I have never spent Christmas in Ireland but I have connected to an Irish Christmas from afar. Growing up in the 1960s with Irish parents, the first sign of the festive season came with the cardboard boxes. We would help my dad to pack securely the handmade Christmas cakes, from a local bakery, and queue at the post office to send them on their journey to my granny and various relatives in Monaghan. These were to acknowledge their hospitality each summer as we visited them. Each hand decorated cake would be encased in a red frilled collar decorated with Christmas stars. Standing proudly on top, Santa or a snowman or maybe a snow tipped Christmas tree fashioned out of plastic. The following summer, Aunt Maggie would have them standing proudly in the window next to the wireless under the picture of the Sacred Heart, to acknowledge our gift.
Next, the boxes of Woolworths Christmas cards would be bought. We would sit down together to write them. I would share the latest news in my childlike hand on faintly lined paper. We would watch the post daily for cards with an Irish stamp. Inside my granny’s a one-pound note would be tucked for us to spend. Cards decorated with “Greetings from Ireland” or the name of one of the various Monaghan villages would take pride of place on the mantlepiece.
Ireland was and still is never far away.
Often a freshly slaughtered turkey would arrive, carefully encased in brown paper and string, lovingly prepared and posted by our Aunty Mary. I wouldn’t like to say if it ever reached our table but it was the thought that counted.
On Christmas Eve, as we waited excitedly for Father Christmas, or Santa as our Irish cousins called him, we would book a call to Ireland through the Irish service and wait for them to call us back when a line was free, often while we lay in the darkness waiting for the sound of sleigh bells.
On Christmas Day itself, my mum would remind us as we ploughed through the wrapping paper and numerous presents, of her Christmas Day in 1930s Ireland – an orange in a stocking and a walk in the snowy darkness of the early morning to participate in three consecutive masses in Latin, all on an empty stomach. Along the way, they would look for light from the Tilly lamp in the neighbours’ windows.
In later years, as we prepared our turkey dinner, the telephone would ring with a call from Ireland. Then, we would tuck into lunch with all the trimmings – red lemonade and Chef sauce of course, carefully stored away from the previous summer holiday and bring to mind images of them gathered around the same table we had spent summer evenings laughing, talking and sharing food. We would imagine their Christmas feast and talk of their traditions.
Ireland was and still is never far away. I have never spent Christmas in Ireland but an Irish Christmas always comes to me.