Christmas in the Empire

by Terence MacNamee

If there are any real Irish Christmas customs, they are long gone, I must admit; other than the religious observances, they all come from England. Far away in the Swiss Alps, I remain true to these customs of childhood. I cook a turkey with a stuffing of bread and onions, and a ham. To accompany this, there are roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts and turkey gravy. Dessert is an English trifle with custard, strawberry jelly, whipped cream and mandarin oranges. Then we have tea. Sounds very English, doesn’t it. Well, it is. Every year I must explain to guests that we Irish are still a part of the old British Empire, at least culturally.

At Christmas there are Tamil faces around the table. For those who do not know German Switzerland, I should explain that a lot of Tamils came from Sri Lanka during the civil war, and they are now a part of the permanent population here. Now, for them, turkey and trifle at Christmas are as exotic as they are for the Swiss guests, if not more so. Yet the Tamils are from the old British Empire too, and they and I have some things in common.

Like the Irish, the Tamils took over a great deal from their colonial masters. Fruit cake. Sherry and port. Whiskey. One of the Tamils wanted to give me a bottle of whiskey but I told him I never touch the stuff, which is true, though unusual for an Irishman. He was astonished. The British always drank whiskey in their clubs overseas, sitting in rattan armchairs, with great ceiling fans rumbling overhead. The Sri Lankans still drink whiskey when they can afford it.

Sri Lanka suggests comparison with Ireland: an emerald-green island in a blue ocean, near a landmass, but with its own character. A divided land with two opposing identities, and all former subjects of the British Empire.

For Sri Lanka Tamils one thing is clear: history stopped in 1948. That is the year the British went home, granting Ceylon (as it was then) its independence and abandoning it to a never-ending ethnic conflict they themselves had done a lot to create. But go into a Tamil home anywhere in the world today – the Diaspora is large due to the civil war – and you are likely to see old fashioned furniture and ornaments in the English style, as if the colonial masters still ruled.

For the British, the Tamils did not count, and neither of course did we Irish. But in our own way we have remained as Anglophile as the Tamils. We may not of course admit this openly, because our nationalist history tells us we heroically drove the British out.

The British have a traditional contempt for their subject peoples, as all colonial masters do. But even they did not escape unscathed from their imperial adventure, I mean, without taking on cultural influences. They like a lot of Indian curry, and they like Irish entertainers on radio and TV. In the end, we all belong to the same club.

I stand up at the festive board and raise my glass before the Sri Lankans. “Gentlemen”, I say, “to England!”