AS the cool winter sun sank low in the Solstice sky, we crossed the Shannon.Enclosed by their ancient stone walls, the fields shimmered with frosty dew. Our convey of cars, stuffed to the gunnels with children, Christmas paraphernalia and presents was heading west towards the village of Rosscahill in Co Galway.
We arrived and set about making the beautiful barn conversion we had booked feel festive and cosy. We unpacked our homemade mince pies and cakes, chocolate and sweets. We had extra blankets and hot water bottles for fear of the cold, books and music and wine and beer. We created a long line of wellington boots in the porch by the door. My mother heated the oven and soon the house was filled with the smell of her Shepherd’s Pie which had survived the journey from Dublin. The children colonised the games room downstairs and the house soaked up the sound of The Snowman. Later we discovered that the beds were soft and cosy. We slept well.
Next morning our hostess, who lived in the Big House, showed us where the windfall apples were stored so that the children could fill their pockets and bring them to the Connemara ponies in the paddock. This became a morning ritual for our stay as after breakfast we donned our boots, scarves, hats and gloves and trudged out past the lake to bring treats to the horses.
I have a myriad of memories of that week back in 2002; the excitement of heading out to purchase a real Christmas tree which we then spent hours decorating. Being part of a shopping party dispatched to Galway to do the big supermarket shop which, for the first time ever, was a great funny adventure, and not the tetchy endurance test it normally is.
The discovery of a little private oratory, housed in another converted building within the courtyard which became the perfect place for Christmas contemplation. We swam in the private indoor swimming pool and took long winter walks in the frozen silence of the Galway countryside.
Rotas had been drawn up for cooking and cleaning and no one endured the stress of having to provide Christmas. Everyone pitched in and did their bit and the house rang with regular cries of “anyone want a cuppa?”. The last members of the family arrived on Christmas Eve, making our festive gathering complete. We settled down to relaxing evenings by the fire, telling stories and making each other laugh. We listened to music, read books and watched almost no TV at all. I think we were all aware of just how unique this Christmas was. No disasters. No rows. It really did feel like something very special.
Going away, with the entire family had been my mother’s idea. She announced it to us all the previous September, saying that she had no intention of spending her first Christmas without my father in the normal way. My brothers and I fell over each other inviting her to come and have Christmas with one of us. “No” she said quite definitely, “I want this Christmas to be something completely different. I want us to go away.” So, we had spent three months planning the logistics involved in getting four families away for Christmas and in researching the perfect place for our combination of ages. At times I wondered if all the effort was worth it. I need not have worried. As we packed up and reformed our convoy to journey eastwards and home, a few flakes of snow fell. The magic was complete. What should have been a bleak and sad festive season remains in my memory one of the most perfect I have ever experienced. My father’s last gift to us, his family, I am sure.
RELUCTANT as I am to drop names, especially these days when I can’t be sure the name I drop will be recognised as “a name” at all, I think of a small gathering which included the playwright Frank McGuinness a few years ago. With some colleagues we began to reminisce about going home for Christmas. It was a winter night in a Dublin pub and the atmosphere was prickling with beer and holly and unsuspected confidences. As the group held forth, the last to confess his loyal if possibly reluctant obeisance to the requirement that he go home for Christmas was Frank. He was saying, it seemed, what they all felt about Mass and relatives and crowded journeys made in haste on Christmas Eve, just to get home. The stress of it, the pressure. And then they turned to me.
“The trouble is,” I said, having just recognised that this was, indeed, the trouble. “The trouble is, that I’m one of the ones you’re coming home to…”
Not any more. They have their own homes where they are making their own Christmas. This is something to be celebrated although, as always, there are some who would mourn these absences, not seeing in them the completion they represent. Yes, for a few years there was a special magic in preparing the house for a homecoming which included new children; that is a special delight, even if it is tempered by the work of catering and conditioning (one shower isn’t enough, better buy some extra bed-linen, where will we put the extra cot, will they a) go to church and b) visit the relations). But with the adult children now spread between two continents and three countries, coming home for Christmas is a kind of mass migration, and fitting what feels like the League of Nations into a suburban terrace house is more work and less fun than even Christmas should demand.
But then of course I grew up at a time when no one came home for Christmas because no one had gone away in the first place. Those were the days of carol- singers working their way down the hill from the church, along the avenues and into the squares and alleys, grouped occasionally under a street light and all in tune, knowing all the words of all the carols, singing in time with this tender time of year and then, still singing, making their way back up the hills again until these last few nights before Christmas were left to silence and expectation. Listening from our cold bedrooms we felt as much as we heard.
