So This Is Christmas • Luciana Damasceno

‘Those who claim to love snow have never gone through this,’ Maria says, her voice muffled by the face mask, her forehead and ears hidden under a stretched beanie.

The nonstop hail brings a crossfire of ice pebbles, seemingly determined to blind her. Swimming goggles would be nice, she thinks. Not much to see anyway. The darkening cloudy sky makes a morbid landscape at 4pm on the 24th of December.

‘You wanted to be here,’ Maurício says with a mocking smile. ‘You almost cried in the Immigration office, afraid your savings wouldn’t be enough to pay the fee. Now, deal with the Irish weather.’

‘Oh, but I was told Ireland’s winter was mild. No one said anything about snow, or 10 degrees below zero. ‘

‘That’s because it’s unusual here. We just got unlucky. We should have come in 2011, not 2010.’

Maurício tries to keep a good mood. He had refused to buy a face mask, saying they were for the weak – a decision he now regretted. But he’s let his hair grow, stating that ‘any little wig helps’.

On Grafton Street, public workers are armed with shovels. They try to break the ice, which has turned one of Dublin’s most expensive streets into an unintentional skating rink. Maurício wonders if there isn’t a more efficient way to do this but directs a thankful smile at them.

‘I heard the hospitals can’t take more people in. Too many broken bones,’ Maria says, relieving one of her hands of a glove, to catch a snow flake. 

She watches as her heavy boot leaves prints on the ground – only to be quickly covered as more snow pours in, making it look like she had never been there at all.

They continue their journey back home through the city centre. Home is a two-bedroom apartment she and Maurício share with four other people on Parnell Street. But this isn’t their next stop yet. They have yet a mission to accomplish.

Maria glances at the Christmas tree by the GPO and the decorations hanging over Henry Street. They look different. Perhaps they only appear to be, as her vision is limited between hat and mask, and she can only manage to raise hear head and peek very quickly under the storm.

White snowflakes stick to the dry branches of the trees. Maurício thinks they look like the Christmas trees he used to fashion out of cotton balls in school. He admires the statue of James Larkin, the Big Jim, the only one who still seems to lavish energy in O’Connell Street.

Maria and Maurício would prefer to walk faster, but rushing is not a good idea under these conditions. One must take slow, calculated steps, and carefully watch the ground. A merry Christmas may well depend on the prior identification of a hole on the ground, disguised by snow.

The few Irish people that are still shopping around carry armfuls of crammed bags, trying to maintain balance. They make their way towards the parking lots or the public transport – vanishing like video game characters that didn’t make it to the next level.

Parnell Street is swarmed with Brazilians, searching for Christmas dinner items, their restless eyes browsing through the bare shelves of supermarkets. Maurício and Maria are among them – among those with little money in their pockets and a nearly empty table at home.

The arrival of the news in their apartment is a reason for watering eyes. Space is at a minimum, but the place is ready for the party. The table is decorated with coloured balls. Between residents and guests, there are already twelve people present, all wearing Santa hats. But the guest of honour will not be coming: there will be no turkey this Christmas.

‘I bought a whole ham, it’s all they had,’ Maurício says, with a disappointed voice and a forced smile. ‘But fear not, everything will work out.’

‘They do serve ham as part of the main course here, and in many places in Brazil too,’ Maria says.

‘Even if we had bought it in advance, we wouldn’t be able to store it,’ Maurício adds, pointing at the mini-fridge, the only one in the apartment.

They all look at each other with half-smiles. ‘We are Brazilians and never give up!’ someone shouts, quoting a famous saying.

The darkness outside has Maria thinking it’s late, but it’s only 5 pm. Plenty of time to cook the ham before midnight, or so they hope. The procedure is lengthy, and no one knows it well.

Time to ask Google, discuss ideas, argue to decide who found the best suggestion. Almost an hour is wasted between polls and deliberations. Someone considers calling their mother, but that is out of the question. No news of trouble in Ireland should reach Brazil under any circumstances.

While some take care of the kitchen, others put bottles of beer to cool on the balcony. They hadn’t yet acquired the local habit of drinking beer at room temperature. 

While the ham cooks, someone says that, if this was Brazil, they’d already be eating. ‘Back home, we don’t for midnight. My mother says, as long as it’s midnight in Bethlehem, then all is right.’ Laughter runs wild.

