I love Christmas and have only the fondest memories of those festive occasions, all sixty of them, and then some, which seem to have ‘flown by’ to resort to that classic cliché.
But it’s my childhood memories that I treasure most – times when Christmas was truly Christmas, precious and pure, like the children we were. They come haphazardly the memories, not ordered or neatly sequenced; like sweets from a great glass jar they tumble out, mouthwatering, comforting and so, so sweet.
And always it’s the lights I remember, the Christmas lights twinkling, shimmering in the December dark; the shops on High Street, glittering, glowing, bright and beckoning, even the butchers with their pinky, red glow I found entrancing: turkeys, plump and pimply hanging in rows in Reynolds; chops, hams and steaks, all juicy red, promises of plates and platters of plenty to come. I remember Liptons and the L&N, all bright and beaming and bursting at the seams with Christmas foods, exotic goods: golden syrup, Turkish delight, fancy biscuits, figs and the whiff of coffee wafting in my nostrils. My childish eyes were mesmerised, enthralled.
But our shop, the Mecca for us girls and boys was Griffin’s in Rose Inn Street, in the shadow of the Castle, its windows crammed with toys,; we were hypnotised by trains and tracks, Meccano sets, cowboy suits and cowboy guns: six-shooters in their holsters, rifles, toy soldiers, dinkies, guitars and drums. And there were tea-sets, dolls, dolls’ houses, prams and other girly toys that went unnoticed by us boys intrigued by some metallic robot that blinked and beeped and actually walked!
And I remember walking to the Monster House to get our Santa Box, a monster treat for sure. Ah the magic of it all; the Christmas tree so tall, and good old Santa decked out in red, telling him quietly and shyly and reverently what we hoped to get on Christmas night. The sheer delight of opening our boxes, plain and white, filled with little treasures: a yo-yo, paper bugle, a jigsaw, a little plastic gun. And Santa never let us down, not once, and never, ever did I question his existence. No need; my brother John, the oldest of our family had seen his sleigh sweep over Canice’s tower one Christmas eve, had even heard the reindeer on our roof one year, no need for me then to cock my ear or stay awake or listen half the night for noises in the chimney, to try and catch sight of this most magical, most wonderful of men.
And a memory that I will always treasure is the memory of my mother making the Christmas pudding. In the soft light of the scullery I see her, sleeves rolled, her pots and bowls all at the ready, grease-proof paper, cherries, candied peel, sultanas, treacle, exotic ingredients for this seasonal mix, the smell of nutmeg pervading the house, the wooden spoon turning and churning the magical, crunchy mix. And then that simple family custom, each child, each one of us, getting to stir the bowl, to play our part in this party-like, plum pudding ritual. And afterwards the scraping of the bowl: ‘Me first’, ‘Me second’, ‘Me third’ (me, the youngest of five, usually being last) The pudding, when cooked, never tasted as satisfying or as sweet as that exotic mix. Ah to be seven years old once again.
Now I am twelve. It’s Christmas morning, the stars still out, the sky jet black and there’s a chill, a frost in the five a.m. air. Gently my father rouses me from sleep “You’re serving”, he whispers and soon the kettle is singing and sweet, warm tea fills my belly.
Out into the pitch-black darkness I slip, no street lights on, too early, way too early;
I rendezvous with Bobby, my best friend, we link each other down the street, fall in with Tommy Gaffney and Paul Short. Soon we’re skidding, scampering down Moore’s Hill, slippery, treacherous with ice towards the Dominican Black Abbey glowing like a lantern in the dark.
Christmas morning in the Black Abbey, six o’clock mass and we four are serving, looking angelic almost, our surplices snow-white, freshly starched, our faces pale and wan with sleep. A stillness permeates the church. All is calm, all is bright as after mass the infant Jesus is carefully, and oh so reverently, placed in the crib, hushed with mystery and love. The miracle of Christmas. The presence of Christ, palpable almost in this ancient, hallowed place of worship, this stilly Christmas morning.
For me there will never be a more sacred Christmas memory. My soul as clear and crystal as the frost, my young heart pure and pumping; my mind a glorious communion of Christmas joy and awe.