An Irish-American Christmas

Some might say that New Year’s Eve is too late to be writing about Christmas, but it still feels like Christmas in my house.  The Christmas tree still stands in a corner of our living room, and it will stay at least throughout the twelve days of Christmas.  We tend to put off the disappearance of Christmas decorations, either in an effort to maintain the holiday magic or out of a Christmas-feast-and-eggnog-induced laziness.

I attribute my family’s prolonged, restful celebration of the holidays in part to our Irish heritage.  One of my mother’s traditions is to read from An Irish Country Christmas by Alice Taylor, who grew up in Newmarket, County Cork in the 1940s.  Taylor writes about resting from school and farm work for about a month in the Christmas season, when the crops were all harvested and the animals hibernated in their coops and barns.

The land and the animals rested and we rested with them.  Once St. Stephen’s day had passed, with its need for rising early to go hunting the wren, we slept late every morning and breakfast was usually at midday.  The table was pulled up beside the fire so that we could make toast without having to move.  It was a long and leisurely breakfast with books propped up against jugs, but the books were abandoned if Denis Brennan came on the radio to read a short story: his wonderful voice brought any story alive.

Alice Taylor, An Irish Country Christmas (1995)

Taylor’s family were Catholic farmers in the Republic of Ireland and my Irish ancestors were Protestant farmers in County Antrim, near Belfast, in the early 1700s.  I don’t know if my family’s Christmas celebrations in Ireland, so long ago, were anything like Alice Taylor’s.  I do know that Christmas is the time I feel most Irish-American, listening to Irish music, reuniting with extended family and sharing stories, celebrating all twelve days of Christmas and resting for a while, recharging.

It was around Christmastime last year that I decided for sure to apply for the Irish-American Scholars program.  Because of the incredible resources and encouragement of the Agnes Scott College Office of International Education, I could’ve studied abroad almost anywhere, and for a while it was hard to narrow it down to a continent, much less a specific program.

I was sitting at my kitchen table about a week before Christmas 2010, listening to The Chieftains’ album The Bells of Dublin when I made up my mind once and for all.  The holiday albums of The Chieftains, a traditional Irish band, have played in the background since my girlhood as my family decorated our Christmas tree, baked sugar cookies, cleaned our house to prepare for guests.  As I listened, I thought something like, “Who am I kidding?  I want to go to Ireland.  I’ve always wanted to go.”

I knew about the Irish-American Scholars program through my friend Molly, who studied at Queen’s through IAS for the 2010-2011 academic year.  IAS is a national program, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, USA, that connects universities affiliated with the Presbyterian denomination in the United States and Northern Ireland.  Because of this connection, IAS scholars apply their financial aid from their home colleges to their studies in Northern Ireland.  Students pay their home colleges exactly what they would for a normal semester of school, paying nothing above what their families are accustomed to paying, with all scholarships and financial aid.  I knew that if I could be accepted, studying at Queen’s University of Belfast through IAS would be a matchless opportunity, and my first choice for study abroad.

I cannot express enough gratitude for my study abroad adviser and the professors who took time out of their winter holidays to write recommendations and make preparations for an application due in mid January.  Several months later, I was notified of my acceptance!  I get to study at one of the most prestigious universities in Northern Ireland, experience a different culture and travel around Europe.  It feels like receiving the greatest Christmas gift ever.

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A Mysterious Package

Friday morning, my mom listened to a voicemail message on our home phone from a shipping company called DHL Express.

“We have a foreign package for Caitlin White,” the person on the message said, “It will be delivered between 10 am and 6 pm today.  If there is a chance you will not be home at the time of delivery, please leave a note on the door to indicate that it is alright to leave the package.”

A foreign package!  What could it be?  A Christmas present from one of my friends already studying abroad?  That Hogwarts letter I’ve been waiting on for almost a decade now?

The most likely answer was just as exciting as a letter from Hogwarts.  This package was probably something from Queen’s University of Belfast, where I’ll be studying abroad through the Irish-American Scholars program from late January until early June.  Studying English and Drama in Belfast, Northern Ireland is like a fairytale dream come true for me, and each reminder of my imminent adventure fills me with joy and anticipation.

But what is Queen’s sending me?  I did order a kitchen and bedding pack to be ready at my arrival.  “Would they have sent it ahead of time?” I wondered aloud to my mom.  I thought back to all of the items conveniently included in the kitchen/bedding pack:

  • Bedding pack: quilt, quiltcover, sheet, pillow and pillowcase
  • Kitchen pack: plate, dessert plate, bowl, knife, fork, spoon, cooking pot and pan

I was grateful that these useful items would be made available to me, but surely Queen’s would not ship such a large package in advance.  The whole point of providing these packs was to save room in the luggage of international students like me.  The contents of my “foreign package” remained a mystery.

At around 3 pm, the package finally arrived in the hands of a cheerful delivery man, with not a tawny owl to be found.

“Since you’re here, I’ll go ahead and have you sign for it,” he said, handing over a thin, ocher yellow plastic envelope, “Merry Christmas!”

Inside the package was a letter, on Queen’s University letterhead, that indeed grants me access to a magical world.

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN” it read, “This is to confirm that the below named has been made an unconditional offer for admission to a degree level programme at Queen’s University Belfast.”  Since I will be studying in the UK for 6 months or less, I am not required to apply for a visa before I leave.  I need only present this letter to the customs official when I arrive in London en route to Belfast to prove my legitimacy as a student tourist.

The contents of the mysterious package revealed, my fairytale adventures abroad are feeling more real by the day!