If you get to my stage in life, the chances are that not every Christmas was filled with delight and wonder. Statistically at least, it’s likely you will have suffered bereavement, been financially disenfranchised , struggled with a relationship breakdown, drank too much and made an arse of yourself to the level of mortification in the embarrassment stakes, spent time in hospital, been generally sick or had some form of hitherto unmentioned catastrophe or disaster befall you. That being said, it’s also likely that you have made many happy memories along the way.
I know every culture is different and we all have our own traditions and ways, but in an odd way Christmas seems to set a focus on things that no other time of the year does. I come from an era where it was very much a time of religious festival. As a child, part of Christmas day meant going to mass. We had hymns, the baby Jesus in the crib and all the tales of the nativity were very much to the fore. It was a far less commercial time although we still had Santa or Santy as we used to call him. I cried my little eyes out when I realised there was no Santy. My wonderful mother let it slip by accident and it broke my heart.
Those were tough times and every small crumb of fantasy and wonder helped keep me afloat as a boy. I couldn’t really afford to lose such a precious wonder. Still I muddled on. Everything gets exaggerated by the occasion. I remember my first Christmas after my father, mother and brother passed away. Those 25th of December days should have held no more significance than the 25th of January but because that day is one of celebration and family, the losses illuminate and become magnified.
Missing people near and dear is always tough at Christmas. My own un-shareable circumstances make Christmas day a particularly painful day for me, yet it is also one I ultimately make the most of and I very much enjoy the sense of occasion. Most of it is nostalgic if I am to be honest.
I remember being a little boy and lying underneath the Christmas tree on my back. My mother always placed tiny porcelain bells at the bottom of the tree, adorned with their own little green and red painted trees. I would lie there in the darkened room, lit only by the multi-coloured tree lights and gently tip the bells to hear their tinkle. It was such a simple thing but it was magical.
Every year my dad bought chocolates for my mother and the minute the first layer was gone, I would commandeer the empty plastic tray, usually coloured brown or purple and lie beneath the tree to look through the plastic at the lights. They would seem more spectacular as the light was changed by the filter of the uneven plastic and best of all, when I placed the empty chocolate tray over my face, I could smell the chocolate. Ahh I’m inhaling as I remember it right now, sucking air through my nose. It is an unmoveable memory for me.
Sometimes, I’d just lie there and squint as I looked up through the tree at the lights. They would splinter in the watery squeeze of my eyes becoming stars of many colours. No wonder it was a magical time. It wasn’t just Santy or the tree; there were so many other rituals. My Mam would cook the ham on Christmas Eve and we would make toasted ham sandwiches. They were mouth-watering, finger-dripping, buttery delights and I couldn’t go to bed without one.
My father liked to bring home a fresh turkey a week before Christmas and he would hang it over the bath, much to our dog’s distress. To a city boy like me it was a barbaric thing in a way, the only meat we ever ate that we got to see in its un-butchered state. I remember being tasked to use my tiny hands to pluck the turkey, a thoroughly thankless task and worse still, I recall being thought how to clean the bird out. It was my first encounter with the inner workings of any creature and it was not pleasant. And yet it forms part of one of my happier Christmas memories.
Mass was in truth inconvenient as a child. It kept me away from my toys which for the first ten years of my life more than likely meant a pair of guns, a holster, a cowboy hat and a sheriff’s badge. The trick was to pray before you got there. I used to pray for Father Connolly. He was as mad as a brush, but the upside was he could whip through the whole ceremony in twenty minutes excluding communion. It was important not to go to ten o’clock mass as they tended to be filled with happy-clappy singy types and you could nearly fill the hour if you were unlucky. With unintentional irony, I prayed for a quick mass.
We’d dress up in our best clothes; shoes polished from the night before and hope that my mam wouldn’t bump into someone on the way home. They could talk for ages those women. Back home we’d eventually go and then it was straight into the Christmas morning fry up. Sausages, rashers, black and white pudding, toast, fried egg all washed down with a mug of tea. The Turkey would have been cooking since early in the morning and the house was filled with wonderful aromas. We generally had a turkey big enough to feed a small country, so it took hours to cook. The fire would be lighting and we’d play in the warmth of its glow, while my dad tried to convince one of us to let him cheat them at cards and my mam got on with the cooking.
At some point my da’s brothers would appear and they’d drink a few drinks and talk about the same thing they always talked about, none of it of any interest to me. My old man was a heavy cigarette smoker but on Christmas day the cigars would come out. I love-hated the smell. Dad always left the bottle of whiskey for his brothers to pour for themselves. He said it showed you were mean if you poured it for them. It was the only time we had drink in the house. Nowadays people think nothing of having drink in the fridge or in a wine rack but back then, house drinking was for Christmas or wakes. There’d be bottles of Guinness, Smithwicks and Harp covering all the major tastes of the time. In the spirit cabinet there would be vodka and whiskey and for the ‘ladies’ Babycham and Snowballs. I tried them all at some point, just the dregs mind when there was no one in the room. It fascinated me. The beers were vile and the spirits burned my mouth but the snowballs…I could have gotten used to them. I puffed on my uncle’s cigar once when he left the butt in the ashtray and I turned green.
Just before dinner, the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops would come on the TV and all of us except for my father, would revel in the excitement of finding out who was the Christmas number one. Dad moaned the whole way through it saying that it wasn’t real music. Now Perry Como… there was a man who could sing.
Top of the pops was followed by an unhealthy quantity of turkey ham, roast and mash potatoes, the inevitable Brussels sprouts, carrots parsnips and gravy and somehow I’d always manage to squeeze in the season favourite, trifle. Swearing never to eat again as long as I lived, opening trouser buttons to relieve the pressure, we’d retire to the front room to watch whatever movie was on the telly. Within half an hour, I’d have miraculously recovered my appetite and pester my mam to open her chocolates.
Those happy memories will stay with me forever. Some years there were more troubling times but the bigger picture in my mind is one of smiles and more food that I was used to. We were not well off, so the splurge at Christmas exaggerated in my mind.
It is funny how I remember the good times and shy away from the painful memories. I guess it’s a bit like remembering the sunny summers of my youth when in reality, Irish summers are far from Mediterranean. Maybe it’s human nature. As each year passes, I mellow and chill a little more. That is of course one benefit of aging, but I still find a certain anxiety creeps in as the festive season comes to a climax. I know from whence it comes and I can do little about my own melancholic nature, so I slap on a smile, force myself to merriment and for the most part it works.
Melancholy and merriment are things that go hand in hand for me. I use laughter to drown my sorrow and smiles to mask my tears. Christmas shines its merry spotlight on our vulnerabilities I think. Mine are no greater than most, but they are there and they are indeed mine so I cope with them. Soon it will be all over and a part of me will miss it immediately, while another part of me will sigh with relief. Being a contradiction is never easy but at least I know how I tick.
Love it or loathe it, there is something magical about Christmas and I cannot let that idea go. My children are all grown up now and I suppose for me it was my children that reconnected me to the magic of Christmas. Someday perhaps I may be fortunate enough to see my grandchildren come into the world and then… ah yes the magic will begin all over again, only with me behind the curtain, starved of the magic that children bring for too many years and let loose once more with an overactive imagination, it might get a little crazy. Happy Christmas everyone, let the magic begin…
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Larry Flynn Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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