The childhood Christmases that still hover in my own subconscious at this time of year…

I’m not a big fan of Christmas kicking off in October, or November for that matter. Time enough, for me anyway, the beginning of December. Maybe it’s just an ageing thing as I have, in recent months, rising to the greater heights of becoming a pensioner; but I genuinely don’t think that that’s the case. In truth, I believe it’s more of a memory thing and most likely a rose-tinted memory thing. So, I’ll try not to pontificate too much about the evils of profiteering and exploitation in the world we now find ourselves living in.

No, today I only mean to share with you the childhood Christmases that still hover in my own subconscious at this time of year, after which you can all go,’Oh, for goodness sake, get a life – that was over six decades ago!’ But you might want to tune in just for a while anyway, to see if my memories bear some resemblance to yours and if so, I hope they can relate to yours in a good way.

First of all, I was lucky. Lucky that my working-class parents were made of the stuff all parents ought to be made of – kindness. But it was kindness with a caveat and that caveat was strictness. Love was always unconditional but my brother, sister and I knew there were set boundaries to our behaviour and should we cross them, there were consequences. Much to my shame, I was probably definitely the sibling who overstepped those boundaries the most.

We seldom felt worse off, although I realised much later in life that there had never been much money about. In most of the dog-eared and yellowing photographs that remain in old family albums, my sister and I are almost always dressed in clothes made by our mother, including one of us with Santa in Belfast Co-op. We are both wearing coats lovingly created by our industrious and practical mum using an old Singer sewing machine. It’s a shame that I can’t say the same for her haircutting skills but we won’t talk about that here.

That visit to Santa’s grotto remains one of the overriding memories of my childhood, not least of all because it was the one day every year when our family ventured up to Belfast from that faraway municipality of Portadown. I do not remember much about the Co-op building itself, only the twisting pathway leading to the grotto where ceiling lights twinkled their magic stardust over my head and a miracle of forever snow settled on the antlers of improbably stiff reindeer behind picket fencing and out of reach of little hands. Then the grotto itself, were in a corner lay boxes labelled by age and sex, with presents for all the children who had been ‘good’. If I sat on Santa’s knee and was asked what I wanted, I am sure I must have asked for something small, and I must have been good enough, for one year I was on the receiving end of a plastic yellow saxophone that produced bubbles in the bath. It was one of the rare brand new toys that I can remember receiving, the other being a brunette-haired doll with brown eyes that I silently seethed about for years because my sister had been given the blond, blue-eyed equivalent. I’m only admitting this now because to show ingratitude then was frowned upon and being grateful was a natural part of our conditioning. Every Christmas day without fail, we were squeezed into the back of the family Hillman Minx and began the ‘Are we there yet?’ journey to our aunt and uncle’s house. It was pre-M1 days of course and the journey on bad roads seemed interminable. Armagh – Caledon – Aughnacloy – Augher – Clogher, and then the final destination, Fivemiletown. Christmas dinner was always made up of the same fare – local turkey, chipolata sausages, spuds, sprouts, carrots and of course, that special gravy that I could never manage to emulate since. Pudding and Christmas cake were interesting as my sister hated currants (slipped surreptitiously to me), I couldn’t stand marzipan (sneaked to my brother), and we all fought over the sixpences packaged in parchment paper inside the pudding, despite the fact that they probably broke a few teeth over the years.

It all sounds rather schmaltzy now of course, as I haven’t mentioned the harder parts although they too, stay on in my memory. It is not that they don’t matter but sometimes, especially now, I just think we have enough negativity around us without adding to it even more. I remember happy times and that’s good enough for me. It has been enough that the Christmases between then and now have been filled with a diversity I hadn’t anticipated – a best friend, Jewish, who celebrated (and still does) the festival of Christmas the same as her Christian counterparts, a husband (Muslim) who always dressed the tree with his children without a hint of irony, Roman Catholic and Protestant friends who shared their company and generosity in shindigs at our home; all these things are what Christmas continues to mean for me. And if you’ve read this far, I know that you’re all dying to hoke out that old black and white photo of you with Santa at the old Co-op.

Happy Christmas Sluggers!

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