As a child I had a guideline to mark the start of the Christmas build up: November 29, my birthday. This was the trigger that seemed to switch my sense of anticipation into full swing.
I have always loved Christmas and there are two people to whom I give full responsibility for that, my parents. I love Christmas so much I have mourned its pleasure waning as I age. Like a past love, lost, but whose memory can be stirred instantly by a long forgotten love song. I feel the loss of my youth and marry it to the loss of the Christmas experience as a child.
Christmas…I can stir a thousand happy memories at the mention of its name. Those memories rush in unison, and I control myself and my tears of lament. I like to think that my experience was that of all children of my era; that others also felt the pure contented warmth of a child loved at Christmas.
Mammy would light the candle in the window on Christmas Eve to welcome a lonely soul. I felt immense happiness knowing it was meant in truth, that it was lit with sincerity. I knew my mother would open her arms and heart to any stranger who came our way. I saw our house as the Inn and was pleased no end my parents were the innkeepers. I had a wonderful imagination and, as a child, I often wished Mary and Joseph could be reborn and find themselves lost in Finglas. I imagined the scenarios as they knocked on our door and I would have relished the excitement of the baby Jesus staying with us. I could imagine our already cramped house alive with excitement as we manoeuvred to get a few more in, and I could hear my mother’s words repeating how “it was no bother at all”.
Through our lives mammy had often preformed the magic of the loaves and fishes. Many’s a time a knock to our door had turned a dinner for eight to into a dinner for fourteen and it seemed with no added time or food.
Yes, I loved Christmas and the feeling of contentment that cloaked our home at this time. I know it must have always been present but I seemed drawn to its presence once the scents of Christmas begun to appear. I loved the real pine tree. It arrived and marked its scent like a dog. Father clambered into the musky dark attic to retrieve the decorations and I nearly burst with excitement at the very thought of them.
I loved the cheap paper lanterns, the shiny coloured balls; the tinsel tangled a glistening mess of wondrous sparkles. We had no angel to take pride of place atop our tree; Santa had that pleasure. His rosy cheeks and burly body alight from inside out. A collection of tiny ornaments some passed through generations and our tree was complete. We stood back warmed and content admiring our work and what must have looked to others a mess of confusion. But we adored it. I loved the room in darkness but for the Christmas tree lights and to lie in front of the roaring fire, just me and the tree and I’d squint at it through slit eyes. I loved how it glistened, how it smelled.
I think I loved Christmas Eve the best.
But in truth it’s hard to decide. The preparations started from early morn. Our parents vanished alone to Moore Street for a multitude of vegetables and their trip to the supermarket for that once-a-year shopping bonanza, which seemed to take forever. The turkey already hung like an acrobat upside down on our shed door. I regularly checked his presence and studied his face and body. I felt sorry for him and told him so over and over. But I would soon forget once I smelled him sizzle in the oven. At this stage I had never even heard the word vegetarian and in one way I am kinda glad.
A sherry pungent Christmas pudding and thick white iced Christmas cake were baked months earlier and lay hidden away to be produced later as though by magic.
Mam couldn’t take a chance and leave them on display, for history had proven the invisible man often picked chunks from them leaving them a mess for their unveiling at Christmas tea. The ham was huge and soaked in the largest pot I had ever seen and that was after Mam had hacked a chunk from its side to stash for new years day. Sherry trifles smiled temptingly from the fridge, daring us to run our figures over their creamy heads. I knew when the shopping arrived the fridge would struggle as its shelves strained, with no options but to send many of the food supplies to the shed. I moaned in my head about being one who would have to go to the freezing cold garden and retrieve a bottle of milk or TK lemonade but when Mam uttered a request you never dared complain.
Other secrets were hidden round the house – a box of chocolates and a box of biscuits would appear miraculously on Christmas day. We seldom had sweets or treats through the year and the sight of a full box of any luxury was excitement overload. It seemed no matter where I turned it was impossible to avoid a sight of pure pleasure.
The fire would have been lit and banked with slack all day. The boiler hopped scalding willing its waters to flow. Baths were taken in order of age, youngest two first and so on. The older ones who wanted privacy would wait and most likely suffer the irritation of murky warm water. Brand new pyjamas were produced for all from the magician’s stock. and one by one we lined the sofa or lay by the fire, hair fresh with the smell of Clinic shampoo, cheeks rosy with excitement. The dining room table was set for breakfast and it was as though a top restaurateur had visited our home and laid it himself. Tree lit. Candles burning, fire blazing we wallowed in pure contentment as Christmas came and consumed our every sense. Children loved greatly by parents who struggled to make ends meet but saved and did without so we could have the memories of Christmas. Our house a Christmas wonderland and God were we happy.