A Christmas Story

by Dymphna Lonergan

The magic of Christmas, for most people, fades with the end of childhood. For me, the glow dimmed when I was 12. But if I stand outside on a crisp starry night, I at least can capture some of the thrill of a child’s view of Christmas in Ireland in the 1960s when the world was a safe place and our links were strong.

Christmas morning the first Mass was celebrated at 6am, and the children jumped out of bed at Mammy’s first call, all hearts beating double time. Walking to the church in the cold and dark, we snuggled into new coats, hats and gloves and counted the lighted candles that stood in each window to welcome the Christ Child.

Christmas Day was the only time there was any ceremony in our house. Tablecloth and napkins were reserved for that day only. The cloth was red and the napkins white, and in the glow of candlelight we sat down to breakfast.

My father worked at the airport, and as the only breadwinner for a household of eight, he always chose to work the night shift on Christmas Eve for the extra pay. We children were told that Santa had called at the airport and left Daddy the key to the parlour in which the presents were stored. We sat waiting in rows on the stairs facing the front door, our hopes and imaginations on high and on fire.

Daddy arrived home around 8am and ceremoniously produced the key. There was an expectant hush as he opened the door. A gentle push from Daddy and all six children spilled into the room and pounced on our respective gifts.

After his breakfast, Daddy called us one by one into the dining room where, standing beside the mantlepiece, he formally gave us an envelope along with Christmas greetings. The sum of money in the Christmas envelope was 10 times our usual weekly ‘stipend’.

Three doors down lived the Stonehams, a very retiring and gentle family whose youngest son, Damien, would visit at some time each Christmas Day. Damien was my brother’s friend, and at his timid entrance Daddy would say: ‘Welcome Damien. Christmas would not be the same without you.’ I don’t know why Damien was given such a special place in my father’s affections. Perhaps he saw himself in that quiet and gentle, young man.

Daddy was a quiet and gentle man of few but memorable words. Whenever we had Brussels sprouts for dinner, he would muse, ‘it’s just like Christmas’. And on surveying the elaborate fare that was Christmas lunch, would come the announcement, ‘it’s all eating and drinking!’

The magic of Christmas Day was in the ritual and ceremony and the slowing down of time with Daddy available to us all day. We felt secure and warm.

In my 12th year, and his 21st, Damien was killed in a freak accident. I’m sure the next Christmas, the candles were lit, the red tablecloth graced the old table, the key was produced and the presents acceptable, but I don’t remember.

Damien would never come again. My father never spoke of him again. And Christmas was never the same again.

Dublin-born Dymphna is a member of Tinteán’s editorial team.