More people arrive, there are now almost 20. Some come to stay, others to take showers or wash dishes. This apartment, where the water pipes haven’t frozen, is a meeting point for the Brazilian family in Ireland. A family that doesn’t care about last names, birthplaces or skin colours.

To entertain the stomach, they decide to try a typical British Christmas delicacy, also common on Irish tables: mince pies. A salty pie filled with minced meat, it was presumed. But the first bite reveals the truth and brings disappointment. The filling is actually dried fruits and spices.

Few like it, and the bringer of the pie pretends they do. Maurício comments that, instead of cooking, he’d rather be holding a camera to film the faces of disgust and surprise.

Gossip continues, accompanied by beer and rich tea. Someone offers another type of biscuit, Scottish Fingers, and claims to be eating William Wallace’s digits.

‘Freeedooom’, they all scream in unison and burst out laughing. The micro-apartment, with a joined kitchen and lounge, allows for the entire group to be a part of everything.

After the inevitable cookie-vs-biscuit-what-is-the-right-word debate, past Christmas memories are the new topic of conversation.

‘I’d be wearing shorts and a T-shirt until my mother forced me to put on something more decent,’ Mauricio says, looking at the three long-sleeved shirts he’s wearing, plus a jumper.

He isn’t the only one dressed like this. Everyone’s wearing multiple layers inside the flat, along with boots and thick socks. Many are wearing gloves and beanies. Heating doesn’t fit into the budget.

Maria looks through the glass doors leading to the balcony. Outside, Parnell Street is deserted.

‘Everyone went home to see their families,’ Maria says.

‘Actually, they are going home to cook for tomorrow,’ Maurício says. ‘Christmas here is on the 25th, with a mid-afternoon lunch, instead of a late dinner on the 24th.’

The word “family” hovers in the air. The conversation is lively, but everyone avoids talking about who they miss. Yet, the feeling prevails, materialized by the laptops in front of each person. Their bright screens are windows to a sunny world that hurts just to think about.

Someone decides it’s time to listen to some Christmas songs, ‘the best way to get into the party mood.’ Someone else alerts to keep the volume down, but is altogether ignored. ‘I don’t think the gardaí will come after us today, they should cut us some slack on Christmas.’

The list of Christmas songs on YouTube begins with Brazilian singer Simone crooning ‘Então é Natal’, a version of John Lennon’s ‘So This is Christmas’. It brings out both laughter and protests. Some believe the ex-Beatle must be turning in his grave because of what has been done of his song, but no one presses stop. Simone’s voice becomes the melody of a cold, dark night.

From time to time, a Skype ring interrupts the chant. The lucky one getting the call rubs his or her face, adjusts the jumper and takes off the beanie to look good on screen. They want to show they’re well and happy, and not as homesick as they actually are.

The chat with the family back in Brazil takes place among the crowd, among the chaos of laughter and the smell of ham and honey in the background. Some faces are invited to appear on the screen, proving to the most apprehensive parents that their children aren’t alone, that they’re having lots of fun.

‘We can’t get mom worried,’ someone says after the call ends.

‘Mine would be here tomorrow if she learned about the cold and the lack of water,’ another says.

In the right corner of the room, Maria cringes. Face mask off, hat on, she hides her hands and most of her face inside the jumper.

‘Maria looks like a homeless person, someone give her a change’, another joke followed by giggles. But this one is accompanied by some jealousy, since Maria has taken the warmest spot in the apartment for herself. They laugh also to forget there are people facing even worse conditions out there. Dublin’s city centre has its own sadness.

The ham arrives at the table, not perfectly cooked, but the time is up. The 24th is almost over. They all gather around the table and clap, congratulating the cook, while Spire’s lights become the Christmas star in the darkness.

Luciana Damasceno writes short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. A former journalist and member of the Writers Ink/ and New Irish Communities/Irish Writers Centre groups, she mixes Brazilian and Irish culture to bring stories to life. Her poetry has been published by Époque Press, Poetry Kit, and Pendemic.

[This short story is part of the magazine “Connections Brazil & Ireland” • First Issue Dec 2020, available here.]

Image: Lua Pramos via Flickr