own apartments for extra chairs and we were snug in the small room. There was a tugging inside me to offer a prayer before the meal but I was afraid to. Not all of us gathered together were believers and I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. But a new friend from Finland sitting next to me cleared his throat and said, “Would anyone mind if we said a quick blessing?” Everyone nodded their approval and my friend turned to me. “It should be you as you are our host this Christmas.”
So I swallowed my nervousness and these were the words that came to me: “Lord, thank you for gathering us together in fellowship on this day that remembers your coming into a dark world and bringing light. Thank you for the food before us. Care for these new friends gathered here. Amen”
It wasn’t groundbreaking but it sealed the warmth in the room that Christmas evening. There was conversation and Christmas music into the night as the snow continued to fall outside.