I was one of six children and Christmas was always a big event in our house, not so much Christmas day, but the run up to it, and especially Christmas Eve. I want to share some of those memories with you now.
Christmas Eve was always a hive of activity, where all of us old enough to walk were put to work like little helper elves. My parents had a tradition, taken from my father’s family, where they always hosted a party after Midnight Mass, yes I said after. So it was always a pretty late night.
There were two separate events being catered for in one day, the preparations for the Christmas dinner, and the preparations for the party. We’d be bustling around like blue arsed flies getting things done, the giblet soup for Christmas dinner was first on the agenda, as that would also be our sustenance for the day. Dad was in charge of that, he made the best soups, kitchen sink soup he called them, and just about anything went into the pot. Being an excellent director of operations, he had the kids peeling and chopping all of the vegetables as he took on the role of master chef. In no time at all, our good sized kitchen was fragrant with stock herbs and vegetables, making us hungry as we worked.
Then it was on to boiling and glazing the ham for the next day. Soon the smell of the ham mingled with the aroma of soup. One of us would then be transferred to glazing duty, for this we had to painstakingly stick cloves, one by one, in tight little rows into the fat of the massive ham joint. Little fingers were best for this job so the rows could be nice and tight. Once covered in cloves, the ham was tightly packed brown sugar and drenched in sherry and left aside to marinade. Bread rolls were baked, (although usually the pre-prepared variety) and salads were made. Then we’d sit down to a bowl of steaming soup and hot rolls.
Then we moved onto the tidying of the living room and lighting the fire, and once it was roaring, and the kitchen was under control, the festivities commenced. Usually this started with the arrival of my grandmother and her friend, who came to stay for the Christmas period.
My parents were in business in the town I grew up in, so once the party preparations were in hand, the delivery of the Christmas boxes (to colleagues and people who had helped out in various ways throughout the year) commenced. Usually at least two of us kids would volunteer to go on these visits – they were always great for sweets and sodas, things that were still rare enough treats in the seventies, and sometimes, we even got a fifty pence piece, a small fortune to us back then. When we in the car driving along, Dad would put on the radio; and we heard all of the Santy letters being read out. Of course, we were on the edge of our seats hoping maybe ours might be read, but sadly it never was (we didn’t know then that these letters had been posted to RTE and not to the North Pole!)
Three or four stops later, we were on the road home again. Then the magic would really begin. Dad always managed to spot Santy in the sky and he’d point him out to us. We kids would stare and stare, and he’d say “Look, over there,” and as we looked where he was pointing, we complained we could see nothing, he’d say it had moved and point somewhere else. This continued until we were convinced we spotted a light in the sky; it might have been the lights of an aeroplane, or a particularly bright star, or indeed it may well have been the bright glow of Rudolf’s nose, who knows the magic of Christmas?
Between the letters and the excitement of seeing the sleigh, we would be as high as kites, really getting wound up. We started to get nervous. What if we hadn’t been good enough throughout the year? What if he came to the rest of them and not to me? Would we like our presents? Would we get what we asked for? In a way I didn’t want the night to come because that excited anticipation would be gone.
Once home, we’d eat and chat with Granny for a while, then it would be time to for the little ones to go to bed and for the older kids to change for midnight Mass. Granny brought us to Mass while Mam and Dad got ready for the onslaught of guests. The leg of pork was starting to smell truly scrumptious, and we’d be dying to get our thieving little mitts on the crispy crackling before all the adults got it all. Before heading out the door, we’d leave out Santy’s whisky and mince pies, because everyone knew Santy came at midnight.
The Mass service was always lovely, it wasn’t usually a church for singing but on Christmas Eve the sounds of Adeste Fideles, Hark the Herald Angels, Silent Night and other carols filled the cathedral, accompanied by the magnificent church organ. Granny and her friend mortified us every time by ‘singing’at the tops of their voices, making us cringe lest any of our friends heard them. And without fail, every single year, some person filled with more than the Christmas cheer, would walk up the aisle, drunk as a skunk and shouting; earning very disapproving looks from the priest while making the rest of the congregation laugh.
Mass was over – it was officially Christmas. We’d totter down the frosty steps from the cathedral to the car, trying not to fall and freezing in the chilly night air after the warmth of the church. Excitement would permeate our beings; it was after midnight, perhaps Santy might have been to our house already? But wait a minute, no! How could he have come already? Mam and Dad would have been up, working in the kitchen. No way could Santy have snuck past them. We’d have to wait ‘til morning.
We’d rush in the door. Some of those who preferred Mass on Christmas morning were already there and the party was in swing. We’d be sent upstairs to call the younger kids after their nap. And as we went to the bedrooms, there just inside each doorway, were parcels and stockings (my father’s biggest and stretchiest socks). The noise and excitement of us kids was drowned out by the din from the party downstairs but needless to say, the younger kids didn’t stay sleeping for long. Mam, Dad or both would follow up the stairs quietly to watch our faces, and they would marvel at how Santy had managed to sneak in, but they had been so tired from the work all day that they had fallen asleep. This was the line every year, and we bought it every time. J
Dad’s socks were always over spilling with unusual chocolates, soaps, bubble-bath, pencils, stickers notebooks and one of my favourite things were the tangerine oranges, which were a total luxury here at that time. Now as a grown up, I don’t really remember any of the “big” presents I got from Santy because the stockings were and still are my favourite part. As I go shopping for my kids each year, this is how I remember the magic of Christmas and even though this is likely to be our last Santy year as my kids are growing up, they will continue get those stockings each year until they no longer spend Christmas with me, just as we did, even when some of us were married.
One last thought, before I outstay my welcome: for most of us it’s an incredibly joyous season but there are those who approach this time of the year with dread. To those people in particular, I send my love. My mother sadly passed away a few years ago in the run up to Christmas, my own family always used to travel to spend it with her. So nowadays Christmas is always slightly tinged with sadness and loneliness. I’m lucky, I have my own family to celebrate it with and distract me but please spare a thought for all those who are missing someone over the holidays.
May you all have a magical and joyous Christmas. Thank you for sharing in my memories.