MICHAEL CLIFFORD: It’s the nostalgia that’s hard to swallow

HAVING a drink on Christmas Day used to be fun because you were banned from doing so.

It was one of the two calendar days the authorities had long deemed sacred, and they required the shutting of all pubs. That made the quest to beat the rules a challenge. If they said you couldn’t drink publicly, then you were going to exercise your constitutional right to free expression. With said expressing done from a high stool.

There were a few pubs in my orbit in Cork City that opened for a few hours, but you’d want to have ‘heavy regular’ stamped to your forehead to get in to them. I never made the cut.

That left clubs. One rugby club where I frequently found refuge on the day was always hopping.

It was mainly full of men enjoying not slaving over a Christmas day oven. The atmosphere was always high. Any and all troubles were parked for a day. Say what you like about all the tatty froth that accompanies it, but there is a magic to Christmas Day.

That was all a long time ago. The licensing laws prevail, but I don’t bother with pubs these days.

Getting a drink on Christmas Day would have as much attraction as going shopping for clothes. Still, in the days running up to the big day, I always feel a twitch of nostalgia.

For many, the nostalgia that permeates Christmas is a warm glow against the cold December evenings lit up by seasonal lights. And nostalgia is a bit of a chancer.

My nostalgic indulgence in Christmases past plays all sorts of tricks. The craic was never that good.

The pints were often little more than a medicinal cure. Troubles may have been parked, but they were never banished by the big day or a skinful. But what’s the sense in remembering that kind of stuff at Christmas.

Nostalgia rules OK for these few days. The rest of the quickened pace of life is fine, too.

For those of us lucky enough to be able to enjoy the occasion, it’s all good.

There are others who can’t embrace the warmth at this time of year. Loneliness and fear, if they’re hanging around at all, really up their game from mid-December.

For those going through hard times, materially, emotionally, mentally, late December can often be a bitch.

The whole atmosphere of jollity can swell like a festering sore. Talk of gifts and family and socialising all accentuate feelings of being apart from a great, seasonal movement.

There are people this year, and for the last few years, who have found themselves in severe financial discomfort.

Their current circumstances might prompt them to hark back to the illusionary bubble years of plenty, but those, too, have been given a makeover by nostalgia.

My memory of those Christmases past is of walking down Patrick Street in Cork, or Dublin’s Henry Street, and feeling in the midst of a frenzy. There was a look, on more than a few faces, of anxiety rather than happiness. The name of the game was buying. And buying early, and buying often. It was as if Christmas had been transformed into nothing more than a shopping spree, and you had to get in on the act quick before Santa called time and everybody was thrust back into the Ireland that existed before bling went wild. It was nothing short of demented.

And then, round about teatime on Christmas Eve, it stopped.

The citizenry retreated to their homes, and recuperated.

Two days later, it was off again, the frenzy to capitalise on the sales reaching higher and higher, ultimately defeated only by the freezing conditions of early January.

It’s easy for me, at the moment, to look back on those years as false and soulless, but for those who are struggling financially, they must retain the warm glow in which nostalgia has wrapped them.

Others, like the recently bereaved, find this time of year particularly tough.

The first Christmas is a milestone in the loss of a loved one. An empty chair sits where a life once pulsed. Nostalgia is particularly poignant for those who pine for the Chistmases when a loved one was part of the celebration and warmth.

The ultimate outsider at this time of year is the man or woman who has no home. For anybody on the streets, it was not always thus, and memories of Christmases past can be laced with regret and a sense of loss. Their plight is often eased by the warmth provided in places like the RDS in Dublin, where a big dinner is put on by volunteers.

Then, there are those for whom the festive cheer is a pain in the butt.

The scourge of loneliness, of both mind and emotions, afflicts many. Some might like to go and hide under a duvet for a week or so, to re-emerge when the world outside has once again achieved a modicum of equilibrium.

Putting up with all the jollity — forced or otherwise — cannot be easy.

Having to put on a face and light up like a Christmas tree at times of mass celebration could potentially drive a body to violence.

It’s no coincidence that probably the best depictions of Christmas in art are from the perspective of the outsider.

Shane McGowen’s Fairytale of New York speaks for its bittersweet self, veering between nostalgia and regret. “When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me.”

Paul Durcan’s poem Christmas Day salutes the occasion by looking-in on the warmth from outside the window.

“Christmas Day, I spend alone, In my cave, Rotating my globe, musing what it would be like, to spend Christmas Day, With another human being.”

Durcan said that the Paul and Frank who inhabit the poem, looking for some action on the day in question, were himself and the late actor, Donal McCann.

Both were off the drink at this time, when drink fuels so much of the jollity, and both were alone on the day.

Paul and Frank were particularly afflicted by “woman hunger” in the poem, and to be without both the company of women and the aid of drink on the day in question suggests an austerity that even the Troika couldn’t have dreamed up.

So hang on to your nostalgia for the occasion. Let it inveigle itself into you mind, let it play whatever tricks the season demands.

And spare a thought for those who struggle through these final days of the year.

And if you’re on a prowl to beat the law and get yourself a drink, may the road rise to meet you.

Happy Christmas.


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