WHAT is it about Christmas that brings out the sentimental dingbat in some of us? Is it all the goodwill surrounding the birth of our Saviour that unsettles us or is it the spate of race memories that must unconsciously overwhelm us in the dark of the winter solstice?
Don’t mind me, for Heaven’s sake; there’s nothing wrong with sentimentality. You can be merry and sentimental at the same time, as I’ve often discovered. Actually, the best thing about Christmas, as far as I’m concerned, is the opportunity it invariably presents to wallow unapologetically in tearful nostalgia. Everything makes me cry on Christmas Day – even the Queen’s speech – and the great thing is that nobody even bats an eyelid, apart from signalling frantically to each other about my proximity to the unfinished bottle of wine.
Maybe it’s because I’m haunted by the ghost of Christmas past, but every year, I’m flooded with memories of other Christmases – most, but not all of them, happy. They vary from turkey plucking in the back yard to the drama of pre-Christmas poteen raids in the neighbourhood, and from robbing berry-laden holly branches in Lord Dunalley’s prized oak woods to the mystic quality of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in the darkened village church. All of those memories are densely peopled, of course, and when they fade, as fade they must, I’m left bereft. It’s the people I miss most, but it’s the passing of time that unnerves me, especially when it starts to speed up.
Last year, I was just drying my eyes after the Queen’s speech when one of my daughters innocently asked what I did on Christmas Day when we didn’t have multi-channel TV and when I had no queen to tune into, and when, horror of horrors, there was no such thing as social media. The question released a tsunami of memories and before I even had time to surface, she was sorry she had asked.
Mostly, we didn’t tune into anything at all on Christmas Day, as far as I can remember, because we were too busy being happy and because we didn’t even have a television in the first place. But I do remember four particular Christmases between 1964 and 1968, when we religiously switched on Radio Eireann just after dinner on Christmas Day each year to hear the late Proinsias MacAonghusa presenting a memorable annual series of remembrances that began with ‘Christmas 1914’and ended with ‘Christmas 1918’. The sub title of the programme was ‘Moods and Melodies of Christmas 50 Years Ago’ – a dramatic narration of terrible events interspersed with stirring marches and flippant parodies of popular concert hall songs of the day.
Alongside ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ were lesser known anti-war ditties from the trenches, like ‘I wore a tunic, an old khaki tunic, while you wore a red, red rose’ and ‘When this lousy war is over, No more soldiering for me’. The material, combined with MacAonghusa’s inimitable talents as a broadcaster – although he afterwards went on to become an eminent Supreme Court judge – made for riveting radio and, for me, they made for the most memorable Christmases of my youth, unmatched by anything the turkey plucking days in the back yard could ever evoke.
They marked a transition for me too. I was still a schoolgirl when the series began, and by the time it had ended, four years later, I had grown up and joined the workforce.
The experience may seem a strange way now to enjoy a teenage Christmas, but it was special then and it still is because Christmas is all about sharing and this was something I shared with my family, but especially with my father. I remember being amazed to think that he had lived through that time and had even seen one of his class mates in Nenagh CBS lie about his age, enlist in the Munster Fusiliers and head for the front, never to return. I didn’t know anyone else at the time whose father could even remember Christmas 50 years before. As far as I was concerned, it was an unconscionable lifetime.
But it is particularly special to me now because it was one of the last enjoyable experiences I shared with my father. I didn’t know it then but we only had one more Christmas left together before he died, and by then the drama was over and the moods and melodies of Christmas 50 years earlier had well and truly vanished for at least a generation – until a couple of years ago when we started marking the centenary of the Great War.
I recall those Christmases now with immense nostalgia, but not without a bit of a jolt, because half a century is no longer an unconscionable lifetime in my eyes. It passes like a flash and all you can do is to hang on to the memories and raise a glass now and then to Auld Lang Syne.
Especially shocking is the realisation, as I write this, that it’s now exactly 50 years since we cleared the table after one forgotten Christmas dinner and tuned into one of our favourite Yuletide radio programmes, entitled ‘Christmas 1917 – Moods and Melodies of Christmas 50 Years Ago’.
Fifty years on, may I wish all of you a very happy and gloriously sentimental Christmas.