Planes, Pains and Christmas Nostaliga

It was one of those nice-terrible feelings – the few minutes of respite that came after an eternity of vomiting. The cold sweat felt soothing against my skin. It wasn’t a few lingering beads. It was a full-blown revitalising mask that covered every millimetre of my pale, puffed-up face. Even my stomach was feeling quite settled. After thirty minutes of death’s hand wringing the last few drops out of my oesophagus, the downtime was nice. It almost felt therapeutic. 

It wasn’t long before the sweat turned into an uncomfortably warm liquid. And, seeing as I was down on my knees already, I pressed my forehead against the floor. Again, the relief was exquisite. Although I wasn’t looking the picture of health, I had adopted a type of yoga posture. My knees were tucked against my belly with my forehead, shins and hands all touching the floor. This felt a lot more socially acceptable than the foetal position. 

Within a few minutes, the pain in my stomach started to reignite. I felt hard done by. The last break was much longer and more enjoyable. I had barely stopped hating myself this time around. I estimated that I had four minutes to get my chin reacquainted with the toilet rim. I wasn’t sure what caused the vomiting the first time round. Approaching round sixteen, I was just as befuddled. Was it the prawns? The crab? The sushi? The turkey? The ham? Maybe it was one of the mimosas or proseccos, or one of the bloody marys? Or one of my desserts?

“How are you feeling sir?”, the air-hostess asked. 

I looked up up and saw a concerned face looking down at me. It was a question I’d become tired of answering as I’d run out of witty replies long ago. I gave a quick scan around. There were several people in the queue. Once again, I was going to have to ask if I could skip them. 

“When do we land?”

“That’ll probably be another eight hours or so,” she said, her face in scrunched sympathy. “Oh such bad luck. And Christmas Day of all days. You poor thing.”


Ten hours of stomach cramps, vomiting, dry retching, and, ultimately, repressing the urge to jump out of a plane, was an inappropriate end to what had otherwise been quite a quaint Christmas in Vegas. 

Christmas in Vegas is like Easter in Vegas is like St. Brigid’s Day in Vegas. There are no special occasions. There is just that one, perpetual shindig. For people that are trying to hide from it all, I can see the appeal. When you’re walking through the casinos you do hear the usual culprits over the loudspeakers – Dean Martin, Wham, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Mariah Carey. But they’re not singing about the most wonderful time of year or crafting you-centric Christmas lists. They’re very much concentrating on the mundanities of the other 364 days. 

Any signs of Christmas are few and far between. There are no carol singers, twelve-pub-visitors or swarms of mosquito-like students with charity boxes. There are some nice decorations and a few people might wish you a pleasant Christmas. But it’s done in such a way it barely even counts. “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” are how Coke bottles wish you well, not humans. If you see a jolly fat man with a white beard and silly red hat, it’s more likely just some yank committed to making America better than it was previously. If you hear someone repeatedly yelling “ho” on the sidewalk, it’s best to avoid eye contact. 

We weren’t there to elude Christmas. We were there because we were broke. 

Stef and I had come to the end of our two year Canadian working visa. And, while both of us wanted to celebrate Christmas in Ireland, we left it too late. It was around the 5th of December that we discovered that airlines jack up their prices during the most desperate time of year. I think my four-year-old niece knows about this phenomenon also but we claimed ignorance. 

During the two years in Canada, play had taken preference over work and our bank accounts were all the worse for it. While my friends were moving on and applying for mortgages, I was still painstakingly replaying the moment I let the bank close my overdraft facility. When it came time to book flights we realised that instead of flying direct from Vancouver to Cork, arriving in Ireland on Christmas Eve, we could save a heap by taking a more scenic route. So, we booked the one that left Vancouver on the 23rd, took in two nights in Vegas and landed in Cork on the 26th. Granted, we’d technically miss Christmas, be in the air for the majority of the big day and probably blow all savings regardless. But, then again, Vegas. 

I’d been to Vegas on two previous occasions. Both times were heavily alcohol-fuelled and followed the principle that if the casinos didn’t have clocks, neither should we. They’ve both become hazy memories as a result. While being there as a couple is a little different, you fall into the same old patterns quick enough. You tentatively sit down at the blackjack table, unsure of the rules and when you’re supposed to bet. You ask the waitress if you could “maybe, possibly have an, ahm, small rum and coke if it’s not too much, ahm, trouble”. 

A couple of drinks and a few lucky wins later and you are invincible. You become loud and obnoxious, you have little in-jokes with the dealers and dish out betting advice to the newbies. You call Britney for another drink, while telling Alan that he’s GOT to double down on that hard 10. You become a prince. And then, just as quickly, you become a pauper. But that was on the 23rd. On the 24th, we wanted some Christmas.

