LOUISE O'NEILL: There are more spaces around the table

Christmas marks the passage of time, the end of every year, and Louise O’Neill feels no differently about the season. Here she talks about the changes occurring as the Christmases go by.

I come from a family that loves Christmas. My sister, a primary school teacher, seems to hit peak excitement at around the same rate as the five year olds in her class.

I get Snapchat updates every time she feels in the holiday spirit - when she sees the Coca-Cola ad for the first time, when the festive milk cartons hit the shelves, when she finds the perfect pair of Elf-earrings that ‘her boys’ are going to freak out over.

She’s the sort of sociopath that has her Christmas shopping done by November 1st and isn’t shy about telling you about it in great detail. She probably gets it from my mother, who is still badgering me to write my Santa List.

“He’s very busy this time of year, Louise,” she frowns at me. “He can’t just wait around for you to get your act together.” She starts watching a delightful TV channel called True Christmas two months in advance, desperately trying to change the channel when anyone else enters the room so no one catches her. (We always catch her.)

I found her crying at the end of Miracle on 34th Street last week. Crying. This is a woman who watched The Notebook, The Most Beautiful and Meaningful Love Story in the World™ (shut up) and laughed.

“It’s just...” she sobbed. “So beautiful. They proved Santa Claus really exists.” She points at her heart. “In here, Lou. In here where it matters.” (I am currently looking into legal emancipation. Will keep you updated.)

My father owns O’ Neills butcher shop in Clonakilty and is far too busy wrestling with turkey orders to indulge in any of this nonsense until December 25th at which point he morphs into Old Saint Nick himself, albeit one with enviously low body fat and less facial hair.

In my everyday life, I try to situate myself as the family misanthrope, sitting in the corner and glaring as the others dare to enjoy themselves because a) I get to wear more black clothing than is strictly necessary and b) I’m preparing them for a future where I buy a castle and surround it by a moat filled with homemade lava - I’m still working on the logistics - in order to keep other human beings at a sizeable distance at all times.

But even I find it difficult to resist the lure of Christmas. I have never loved the sun. I have never dreamed of days spent on the beach, hair tangled with salt water, feet crusted with salt. I love when the dark comes early, watching the star-drenched sky for the sight of a sleigh.

My father coming in to tell me a bedtime story when I was a child, tucking me and my teddy in, asking me what I want from Santa this year. He nods solemnly as I tell him I want a pet squirrel* and a magic wand that never runs out of wishes**.

“I love this time of year. The sense of possibility, like anything could happen,” he tells me. “But I love you more.” I remember whispered conversations with my sister, wondering if it’s safe to go downstairs or if there’s a chance that He might still be there.

The tangle of ribbons and torn paper and hugs and thank you and how did you know? And what on earth is this? Washed faces and hurrying out the door for mass, so cold that my breath smokes before me as if I am a dragon.

Going over home, Granny Murphy smelling like safety and love, Granddad Murphy holding a box of Lemons out for us to pick our favourites.

The sizzle of a mandarin skin thrown on an open fire, too many bodies squashed on the sofa in the parlour, my sister and I lying on our bellies in our nightdresses, a stack of books and glasses of orange Soda Stream beside us. We were happy.

The interesting thing about Christmas as you get older is how it marks the passage of time, how it is a benchmark with which to measure the progress of your life. The neighbours still arrive on Christmas morning, but the questions change.

What did you get from Santa?

You look pretty in that dress.

Oooh, do you have a boyfriend?

How’s the study going?

What job are you hoping to get?

A book deal! What’s it about?

It’s been some year for you, hasn’t it?

So, do you have a boyfriend?

There are other differences too. There are more spaces around the table, more people to miss, more memories to share in an attempt to make their ghosts a part of the celebration.

I think of my uncle, taken so young, and I wonder what his children might have been like, and suddenly it hurts to breathe, as if I’m inhaling salt into shredded lungs.

Life seems almost unbearably fragile at times and Christmas reminds me to hold those I care about close to me, to tell them that I love them and I feel blessed to have them in my life. And so when my mother asked me to write my Santa List this year, I could not think of anything that I wanted.

The world has felt like a dark place, with the triumph of misogyny and racism that Trump’s election signifies, the normalisation of Xenophobia heralded by Brexit, the horrors that are destroying Syria while we squabble about taking in refugees, the increase in people sleeping on the streets in our cities, and the desperation of charities begging for donations of nappies and food rather than toys for Irish children this Christmas.

I want, to quote some much maligned beauty pageant queen, world peace but I wonder if that might prove a task too difficult even for Santa.

I won’t ask for more things this year, I think, but I will ask for more. I want more love. More decency. More kindness. More empathy. (And maybe, just maybe, a hint of snow.)

*I blame Enid Blyton

** Greedy, Louise. GREEDY.


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