This Christmas story of mine has been published in this Christmas (2016) edition of ‘Ireland’s Own.’
Every December it happens. Bing Crosby comes on the radio crooning ‘White Christmas.’ And instantly I am ghosting back, back through the years. Back to that old schoolhouse on the Rocklow road where the Patrician Brothers taught primary school. Seated once more in that mud-coloured classroom where I first learned the words of the song.
I see the bulky figure of Brother Lazarian, a weary look on his face as he contemplates us, the boys of fifth and sixth class and the task ahead. He is sitting at his portable organ, hands poised over the keys about to start a music lesson. Now, music lessons are mostly devoted to drumming patriotic ballads into our thick skulls: ‘The Minstrel Boy’ or ‘The West’s Awake.’ Or Latin hymns such as ‘Tantum Ergo.’ But it is December, Christmas is creeping ever closer. So, he has been teaching us some carols. Already we can sing ragged versions of ‘Silent Night’ and ‘The First Noel.’ And today, to our astonishment, he begins teaching us ‘White Christmas,’ a Bing Crosby song he tells us.
He plays it through on the organ. The nostalgic melody and the heart-tugging, sentimental lyrics create a longing in me, draw me completely into the dream-world of the song: images of snow, sleigh bells and glistening tree-tops that are worlds away from the drab classroom I sit in. Through the window I see only the bareness and greyness of December: the leafless trees and stone walls that enclose the school-yard. Winter has drained my world of colour. The dull December days drag by, Christmas seems a century away.
Every day I gaze through that window dreaming of a white Christmas, imagining a bright, white world outside. A dazzling, glistening world. In dreams I escape the tedium of vulgar fractions, multiplication tables, parts of speech. And the slow drag of days to Christmas.
I can’t get the words and images of the song out of my head. I hum or sing it quietly, fervently, to myself. As if allowing that glittering, make-believe world to possess my imagination would somehow make it real, make a white Christmas come to pass.
A merciless rap of Bro. Lazarian’s knuckles on my skull brings me back to reality.
‘Will ya wake up outa that, ya dyin’ spideog,’ he says.
As soon as the bell signals the end of our school day we are off, racing down to the Main St. The Christmas toys have been on display in Tommy O’Connell’s shop window since early November. That window draws us in with all the allure of Aladdin’s cave, lighting up our lives and that dark street in the cold grey evenings of December. We huddle in that light, creeping cold from the pavement numbing our feet, bare legs freezing, darkness gathering at our backs as we gaze at the gleaming new, brightly-coloured toys. Drops yo yoing on the tips of our noses. Pointing out what we are getting for Christmas, the toys that we are paying for with whatever few shillings we can scrape together. I long for Christmas day to be here. Darkness and hunger finally drive us home and no, my mother says, sure we never get snow at Christmas, then seeing my dejected face, she says, you’d never know though, we might get some this Christmas.
The last school day before Christmas arrives. Br. Lazarian has told us that we will mark the day with a party. Which will be something new for all of us: nobody in the class has ever had a party or even been to one. Only American kids in films have parties. On the day of the party, since none of us have toys, we bring in comics: Dandies, Beanos, Beezers, glossy-covered Dell comics, sixty-four page ‘Commando’comics; most of them tattered and dog-eared from countless swappings.
Round about mid-morning Lazarian comes hulking through the door carrying a giant steaming teapot. He grimaces his way from desk to desk pouring sickly-sweet tea with milk and sugar already added into chipped enamel mugs. Platefuls of thickly- buttered, slightly- stale barmbrack from Fethard bakery are laid before us and quickly reduced to piles of sticky crusts. When the gorging is finished we sing our repertoire of carols and songs, finishing off with ‘White Christmas.’
The last few days to Chrismas seem endless: the postman comes late along The Valley with bike and bulging bag; we decorate the kitchen with coloured streamers while Christmas tunes pour from the radio: ‘Silver bells, silver bells…. soon it will be Christmas Day’ Jim Reeves sings, making our longing ever more intense. Secretly I go outside, look up at the sky, and wonder – will there be snow? I will it to fall from the grey sky and transform my world. But no, nothing.
My brother, Jim and I hike off to the wood at Grove in search of berried holly to decorate the pictures in our kitchen. There is none to be found.
My brothers and I drive our mother crazy mooning around the house longing for Christmas day to come, me annoying her, asking, will there will be snow, d’ya think we’ll have a white Christmas, Mam?
A diversion arrives in the shape of a turkey, won by our father at cards. A live, scuttering turkey. We house it in the vacant back room, watch it pace about on stringy legs scuttering freely, gazing intently at us with tilted head and accusing eye like a condemned man on Death Row. When the father comes home he swiftly wrings its neck and we pluck it, laughing madly in a blizzard of downy feathers. The mother lights some newspapers to singe off the spiky remnants of feathers; then we watch, revolted and fascinated, as she draws its guts out onto old newspapers.
Christmas Eve comes and our mother gives us the balance of what we owe on the guns and holsters that we have been paying for with our pocket money at Tommy O’Connell’s. We bring them home in an absolute welter of excitement.
At last it is Christmas morning and the mother is waking us for early Mass, I can hear the kindling crackling on the fire that she’d lit when she came in from the six o’clock Vigil Mass. The air in the kitchen is rich with that intoxicating Christmas aroma: the lingering scent of boiled ham, the ingredients of freshly-made stuffing and the aroma of boiling water on jelly for the trifle, testament to our mother’s work late into the night while we slept and dreamed. The turkey that had lately stalked our back room is stuffed and trussed and ready for the oven. The mother coaxes us into drinking a mouthful of tea: ‘for fear ye’d faint during Mass,’ she says.
Off with us then to first Mass, running across the Convent bridge through the darkness and mystery of Christmas morning. Mass passes in a sleepy blur of glowing candles and rapid-fire Latin. When Mass ends we kneel briefly at the crib then sprint through Mass goers exchanging Happy Christmases in the chapel yard, bursting to get home to our toys.
Back in the kitchen we rip away the brown paper wrapping that the mother has put on our toys, strap on our guns and holsters, load up with caps, then rush back out into the still-dark morning.
‘We’re Texas Rangers,’ Pat shouts: and away we go, storming down The Valley banging away madly on our cap-guns, short blue flashes from the exploding caps flickering crazily round our heads. Our noses tingle with the sharp tang of sulphur. We mill around excitedly and soon the Sayer’s brothers, the Coffey’s and the Littleton’s join us: all wearing guns and holsters or toting repeating Winchester rifles.
All thoughts of snow have vanished. Away to the east the first grey light of Christmas morning breaks across the foothills of Sliabhnamon, glitters on the morning star in the cold, clear sky.
The day glows, gleams, passes like a dream. We eat, we drink as we have never eaten or drunk on any other day of the year. The radio hums all day with Chrismas carols and hymns. By evening we are sated. Lolling around on chairs.
But nobody wants to let go of the day, we have been so long waiting for it to come and now, as it draws to a close we want to squeeze just a little more from it. Weariness finally gets the better of us and we prepare for bed, tired, sleepy.
Before going to bed I follow my mother out onto The Valley. A strange stillness haunts the Christmas air all around, an end of day stillness deeper than the deepest silence. There is no sound, no snow, no sleigh bells ringing or tree-tops glistening. I have no need of them now for a million stars fill the sky above our little town. Without speaking we gaze upwards into the starry night and I wonder which is the Star of Bethlehem and if the Wise Men are already on their way.