We walked around the labyrinth of Vegas looking for the city’s take on a cosy pub. Although we were thousands of miles from home, we wanted to enjoy a few quiet drinks in an Irish snug. We mightn’t have been off Patrick’s Street but we’d pretend as such. We’d act as if all the shopping was done and the only thing on the agenda was a few drinks to warm the blood. We found the ‘Rí Rá’, nestled in the middle of a shopping mall near a bright and chaotic Egyptian-themed casino called the Luxor. 

While it wasn’t exactly a pub you’d find the Healy-Raes knocking around in, it did the job. A hundred metres or so outside, a flock of tourists took photos in front of a fake Eiffel Tower. Not far from them an artist in shorts and sunglasses was drawing caricatures, and a couple of Marvel superheroes were chatting up Anna and Elsa from Frozen. Inside however, we were cosying up in our quiet corner, drinking hot ports and sharing an open pack of Taytos. Soon Thor, Iron Man and The Egyptian Pyramids faded into the background and we were back in Ireland, talking about all kinds of nothing. 

Idle Christmas talk is some of the best around. Usually, it comes with the lazy, casual air of sun lounger gossiping but the topics are much more wholesome. When we break out the Christmas talk, it tastes the same every year but gets all the more satisfying. Everything is so profound and warm. You can say something as banal as, “I just love that feeling of being on the couch at Christmas”, and it’s met with such universal acknowledgement, you may as well have cured cancer. 

When it comes to Christmas chat, there are certain questions that I never tire of asking. It doesn’t matter if I ask the same person, the same questions, I still get the same fuzzy feeling. When the roles are reversed, I take my role of interviewee quite seriously and try to have my answers prepped in advance. Favourite song? The one that goes “dub a dub a dumb dumb”. Best and worst Christmas? The year we got a puppy and ten years later when that beloved dog left us on the same day. Favourite movie? Tougher. The Muppets, Catch Me if You Can and Die Hard have to be in the mix. Favourite season? Summer. Don’t try to trick me into saying “winter” while I’m at my cuddliest.    

There are other questions that cause considerable consternation each year. Favourite Christmas food and favourite tradition come to mind. But, “What’s your favourite thing about Christmas?” has to be one of the most challenging questions known to man. After all my time on Earth, I’m yet to find a satisfactory answer. For years my answer was Santa. Then it was the smell of the Christmas tree. Then it was Christmas Eve with the family. Finally it was being allowed to get drunk and fall asleep on the bean bag. An answer I’ve been tinkering with is ‘Christmas Mass’. This is a little out of left field but I believe there’s merit to it. It is the unassuming hero of Christmas. If Christmas were a rom com, Christmas mass would be the bespeckled, goofy-yet-sweet friend who becomes “the one” after she removes her hair clip and glasses. Yes, Christmas mass is essentially Sandra Bullock.

It’s not that I’m a great mass-goer. Quite the opposite. Mass was one of those things that I didn’t enjoy as a kid but assumed I’d develop a taste for as I got older – like coffee, the bits in orange juice or Bryan Dobson. However, I never acquired that particular fondness. As soon as Sunday mornings were outside of my parents’ jurisdiction, my attendance waned. But Christmas morning is something different. 

For one, it’s a catwalk. In rural Ireland, Christmas mass is one of the social events of the year. The prodigal sons and daughters return and make a brief reappearance onto the local scene. There are some you only see from one year to the next. There are others who mightn’t have seen you since your teens. Christmas mass thus becomes the great unveiling of your adult form. “Yep. This is what I look like now. I’m a fully grown adult. I’ve been working out twice a week. I own a long coat, my wallet is completely velcro-less and I’m wearing this scarf and gloves out of my own free will.”

This phenomenon reaches fever pitch come communion time. Like everyone else, I take the opportunity to people-watch as, one by one, the congregation is put on display as they walk past the altar. I know that later in the car my mother will tell me that so-and-so is doing well for herself, that X has four kids and a big job in Dublin and Y was caught drink-driving last June. She once told me that a guy my age was “a whiz at bridge by all accounts”. I pray that I’m never defined by my board-game prowess.   

In many ways, Christmas mass is the linchpin that ties the week together. For thirty or forty minutes, you have the chance to sit in silence and gather your thoughts. There’s no talking or moving and phone use is frowned upon. If you want, this time can be used to lay out your Christmas plans or reflect upon the year gone by. 

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself daydreaming about how much easier life is for kids. Any time I’m at mass with one of the nieces or nephews, I marvel at how they go about things. My niece often just gets up and walks around. She wouldn’t be opposed to joining the priest on the altar or screaming for screaming’s sake. She looks at paintings, feels statues and tries to steal prayer candles. If she finds someone odd-looking, she walks up to them and stares. When she wants to befriend someone she walks over and says something like “I’m four” or “my grandad has a farm” and they’re instantly caught up. I’m jealous of it all. 

