Christmas is a time of mixed emotions; a time of largesse and extravaganza but also a time tinged with sorrow of Christmases past. As a child I didn’t know this and could only look forward as the day drew near and the mountain of presents grew beneath the tree. “Can we not just open one now?”
“No, they won’t let us, we have to wait ‘til Christmas Eve.”
But as the Christmases piled up I noticed something else. After dinner my brothers would gather the dishes from the table to the kitchen. There, organized, we all pitched in. We would work together and pretend that we didn’t enjoy it. It was not for us to say how much we loved each other and how much we meant to each other. That type of talk was only acceptable with drink taken. So we told each other by the delight we took from doing things together even if we grumbled throughout.
“Get your arse in gear and get those dishes clean.”
“Would ever go and shite!”
“Shite! Is that how you talk at Christmas?”
“He talks shite all the whole year.”
“What are you little gob-shites laughing at?”
“Leave them alone, will ya? Let them have Christmas – the auld fella will spoil it soon enough.”
“Is he still sleeping?”
“Yes, thank Christ, let him sleep ‘til tomorrow and we can all enjoy the day.”
Being the smallest and the least useful I was given the simplest of tasks and received wondrous praise. I belonged to a family, even if only on days like these.
“Good man, Peter, you’re after doing the work of an army – an Irish Army.”
“He did fuck-all.”
“Shut your mouth you or I’ll . . .”
One year, while they were busy repairing the ties that bound them all together, I slipped away un-noticed. I went back into the living room. It was darkening but the firelight danced against the walls and the lights on the tree sparkled. My mother sat and stared into the memories that flickered among the glowing embers and dark caverns of the coal fire. She was smoking and crying and didn’t notice my small shadow as I flitted around the edge of the room.
Back then I couldn’t understand why anyone would cry at Christmas because I had neither regrets nor remorse. Christmas was the purity of love risen like a ghost to banish all sadness.
My mother turned to answer my question and smiled at me.
“My mother died on Christmas Eve”, she said in that voice she used to tell children to mind their own business. I never asked again and in the following years I stayed with my brothers and let her alone with her sadness. It was the last Christmas of innocence and I had started down the road away from childhood.
And there was the year when my father came home less drunk than he might have been and went into the attic to check on the chimney fire.
“Bartley! Be careful now, you’re not as young as you used to be.”
“Erra Christ, woman, do you not think that I can manage?”
“Bartley,” my grandfather cautioned, “we could ask one of the lads. Sean? Would you ever go up and have a look?”
“Erra Jasus, Am I not man enough to do a man’s job?”
All it took was one misplaced step and we had a new memory of Christmas. His booted foot broke through the plastered ceiling and dangled into one of the bedrooms.
“Oh! Look,” Dick said to the foot protruding from the ceiling, “it’s Santa Claus.”
Christmas became a continuum and over the years I measured myself by them. In the early ones I had a mountain of presents to build a wall between my happiness and what was going on around me. My family knew this, as their generosity was enough that it has stayed with me through all the years in between. Many of my early years were difficult times for my family but they always found a way to offer me some shelter until I was too big to hide.
Sometimes my father couldn’t work but most of the time his money never made it to our house. It was given to publicans. But in those years there were family concerts when those of us who could play instruments did and others sang and my mother would dance a jig. She was so light on her feet.
I doubt the music was good but to us, then, there was nothing better. For one evening we lived in such excess and in defiance of the world and all of the terrible things that happened in it. Despite dysfunction and disharmony we sang away the heartaches and the tears. We forgave each other every little thing that had happened in the year and were one in this communion of compassion. The coal fire blazed late into the night but we would not retire. We would wring every moment of pleasure from the day in the glorious unification of family and were more content than at any other time. And when we sang Silent Night we sanctified our cause with an affiliation with the godchild.
All is calm, all is bright.
On Christmas Night we could take a break from our wars. We could meet in the open spaces between our competing personalities and for a while, forget the pain we caused each other. We shared the bounty of Christmas and the largesse of the goodwill it inspired. And, when we felt the loneliness and separation that accompanies feelings of good, we clung to each other for comfort and assuredness that we would survive. Like snow, a peace would settle on all of our lives. For one evening we could share the humanity and love that often eluded us.
So if most of my earliest memories are of grey days and black and white photographs then Christmas was that splash of colour. The Red of Holy Berries; of Blood and Wine spilled in sacrifice and in carelessness; anger and rage; and the Green of Christmas Trees, the colour of the world outside in the cold damp rain.