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Bringing Home the Christmas

December 24, 2013

Winter solstice at Newgrange. Photo Dept of Environment, Irl.

Winter solstice at Newgrange. Photo Dept of Environment, Irl.

I spent a while thinking about this post; what tack I might take for Christmas 2013. Perhaps the low pressure and tight isobars affected me: my thoughts blew all over the place, before shaping into a little funnel centred around home.

I was talking to my mother about a week ago – saying how this year I seemed to be noticing and indulging in the winter darkness; pinpointing the hour when morning light would creep around the edges of the bedroom blind; welcoming the diminishing light as early as 3.30pm. The stove is a constant friend. My wise mother reminded me that last year I was in a frenzy of exams and preparing for Christmas. This year I had time to experience the changing season.

We were spoiled with our summer, and one consequence was the leaves’ refusal to leave – Irish trees were cheery creatures well into December, all russets, reds, golds. But we have paid for our good weather lately. Atlantic storms have been rolling up at our doors here on the west coast, then flinging themselves across the country – presumably so no one feels left out.

So – the title of this post is derived from reading my Danaher (again) and also from that connection with the light, or lack of it. ‘Bringing in the Christmas’ is ostensibly about how we prepare for the mid-winter feast day, but it also holds echoes of the pagan festival. How we prepare is as important as how we celebrate – and adds to that celebration. There were the old customs of cleaning and making new the home, of gathering in the treats and meats for Christmas, of lighting the candles in the window for the passing Holy Family on Christmas Eve night. In rural Ireland in the middle of the last century- when cars were not universally owned – a trip into the nearest town was a major part of Christmas. It was a social event but also a time to sell produce and to buy. Christmas is still a wonderful time to be in the market towns of County Clare.

Ennis Market. photo

Ennis Market. photo

There are many ways of bringing home our Christmas – be it from the market, or from the supermarkets on the edges of our towns and cities.  This year it’s the home part of that phrase that’s getting to me. We agreed in my family this year that presents, if any, will be small. And so, I’ve been making lemon curd, gingerbread, and the usual cranberry sauce to hand out to family and friends. I will contribute to the Christmas feast with my special creamed leeks and the smoked ham that is sitting in its glaze in the oven. Although my family will be sharing meals in different parts of the country, and the world, they will be the focus of my thoughts.

Last week an old gentleman from the village died. I don’t pray – but that morning I looked up at the stormy sky and asked (something) to maybe, just maybe, stop the rain while everyone was in the graveyard. The wind screamed around the church while the priest conducted the funeral service; at once respectful yet filled with a sense of the local. The personal items offered up during the Offertory reflected Bernie’s long and rich life. A neighbour spoke with warmth and emotion about the way in which he had been welcomed into the area by Bernie and his wife Doreen. And he sang, as he had been requested to, one of Bernie’s favourite songs. People who had cared for Bernie were named and thanked individually, as were the local men who dug the grave. The rain stopped as the funeral reached the graveyard.

What has this to do with Christmas, or bringing it home? 

I’m not religious. I don’t do Mass. I used to go to midnight Mass because I love singing and I missed the carols and hymns. Years ago – in Ballyvaughan church actually – I found myself saying: ‘I can’t do this anymore; I just can’t believe any of it.’ And so I abandoned the carols.

At Bernie’s funeral, I realised  that had been a mistake. Not that I had a road to Damascus moment ( and I have been on the real road to Damascus). Rather, I realised that it didn’t matter what I believed about religion – it mattered that I believed in the people who were there, the community that makes up the place I now call home.

My postman will drop in a package to my aunt if I’m not at home. Jackie will drop in scones, just because that’s what she does. Doreen was one of the first people to speak to me in Ballyvaughan. Siobhán in the post office took a call from someone who couldn’t reach me and needed to let me know I’d won a poetry competition. People stop to talk, to encourage, to question. Yesterday, Steve from Kinvara came to unblock a back gutter that fancied itself a waterfall; probably the last job he wanted to do coming up to Christmas. (Especially in storm force winds.) He wouldn’t take a penny for his trouble.

The Christmas market went ahead last weekend despite the storms. On Sunday, I arranged to meet a friend Claire and we stood in the village hall, drinking coffee and eating Shirley’s mince pies; watching and taking part in all the meet&greets, while the choir sang carols. Doreen had turned up on Saturday. Of course she had. Doreen is always at the Christmas Market.

Ballyvaughan Christmas Fayre

Ballyvaughan Christmas Fayre

Against the backdrop of floods, high tides and storms has been the toing and froing of shopping, baking, meetings with friends and family. Best of all have been those ‘look who I bumped into’ moments that we especially treasure at Christmas.

Before I headed into Ennis at the weekend, I rang my mother to see if my parents wanted me to do any shopping in the supermarket on my way in. As usual, the talk was of the weather. but Saturday being the 21st my mum wondered if they’d had any luck up at Newgrange. I was able to tell her that the sun had made a short appearance – that the light had appeared and picked its supernatural way down the passageway, into the prehistoric chamber. My mother is one of the ‘happy few’ who have been in Newgrange at the winter solstice. It has never let go its hold on her. Her delight in a short Saturday sunbeam is part of bringing it home at Christmas for me.

In The Year in Ireland, Danaher says that he can remember as a young man in Co Limerick, the descendants of the Palatines  firing from shotguns at noon on Christmas Eve. I am descended from those Palatines also, and while I don’t have a shotgun to let off today, I allowed myself be a silent member of the Grussenschuss!  I went to the village stores at 2pm to hear the usual Christmas Eve carols. Jim dresses as Santa. The staff make mulled wine and hand around cocktail sausages and other treats. Children and adults collect for local charities. This time, I took a music sheet and joined in the singing.

Welcome home, Christmas.





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