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.