Having emigrated from Ireland to Australia in 1973, my mum has always been fascinated with exploring every dusty inch of this country, so each Christmas she would load all eight of us kids into the van and travel to some distant and remote corner of the map.
After several hours of hard driving in the middle of summer we would parade out of the van to be presented as conversation fodder for passing locals. “No we’re not a singing troupe,” my sister Helen would explain. “Yes we are a big family,” Mum would answer. “Can I go home now?” I would ask. But, to mum’s credit, she never gave up. Every year we would head to a different destination, every year the van would overheat and every year all eight kids would complain.
When I hit my awkward teenage years, these family holidays went from being mildly uncomfortable to totally embarrassing. No teenager likes being seen with their parents when they’re on holidays, but when your family looks like an Irish version of the Von Trappe Family Singers the embarrassment is compounded. And when your family has single-handedly doubled the population of a town it’s hard to escape scrutiny.
All this came to a head one year when my mum took us to spend Christmas at an abandoned monastery near the coast. The monastery was looked after by a retired monk who, having had his nerves irreversibly frayed doing the Lord’s work in the jungles of South America, saw the caretaker role as a welcome chance to rest. Then my family arrived.
That Christmas has gone into my family’s folklore, and the story has been told so many times I can’t readily separate fact from legend. But I do remember a strange football shaped hole in the large stain-glass window that mysteriously appeared the day after we arrived. I also have a strong recollection of the unsolved fire that claimed the gas barbecue and pergola. And, even though she denies it, I’m pretty sure it was Mum who played with the thermostat of the industrial freezer, which led to the spoiling of the towns ‘meals-on-wheels’ Christmas dinners. While my brother John likes to finish the story by saying we were chased out of town by pitchfork-wielding locals, I’m pretty sure we just knew it was time to go when an ambulance came to take the caretaker away for a ‘rest’. The next year mum started a new tradition of hosting Christmas at home.
By my 20s, Christmas had evolved into a low-key, fractured affair, with my time divided between my family and Susie’s family interstate. For a few years we tried the ‘one-year-your-family-one-year-mine’ model that has served couples faithfully for centuries, but once we had kids this model became harder to stick to: it seems there's some divine right that is bestowed on grandparents which entitles them to see their grandchildren on Christmas day. And while I’m happy to have lunch on one side of Australia and dinner on the other, this pace of travel does powerful things to kids. Add to this mix the excitement of Christmas, an early start, a big lunch, and air travel, and its not hard to see why your little angels turn into screaming banshees by the time Darryl Sommers introduces Carols by Candlelight. Obviously we had to find a middle ground.
So a few years ago Susie and I decided to regain control over Christmas. We booked a house in a small seaside town and told our respective families they were welcome to visit us over Christmas. That year Susie’s parents came and stayed for a night. The next year we returned to the same town and Susie’s parents rented a house down the road. Also, several of my siblings rented houses in the area, and we had Christmas dinner in a park overlooking the sea. Last year, not only was the town invaded by all of my siblings and their hoard of kids, but Susie’s brother and sister had entered the fray. Including our latest arrival, three new babies will add to the numbers this year. At last count that makes 41 for Christmas dinner.
While I still haven’t quite got used to the attention of being part of the big family in a small town, I have traded my embarrassment for family pride. It’s nice to sit on a beach and watch my girls play with their team of cousins, knowing they'll all share the same fond memories of Christmas.
There's also something uniquely relaxing about knowing that, if I did have a quick nap under the beach umbrella, there are at least a dozen parents keeping a watchful eye on my girls. In fact, it’s so relaxing I sometimes wonder if we should invite a certain retired monk to come and share Christmas with us.