Making sure there is a candle flickering in the window is one tradition from home that will be lighting up my festive time in Haarlem this year. It is an Irish tradition, now brought to the Netherlands.
Not travelling home for Christmas is unusual for me, though this year it is pretty much universal. In that sense, we are not alone – even if we are spending Christmas in Haarlem in our flat, alone. There are, of course, many things I am going to miss this year and I won’t list them all here. Normally, I would be at home on an idyllic island off the west coast of Ireland. True, at this time of year, the weather is generally far from idyllic as the island is battered by the winter elements, but so what if it is blowing a gale outside and the Atlantic looks angry as waves pound the shoreline if you are all cosied up inside in front of a roaring turf fire.
This Christmas is my tenth since moving to the Netherlands. I had only arrived at the start of November and was so happy to be able to get enough time off to still go home for Christmas and New Year. That year, I was hit by the Dutch rule where, if holidays fall on the weekend (as it did in 2010), they don’t get carried forward to the start of the next week – you just lose them! – which meant, I needed to take five whole days of holiday, which I didn’t even have due to the fact I started so late in the year. Though, luckily, everyone was flexible and I was able to pilfer some from the next year’s quota. So that was the first hurdle over.
Then came the hurdle of managing to get home due to the weather (wow, we are only a few paragraphs in and I’ve mentioned the weather twice already!). Some may recall, the festive season of 2010 was particularly snowy. Flights were being cancelled all over the place. It was certainly touch and go whether I would even get out of the Netherlands – but make it I did. I was so lucky and forever grateful. As I have forever been grateful to always be able to spend Christmas with my parents, until this one.
Our island of Achill in County Mayo – the largest of the Irish islands – is beautiful, it has to be said. One major road meanders across the island from the bridge that connects it to the mainland all the way to Keem beach at the most westerly point, nestled at the foot of Croaghaun. There are old, white-washed, single-storey cottages that line the road along the way, in clusters making up small villages, and it is from these homes that the glow of the most beautiful of Christmas customs emanates and lights the way on dark winter nights.
A tradition that is very much alive during the festive season is that candles light all the windows of the island’s homes. A far older and simpler tradition than the modern-darn Christmas tree lights, these single candles – nowadays often electric – create warmth and a welcoming glow, and indeed it is a ‘welcome’ that this custom symbolises. In particular on Christmas Eve, it’s traditionally there to welcome to Joseph and Mary as they wandered in search of lodgings but driving along on any night of Christmas week those little lights shine a welcome to any traveller. They are a radiant beacon to welcome strangers and to remember those who are far away from home.
One of my very favourite things to do is to travel through the villages and, in child-like delight, take in the scene. Pinpricks of light pierce the darkness (there are hardly any streetlights to get in the way or spoil the ambience). From back the road at the end of our village of Pollagh, at the top of the brae (hill), you have a sightline all the way down on through the next village (Dooagh) and up towards Croaghaun mountain, where the lights do not quite reach as there are no houses that far back.
Shining a light in Haarlem
This is for sure to be one aspect that will get woven into my Haarlem story as I create new traditions for my first Christmas here. In Achill, the light in the window is a beacon for those far away from home. It is also just as resonant for those of us who cannot travel this year and as I sit and watch the candle flickering in the window, I know I am cosmically connected with my fellow Achill-ites wherever in the world they might be.
Forever grateful, it’ll be grand.
Endnote: I don’t actually have any photos of the illuminated Achill windows to share – I only have them lighting up my memories – though, here I do share some snapshots taken on that winter trip of 2010 and then a couple from the top of Croaghaun the next summer.
[Blog first published in December 2021]