Did we believe? What was there not to believe, no great act of faith was required of us given these examples, our mother stirring brandy into mince-meat in the kitchen, the paper streamers we had made ourselves making a frieze linking hall and dining-room and sitting-room where the picture of the Sacred Heart was grazed with holly as if with a new crown of thorns. The Christmas candle standing tall in the window to light the way to Bethlehem, our father preparing the ham which we would eat in delicious scented slices on our return from Midnight Mass, from that walk in the usually illicit darkness now lit with sparkling frost and friendly with the greetings and haste and laughter of our neighbours on the way home. Of course we believed, we believed in something. We could not understand joy to the world, because we could not understand the world. But we understood joy.
That, for years, was our Christmas. Some of its elements, the candle, the ham, the church, the brandy in the mince-meat, the tasselled Christmas tree, the gifts of thought, word and deed, are still part of the Christmas I handed on. They must make of it what they can, adding their own memories to the mix. But belief? I think of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen, in which he admits that if invited on Christmas Eve to see if the cattle in the byre would kneel at midnight, as in the legend, he would go “hoping it might be so”. They won’t be home for Christmas, my travellers, and when everything else is in place, from tinsel to goats for Africa, that has to pass for belief: the hope that it might be so.
* Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
YOU know how every year you say, ‘This year I’m going to get Christmas sorted out. I’ll have the cards written by December 1 and I’ll work out properly what we can afford and do the presents in time, and I’ll know exactly how many people are coming for meals and when, and ... all the rest of it. Lurking somewhere in our minds is the idea of the perfect Christmas (probably with snow, only not the kind that closes down airports and messes up our travel plans).
Every year, mysteriously, all our plans evaporate and it’s the usual mess, with all the last-minute panic.
There’ll be a good few people concerned just now about what they can afford.
Yet it’s odd, in a way, this business of a perfect Christmas. The story of the first Christmas is the story of a series of completely unplanned, messy events — a surprise pregnancy, an unexpected journey that’s got to be made, a complete muddle over the hotel accommodation when you get there. Not exactly a perfect holiday. But it tells us something vital. We try to plan all this stuff and stay in charge, and too often (especially with advertisers singing in our ears the whole time) we think that unless we can cook the perfect dinner, plan the perfect wedding, organise the perfect Christmas, we somehow don’t really count or we can’t hold our heads up.
But in the complete mess of the first Christmas, God says, ‘Don’t worry — I’m not going to wait until you’ve got everything sorted out perfectly before I get involved with you. I’m already there for you in the middle of it all, and if you just let yourself lean on me a bit instead of trying to make yourself and everything around you perfect by your own efforts, everyone will feel a little more of my love flowing’.
I’m never sure whether to wish anyone a peaceful Christmas, because it hardly ever is.
But I can wish you joy in the midst of the mess, and every blessing from the God of ordinary, untidy, surprising things.
* David Young
IT’S a memory. Or, I should say, many memories all blended into one. Cosy places with no closing time. You can drop in whenever you want, and stay as long as you please.
That’s what keeps my sense of anticipation ticking over. Year on year, before a bauble is even dangled, let alone hung, my mind returns to days when Christmas enveloped me.
Some are recent, most are not. For me, and maybe you too, Christmas belongs to a childhood time when the world was much more innocent, and honest.
When calendars weren’t assaulted quite like they are now — by relentless advertising campaigns — as if we’ve all become profoundly amnesiac, and can no longer trace a path to the big occasion.
For me, Christmas is when Santa gifts come as single presents, not the bounty of a trolley dash down toy store aisles. Or even as ‘surprises’. Proper ones that knock you out of your stand.
Christmas is about homemade decorations, to go with the ones your parents brought with them from the life they had before you turned up.
And time is spent making home a snug bunker — battening down the hatches. And staying close to your kin. For one whole day. Like one big silly hug.
Christmas is a phone with a cord installed in the hall, where you take calls by sitting on the first step of the stairs, and facing the bubbled frosted glass of the front door.
At five years of age, it’s the innocence of shining a torch on a bike reflector, wondering if it really reflects very far. Or if it’s just there for effect. And that’s ok too, ‘cos it’s cool.
It’s you wearing paper hats, and guzzling fizzy drinks. And laughing with your sister and brother till the bubbles hurt the back of your nose.
And then falling asleep in front of the fire. On waking, doing the (little) manly thing of fetching blocks of wood, like Grizzly Adams, and almost bursting your boiler to show your mother how many you can carry.
Christmas is all those times spliced with ‘big’ you — when you’re the first in your house to be away at that time of year. And not wanting the accolade of pioneering absentee.
Like finding a phone-line in Africa that connects with home, and tying it up for what seems like an eternity.
Or the bedecking of a pokey little apartment in China, with tinsel and coloured paper. Only to hop aboard a train to Beijing to stave off cabin fever, and then falling into a reverie of the choo-choo set once delivered down your chimney.
It’s being all grown-up in your own house, yet thinking of your folks. Remembering them in their prime, haring about with double-agent deftness. And marvelling at their midas touches — putting on the greatest show on earth.
Christmas is all those images and echoes that can never be dulled or stilled. The best gifts you could ever get.