‘There's something about Christmas,” goes the Barry’s Tea radio ad. “Something that creeps inside and finds the child in you.” This is the year I’m not going to bawl, I thought. Every year, I bawl. This year, it was over the ironing board.
I held out until I heard the voice of the little boy, from his black-and-white world of Christmas past, shouting, “Mam, Dad, look what Santa brought.” And then themature voice of the actor Donal McCann, the boy now grown, echoed the words from the Christmas of his childhood.
By the time the boy’s father’s speaks — “Well, doesn’t that beat Banagher! A train set, no less! Isn’t Santa the smart fella?” — I am usually plain sobbing.
This year, I gave the ironing a watering. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t feeling sad. Or was I? I couldn’t even tell. I remember my mother, who was a hard old boot, crying openly when she heard Christmas carols being sung downstairs in her nursing home, on her final Christmas.
“I don’t know why I’m crying”, she kept saying, “I feel it’s a superficial emotion.”
It is and it isn’t. I think I’ve finally worked out the Christmas emotion. It came to me suddenly, as I sang ‘Away in a Manger’ in my church choir, a carol I had requested.
The lines that started the tears were, “The stars in the bright sky/Looked down where He lay/The little Lord Jesus/Asleep on the hay.” They brought on that “something about Christmas, something that creeps inside and finds the child in you”. It’s a remembrance of a childhood time when we felt loved and protected.
Outside, it might be the “Bleak mid-winter” where “frosty winds made moan”, but inside “all was calm, all was bright”, because we were in the arms of some beloved protector. For me, that protector had to be my Dad.
I’ve said my mother was a hard old boot and I’m not taking that back, even if it’s the season of goodwill. That said, she worked like a dog to recreate the Dickensian Christmases of her nearly Victorian childhood in rural Donegal. There were table settings of ghostly Christmas roses, with candles stuck in the middle of them. There were homemade mince pies and Christmas cakes covered in marzipan and snowy icing.
From her childhood, she imported the wonderful tradition of opening the presents after Christmas dinner, which meant that I spent the whole day in a sweat of joyful anticipation.
Her coup de grace was a massive cold buffet, after all the presents were opened, with all the cold left-overs and Theodora Fitzgibbon’s lemon mousse to follow.
The closest my children get is two slices of white pan with turkey and stuffing. But at least I don’t wear a martyred expression the whole day. So I don’t think of my mother’s cooking when I want to remember that feeling of safety and love. Instead, I think of my father’s excitement as he pinned up battered paper-chains in the sitting-room.
He was happy and I felt part of his happiness. Perhaps he could access that Christmas child in himself and my mother couldn’t.
Perhaps my mother had never felt like a Christmas child, while my father had. My paternal grandmother, by all accounts a martinet the rest of the year, turned into a Christmas fairy on December 24, getting into her best clobber to buy Turkish delight in Hadji Beys on Cork’s MacCurtain St.
So the mythology goes. It may have been my Dad’s doting father who put that Christmas gleam in his boy’s eyes.
Someone put it there, anyway, and it was passed on to me, to make me a middle-aged matron who sobs during Christmas ads and during ‘Away in a Manger’. And it doesn’t end there. Here come the shepherds and the wise men in their tea towels.
Here comes knee-high Mary, replying, in her piping soprano, to the Holy Spirit’s deeply surprising news that she is about to give birth to the Son of God, with the words, “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?” But Baby Jesus is coming her way anyway.
The wise men have seen a star in the East that foretells the birth of Jesus and have come to worship him. Those words send shivers of excitement up and down my spine every year. The Nativity scene, among the most iconic in global culture, usually centres on a baby lying in a manger adored by his mother, his adoptive father, an ox and an ass, the shepherds and the three kings.
Those of us who cry at Christmas are that baby, somewhere deep in our hearts. That Nativity scene is our vanished Eden and we cry for its loss.
As the American poet Sylvia Plath told her baby son in ‘Nick and the Candle-stick’, a poem I read at all my children’s christenings, “You are the one/Solid the spaces lean on, envious/ You are the baby in the barn.” I think it’s the embarrassment of longing for our own baby Edens that makes us play down the power of Christmas over our emotions.
My heart goes out to the many for whom this Christmas will be tragic, sorrowful, and painful. You know who you are and I know a few of you. Some of these will understandably always fear Christmas, because of these associations.
That’s different, however, to those who have always hated Christmas because the pain of separation from childhood is too great, or because they have never felt safe in childhood and their ‘child inside’ is badly wounded.
Few of us are indifferent, however. Most of us love Christmas, but we don’t know how to say it. Instead, we spend a month talking about the cost and the work and the family arguments, and the cooking and the shopping, shopping, shopping, a tradition I was about to follow in this article, until I decided to tell my own truth.
Christmas is a love that dare not speak its name, because our attachment to our own childhood, to ourselves as children, is an embarrassing secret. I think that’s a shame, because, as most charities know, the emotion of Christmas can be useful.
Even Karl Marx is reported to have told his daughter, Eleanor, that he could forgive Christianity much, “because it has taught us to love children”.
There should really be no shame in bawling over the ironing at the whistle of the toy train at the end of the Barry’s Tea ad, or for children’s voices singing, “The Little Lord Jesus/Lays down his sweet head”. The shame is that this emotion doesn’t translate into ending child poverty and homelessness, even in this country, which the UN has rated the third-most developed in the world.
These are the challenges that still face us. Every child deserves to be adored, no matter what their creed or culture. Every adult deserves to find a Christmas child inside them.