Kids also get to enjoy the more magical version of Christmas. All the rest of us know that Christmases can be split in two. There are those that come before and those that come after,  the truth

I still remember the unfortunate series of events that led to me finding out. On that particular day, one of the sixth class kids thought it’d be a howl to enact the role of pantomime villain. He walked over to where the senior infants were playing and told two of them that Santa wasn’t real. He was eleven and they were five. His cruel spoiler was met with terrorised cries. 

I wasn’t one of those senior infants. I knew nothing of this incident. I found out when one of the teachers entered the older kids’ classroom, demanding that the culprit stand forward. She broke into a passionate speech about how they had ruined Christmas for those poor kids and their families. I can’t recall the entire contents of the speech but I do remember one line – “I know you’re all older and know that Santa isn’t real but that’s no reason to ruin it for the little ones“.

It was at that point that she spotted the other teacher frantically waving her hand in front of her throat in a slicing motion – the international sign for ‘shut the frankincense up’. The normal sixth class teacher was out that week and there was a school reshuffle to make up for his absence. This was a pretty common occurrence. The second class teacher became the sixth class teacher and the second class students got fostered around the school. All this amounted to the teacher, in her chastising of the sixth class students for ruining Christmas for two, accidentally telling a dozen 8-year-olds. I still remember looking around at my fellow victims, every one of us slack-jawed and grief-stricken. 

Finding out the big secret is a sobering experience. The sense of clarity you get afterwards is intense. For one, you feel incredibly naïve. Of course, one red-fleeced, Scandinavian couldn’t have delivered presents to 2 billion children in one night. It’s a logistical nightmare. And flying reindeer? One of which had been routinely bullied because of a birth defect? I’ve never felt so instantly smarter than my former self. 

After that one bit of deception was unveiled, the tapestry of lies came into full view. Who used to bite into the carrot and cookies that I’d leave by the fireplace? When Kevin told me that he heard reindeer hooves on the roof, was that an intentional lie? And that singer, the one who saw mommy kissing Santa Claus, was she dangling the truth in front of our tiny, little eyes all along? “I saw mommy kissing daddy” is a lot less scandalous. What other lies had I been spun? The Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny had already been unmasked. I tried not to think about what could come next. The bearded man they spoke of at mass, the one who was his own father, started to sound very dubious.  

In recent times, there’s been a new addition to the Christmas mass schedule. It’s something that wasn’t around in my time and l have mixed feelings about. The priest asks all the kids to come up to the altar under the pretence that there will be chocolate forthcoming. He proceeds to talk to them in a way that’s similar to how Barney the Dinosaur speaks to his disciples. He then asks them if they know the meaning of Christmas. After a few answers of “Santa”, “presents” and “toys”, the priest reveals that it’s actually the birth of Jesus. None of them ever come close to guessing but a few make out that it was right at the tip of their tongues. 

The priest then asks what song we sing on people’s birthdays (which is a complete gimme, even for these dummies). This leads to the grandstand finish of singing happy birthday to Jesus, where all the congregation are encouraged to join in. My mother cannot be consoled during these impromptu singalongs and there is good reason for it. In many ways, singing happy birthday to Jesus is criminally insane. I’d find it creepy to sing happy birthday to a recently deceased loved one. Singing it to someone who was alive when people referred to homes as cribs and not in an MTV way, is another thing altogether. 

Over the years however, I’ve been won over by this new tradition. No matter how odd, it’s a pleasant and heart-warming experience. After a few false starts, everyone usually ends up singing along and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. It drives home the fact that Christmas is about community, being with loved ones and celebrating together. 


Back in Vegas, we didn’t have any community gathering. It was just the two of us and the faint hum of spinning slot machines and jackpot-winning bells. After an hour or two we finished our drinks and settled up.

Feeling a little more excited about Christmas, we walked out of our fake Ireland and back onto the fake reality of the Vegas Strip. Instead of joining loved ones, we blended into the crowd of nameless faces and strolled into the night. Together, we walked past the never-ending stream of entertainers. Past Buzz and Woody, neither of which had any strongly association with the birthday boy. Past the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle and Venice’s Grand Canal. Past the tout, who was flogging tickets to Ricky Martin. 

As we walked, I thought some more about my favourite part of Christmas. I thought about community togetherness and the true meaning of it all. It wasn’t long before the fresh air hit me. It dawned on me that being deprived of a “normal Christmas” turns you into a sentimental idiot. You get drunk on nostalgia and start glamourising every detail. Christmas has presents, time off work, days and days of cold turkey sandwiches, and a never-ending excuse to drink. And I reminisced lovingly about mass? The mind boggles. With that we changed our plans for the morning. We’d go to an all-you-can-eat before our flight home. We’d drink and eat ourselves silly and celebrate Christmas the way it’s meant to be celebrated.

To hell with nostalgia. 

Come to think of it, I don’t care much for birthdays either. 

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