ROUND about now, some of you will have received The Text: ‘any idea when u ll be down for christmas, only I want to put the bed airing.’
If the retail industry, hammered by rates and VAT, had its way, Christmas would start much earlier. They have had signs in their windows for weeks now: “SHUR WE COULD BE DEAD BY JANUARY! POST-CHRISTMAS SALES STARTS NOV 8!” But when your mother is making airing logistics plans, then Christmas has begun.
With those plans cemented, the gathering begins. (I’m referring to ‘gathering’ with a small ‘g’, rather than The Gathering, by which the country sends its children a text saying “any idea when u’ll be home, only I need a few bob.”)
As a child, the weeks before Christmas were the best of the year. Better than Christmas Day itself and far better than the week after — a time known as the ‘coffee cream of the soul’.
The excitement was enhanced because the family was swept up. Elder siblings and parents behaved differently — giddily. Like at a wedding when you saw your father pull out a £50 note for the first time.
At the heart of it all was my mother — directing operations, delegating, listing, fussing, worrying, Christmas-carding. She didn’t do everything — there were enough fostúchs around the place to help out.
Christmas isn’t just a holiday — it’s a festival of preparations. First there was the ‘big shopping’ trip, to L&N in Ballincollig. Younger readers may not remember the L&Ns, which have been absorbed into Supervalu, but, for years, it’s blue-and-green brand adorned our weekly shop. The cupboard contained about 280 L&N bags as ‘they were handy to have’.
For the rest of the year, going to L&N was mundane. Being a small boy old enough to help his mother but not too old to be embarrassed about it, I was familiar with the layout of the place. The shopping was the same. There were ‘the messages’ plus a few weekly treats.
But at ‘the big shopping’ around Christmas anything was possible. The ingredients for the Christmas cake and pudding were little Shamrock-branded curiosities, but I was only interested in one thing: Goodies. The products that had more Es in them than a bag of Scrabble tiles: Tanora (a liquid destined never to be accepted north of a line running through Skeheenarinky) and Lilt bottles were stacked in the trolley like a hurricane was on the way; six-packs of crisps — those fragile, salted wonders — and the selection box. Was there ever a more wonderful object than a selection box? You saw all your favourite chocolate bars, but in a different setting. A picture of Santa was on the cover. Each bar had its own moulded seat in the tray. It didn’t make financial sense — but neither does going to the cinema. Seeing everyday chocolate dressed up in a selection box was like watching your neighbours in costumes in the local variety show.
Every so often, if something was forgotten, there would be a secondary or even a tertiary ‘big shop’. We might even go to Wilton. Wilton is a fortress guarded by a number of roundabouts to obfuscate the terrain for invading armies, but around Christmas it was a beacon. By comparison to today’s FutureLand glass-aluminium-atria-designed-to-evoke-a-sail shopping cathedrals, the Irish ‘malls’ of the ’70s and ’80s may have looked a little ‘Ceausecu-esque’, but to a small boy around Christmas, Wilton was a magical place.
The facade had a giant W that looked like it might have been bought from the set of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Inside, it had two almost identical arcades connected by a corridor. You might get mixed up between the two and get lost, but eventually reorientate yourself enough to find Porters, where you settled in to read the Beano annual.
As if there weren’t enough landmarks to announce the holidays, the arrival of the RTÉ Guide was surely the rubicon. We never got it for the rest of the year, as “there wouldn’t be much in it”, but an exception was made for the bumper Christmas edition. When you got it, around Dec 18, it was like your whole holidays were mapped out in front of you. In the years when we still had a black-and-white television, it was the only time we saw certain people in colour — therefore, finally finding out the puzzle of Derek Davis’s hair.
About 64% of the individual items bought in ‘the big shop’ went into the Christmas cake. I have only a vague recollection of most of the mystery ingredients, but I remember one thing — the unusual sight of a whiskey bottle retrieved from the sideboard. My mother briefly turned into Keith Floyd, horsing the whiskey onto the cake (without drinking any of the supply).
Meanwhile, the house was a fluster of Christmas activity. All over the place, doors were left open. In a house that wasn’t centrally heated, this was usually a sin. But even with draughts wandering freely like looters, draught-dodging was suspended around Christmas.
Somewhere outside, my father was wrestling with a tree.
When my parents first arrived in Dripsey in 1966, the house and its surrounds looked very different. Photographs of that era showed the yard and haggard to be bare and — because the past looks better in photographs — sun-bleached as if it were a dusty town in the South of Italy.
Over the years, my father planted sitka spruce and fir around the place — the fast-growing windbreaker of choice for farmhouses exposed to ‘that oul northerly wind’. The tops of these were to form our Christmas trees for many years. “Where’s Dada?” we would inquire. “He’s out getting the tree,” said our mother. We looked out the window at the grove of trees. Branches were shaking. It was as if a forest creature was awakened by foolish humans and would burst through at any second. Eventually, my father would emerge triumphant, dragging a Christmas tree after him.
The day itself peaked around dinner. Turkey, stuffing, sprouts, spuds and turnips crowded the plates — washed down by the old reliable Tanora. I would walk through a room of upturned plugs (in my socks) just to recapture the Tangerine taste explosion that happened after a hearty mouthful of Christmas dinner.
As we wolfed down the turkey, my mother would inquire about whether the plates were hot enough. They always were — in fact, they could have glowed and burned a hole in the table and she still wouldn’t be convinced. It didn’t matter, anyway — so tasty was it, we would have eaten the dinner off the floor of the shed.
After dinner, the torpor set in. Everything was off-duty on Christmas afternoon. Even AERTEL. Before the internet, there was AERTEL. I found penpals, pretended to book holidays to the Canaries, followed summer football transfer season, snooker. Everything was on AERTEL.
Given that it played such an important role, you can imagine that it was quite unsettling to switch on Page 100 to find HAPPY CHRISTMAS FROM AERTEL and nothing else. Not a peep out of Bloxham Stockbrokers. It was made more sinister that the screen depicted a snowy scene and a Santa Claus so pixellated it looked like he was being attacked by Pacman.
The gift that never stops giving. You can’t be walking into places with one arm as long as the other. Cheaper and more numerous than a Milk Tray, a Box of Roses is an acceptable way of taking ‘the bare look off’ your approach to a front door.
Even if they were brought to your front door in the same way, don’t feel bad, the recipient will do the same. The blue-and-rosey tin may make its way around the community — perhaps never to be opened. In fact, this Christmas scratch a tiny identifying mark on the box and see if it finds its way back to you by Little Christmas.
Paolo Coehlo could write a mystic-ey novel about it, in which the Roses are a metaphor for something. Perhaps life is indeed like a box of chocolates.
But, anyway, don’t mind your oul Paolo Coehlos, get up out of that chair now and give your mother a hand. Happy Christmas!
* ‘Isn’t it well for ye?’ — The Book of Irish Mammies, by Colm O’Regan, is out now. www.irishmammies.ie
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