|My father's photo of the driveway to my parents' Gingerbread House|
When we were small, Christmas was the highlight of the entire year. We always had an Advent calendar and our names were pulled from a hat to decide who got to open a little door on which day. Letters were written to Santa Claus – no, sorry, that doesn’t convey the care and thought associated with a letter to Santa Claus. Letters were composed to Santa Claus, after long and careful perusal of toy catalogues and diligent study of TV advertisements. My brother Michael, indecisive and fickle, wrote and re-wrote his letters and even after they’d been sent to Santy, there was no guarantee that his decision was final.
Unlike here in Germany where Christmas Eve is the highlight of the festival, Christmas Eve in our house is the day to go visiting and drop off your presents, the day you spend cleaning your house and preparing Christmas dinner for the following day. You had to be extra, extra good on Christmas Eve because Santy was already on his way down from the North Pole and he’d hate to have to skip your house because of a last-minute bout of naughtiness. Vegetables were chopped and peeled, the (obscenely large) turkey was stuffed, the Christmas cake and a glass of whiskey set out for Santa Claus and a plate of carrots prepared for Rudolf. Then the sparkly-clean kiddies were sent off to their freshly-made beds, jittery and giddy in their new Christmas Pyjamas.
The next day at dawn we stormed our parents’ bedroom and forced them to get up and come downstairs with us. We weren’t allowed into the sitting room where the tree and presents were, till Gingerbread Mother had checked that Santa Claus had visited –
“He’s been!” she’d shout gleefully (a plate with crumbs and an empty glass in the kitchen were the evidence.) There were a few seconds of stomach-wrenching tension and then one or other of the parents would open the door and let us in, squeaking and squealing and screaming as we fell on our Christmas loot.
As we grew older, Santa Claus continued to come. He was never allowed not to come. As we grew up, the older kiddies were roped into the conspiracy to make it more real for the Little Ones. We painted hoof-prints in soot on the kitchen floor. We found presents for Santa Claus to give to the Little Ones and schlepped them home in secret so they could disappear till Christmas Eve: my sister Eithne transported a full-sized sword across rush-hour Dublin, I came home one Christmas with little more in my suitcase than a Lego train set for my youngest brother. And we didn’t always have a perfect Christmas – we had our fair share of dramas. The Christmas my parents got their first dishwasher was also the Christmas when stormy weather knocked out the electricity for days. You have no idea what a fabulous gift a dishwasher is until you’ve washed up after a dozen people on Christmas Day, dear readers. On Christmas Eve, electricity was restored and we were spared the agony of a two-hour yuletide pot-scrubbing session. Another year my father nearly burst an artery when he discovered a snail in his Brussels’ sprouts (no, we weren’t aiming at a French-themed Christmas). Yet another year several kiddies got food poisoning and spent Christmas Eve night throwing up all over the place.
So what’s my best present ever? Actually, I think it’s less than tangible: it’s fabulously intangible and durable, unlike the Lego sets and Barbie dolls and Play People houses that have long since disappeared. Despite the fact that my parents often didn’t have a lot of money, and more than once didn’t have anywhere near enough, they always give us a lovely, magical Christmas. Every Christmas – despite dramas and upsets – was wonderful. I don’t know how they managed it: as an adult I can only begin to understand the work and the stress and the sheer effort that went into making our Christmas special.
I remember standing in the back garden of my parents’ first house on Christmas Eve – I must have been six or seven, I think.
“Look, Daddy,” I said to my father, who was filling the coal bucket. “Is that the Christmas star? Is that the one the Three Wise Men followed?”
And I pointed at what might have been the North Star or Venus or a passing satellite.
“It is,” he said, without hesitation.
And that’s my best present ever: my parents’ dedicated and loving effort to make Christmas magic, a conspiracy of absolute love. It was – is – appreciated immensely by all of your children, to an extent that you probably can't imagine.
Thank you very much, Mammy and Daddy. xxx