Memories of seasons past as we count down to Christmas

In his weekly column Michael Patwell looks back at Christmas traditions past and present
Memories of seasons past as we count down to Christmas

HOME-MADE DECORATIONS: Michael Pattwell’s wooden Christmas ornament

HUGH Leonard (1926-2009), the well-known dramatist, television writer and essayist, wrote a regular newspaper column, ‘The Curmudgeon’, for the Sunday Independent, up to 2006. ‘The Curmudgeon’ is rather self-deprecatory and to me it indicated that Leonard wasn’t taking himself too seriously. I liked that.

That all came to mind when I read back over my own column in this paper two weeks ago when I wrote about the negative effects Christmas can generate. I immediately thought that it sounded quite curmudgeonly and Scrooge-like. In fact, that isn’t my complete attitude to Christmas at all; it is one aspect of it.

My late wife was a great Christmas person and indeed when I started earlier this year de-cluttering in preparation for selling the house that was our very happy home for 10 years, I found a whole car-load of decorations and Christmas lights that my daughter shipped away to a charity shop she favoured. With the atmosphere that Mairéad (my late wife) created I would have been a very cold person (a ‘curmudgeon’, really) not to be influenced by the Christmas spirit that was magically created around me every year.

Indeed, some of the dusty boxes retrieved from the attic included several Christmas ornaments (including tree ornaments) that I had made myself in my own workshop. Clearly, over the years, I too was imbued with the Christmas spirit.

In an older life, when my children were growing up, we did all the usual things families do. We visited Santa and had the obligatory photographs taken; we erected decorations and the crib; on Christmas morning the children lined up in front of it and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Baby Jesus and we followed all the traditions their mum and I had brought from our own childhood homes. To this very day I see many of those traditions have been passed on and are still practised by my now grown-up children with their own young ones.

For the next week, there will be something very special happening at airports, railway stations and ferry terminals. The ‘children’ will be coming ‘home for Christmas’. The enthusiasm and excitement will be palpable as family members rush forward to greet family members. Grandparents will sometimes be meeting grandchildren for the first time and, watching the meeting and greeting, I would challenge anybody not to shed an emotional tear.

Shopping centres, city streets and town squares will be alive with music as carol-singers belt out their favourite carols. O Come All Ye Faithful at one end of the mall will vie with Silent Night at the other, and from some other corner the more sophisticated performers will sing Adeste Fideles in perfect Latin. One or other of the tunes will surely stick in the listeners’ heads and driving home it will be hummed or maybe even sung out loud. So many charities depend to a large extent on the few euro we may have trickled into the collectors boxes.

Lighting a bulb on a Christmas tree has become a popular fund-raiser at this time of year and few of us can resist remembering a loved one with a light lit in his/her honour. The Marymount Christmas Tree is quite a favourite around Cork, especially for those of us who owe a huge debt of gratitude to that institution and the people who work there.

Each year, I wonder at the bravery and fortitude of the many people who ignore the cold and strip off for the Christmas Swim. Who could deny those hardy souls — of suitable age — a quick nip of something to warm them from within before they dash off home to the traditional Christmas fare, the blazing fire in the grate and the joy and excitement of the younger ones as they explore their new toys and forage around the house in search of batteries?

I often wonder how many clocks are left still and silent on Christmas Day as their batteries are ‘borrowed” for a talking doll or small train. Perhaps ‘purloined’ might be a better word. Those of an age to get and enjoy electronic devices are probably better catered for with rechargeable batteries permanently fitted.

I have often talked about how much I admire the young people of today. In my opinion, they are so much better than my generation were when I was growing up. They are socially aware and it seems to me they care. They will readily help out in fund-raising for charitable projects, will form opinions, and most importantly are not afraid to share them. I, for one, have no fears for the future as the young people I see around me grow up and take their places in society.

Young people really bring out the spirit of Christmas and I enjoyed meeting a large group of them one evening last week. I have been associated with scouting in one way or another for most of my life and had occasion to be present at a Christmas dinner put on by The Lough Scout Group in Cork for the Venture sections of the Scouts from their local ‘County” or region.

Venture Scouts’ are aged between 15 and 17. To say I was impressed is a total understatement.

One of the leaders in The Lough Group, Michael Phillips, with the help of some of the youngsters, cooked a full Christmas turkey and ham dinner with all the trimmings. Supported by the current Group Leader, Aoife Rigney, Mike was carrying on a tradition started by the former and late Group Leader of the Lough, Colin Heas, a good friend to many. Colin passed away during the year at a young age. It was a fitting memorial to him.

Sixty young boys and girls, came together that night from different parts of the region and it was quite obvious to the handful of adults present that they were having a wonderful time. They mingled and interacted with ease and clearly had great fun. Some dressed up for the occasion in seasonal costumes and the variety and colours of ‘Christmas jumpers’ were dazzling. One lad went the whole hog and his ‘Christmas gear’ included a bright red tie against a dark shirt and a bright red jacket to match the tie. Of course, it must be said that not a trace of alcohol was to be seen and I didn’t see any of the youngsters nipping out to smoke.

The entertainment consisted of a display of African drumming from Patrick Naughton and an assistant from Cork-based African Drumming Ireland (africandrummingireland. com). Patrick divided the group into two groups of 30 each and led each in turn through a series of different beats, smoothly blending one beat with another until the young people were producing excellent drum music to which some of them performed impromptu dances. All the while the enjoyment glowed through every pore in the bodies of the participants.

Occasions like that are, for me, what Christmas is all about and it was wonderful to see the teenagers entering into the spirit of the season.

There are other things about Christmas too that have the ability to cheer us and make the season special. For some it is a very special religious event and indeed if we examine the word ‘Christmas’ (derived from Middle English Cristenmasse, literally ‘Christian Mass’) it is clear that the season is generically Christian.

What would a Cork city or county Christmas be like without the Holly Bough? In the old days it was often a source of some argument as various family members vied with one another for the crossword. Easy access to photocopiers has solved that problem.

The traditional Christmas fare on our tables, fresh from the oven with the aroma pervading the whole house, is a joy on Christmas Day. The left-overs and turkey sandwiches on St Stephen’s Day were my particular favourite.

I recall too with great nostalgia Christmas morning; out of bed at an unearthly hour; the children running down to the tree to see what Santa brought; me trying to capture the excitement on a silent Super 8 movie; taking turns to open our gifts; building up the fire and lighting it early in the morning; beach walks on St Stephen’s Day; in my young days the St Stephen’s Night dance in the local hall, and overall the wonder and magic in the eyes of the children.

For some strange reason, every Christmas morning we found some red thread caught on a sharp corner on our chimney breast and marvelled at how Santa had snagged his suit when he dropped down our chimney. He must have found it a bit narrow too because every Christmas morning there was a big dollop of soot on our hearth and the perfect imprint of a wellington boot in it. If we had checked we might have learned that Santa wore the same size boots as I did.

I’d like to wish all my readers a happy, memorable and enjoyable Christmas.

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