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Dublin Report The heart is warmed by ghosts of Christmases past

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

When the first sprinkles of tinsel glitter in shop windows, when the lights twinkle in city streets and newspapers remind you that there are only so many shopping days left, you hear the first of the annual protesters.

"Christmas is a joke! Nothing but commercialism, just an excuse to get you to spend more hard earned money."

In the immortal words of Ebenezer Scrooge, "Humbug!"

In more than 30 years of meeting all sorts of people in all of the various permutations of what is known as the human condition, I cannot recall meeting even one person who was all good or bad.

Nor can I remember meeting any who genuinely hated Christmas.

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There are many who harshly criticize the indisputable commercialism and the crassness of its occasionally tawdry sentimentality. They certainly have a point.

But even the heaviest of that criticism expresses a deep longing for a feeling washed away in the tide of our very young lives. It is the real meaning of Christmas.

I think that I get closer to it even as I grow older. But each year it fades away like a wisp of smoke from a Christmas candle.

It draws us forward, even as it tugs us back. It measures passing time, yet ignores the ravages and changes it has brought in its wake. It evokes sadness and melancholy. Yet always a paradox within a mass of improbable paradoxes, it continues to herald joy and cheer, even in the midst of the greatest despair.

It steals us back to our childhood, back to the silent, introspective moments. It dispels our adult certainties and drags us back to a time when, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how much poverty there was, Christmas remained an event to be welcomed by all.

One of the most recurring memories of mine had nothing to do with toys and less to do with a Christmas tree.

I was a boy sliding along glittering icy patches on a Dublin street. The frosty moon, bobbing between the chimney tops, winked at me. I was going to early morning Mass in Donore Avenue. I must have been all of 7 years old. I was on my own and I felt elated. The excitement was intense. It was Christmas morning. Breakfast and presents waited back in our house with my parents. Surprises were in store.

The intense cold loaned an edge to the anticipated warmth of the roaring fire in the family hearth.

But it was the church I remember most of all, the church with its blazing lights, the lavishly decorated crib on the side altar and, most of all, the people, blowing their hot breath on their freezing hands.

On no other day of the year was there such a feeling of unity. We were all passengers in this occasionally cruel ship of life.

Old, young, the sick and the well, blended in perfectly together. Smiles were exchanged between neighbors, friends and even former enemies. It was so palpable that you could almost reach out and touch it. The hymns that were sang, the age-old liturgy of the church droned in Latin, never seemed so much in place.

It was a miracle of sorts, a collective miracle. Some of the neighborhood gang was there as well. And, afterward, with the moon on our shoulders, we pranced back to our houses.

"What did yeh get?" was the most common question. And the answers? Oh, the glorious answers!

"A game." "An annual." "A gun and a holster — and a train set!"

A train set! Now, that was posh.

Ever since, when anybody asks me for an opinion about the real meaning of Christmas, I can only say that it is a feeling, an emotion.

It is based on innocence and faith. That is probably why it is more about children than anybody. But it is also about adults. Vainly, they attempt to recapture a feeling that is probably no longer in reach.

It is the innocence and that love we still seek. The longing of Christmas is for the restoration of that childish innocence. That is really what it is all about, innocence and an inherent belief in the seemingly impossible.

That is probably why I cannot recall ever meeting anybody who truly dislikes Christmas.

I never told my parents when I discovered that Santa Claus did not really exist. I had suspected it for some time. And I stayed awake, one eye open, as they crept into the bedroom, placing the presents on the floor. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that I knew for quite some time after. I didn’t want to take away their pleasure in their childish deception.

Remembering Christmas is to remember ourselves as we were. That’s what loans the season the tinge of sadness. To remember ourselves as we were, is to remember all those who once peopled our lives, many now, inevitably gone.

We try to recreate that same spirit for our children. And that is why Santa Claus will never die, so long as people remain.

For others, of course, however golden their memories of better times, the year 2000 will begin grimly on he streets of Dublin.

One of the most disheartening sights is the growing number of homeless people, mostly young, mainly on drugs, who sleep rough on the streets. In the year of Our Lord 1999, there are an estimated 2,500 homeless Irish people in Dublin. Huddled figures, wrapped in blankets, stretched in darkened doorways are ironic counterpoints to the tune of the Celtic Tiger.

Perhaps it is an inevitable result of change. And the island of Ireland has certainly changed beyond all imagination as we stretch into the second millennium.

My father was right, as it turned out. A perpetual emigrant and a perennial optimist, he often expressed his wish to be here to greet the year 2000. His forecast was that it would be a time of plenty for Ireland. As a man who valued education more than anything, he always confidently predicted that young Irish people would be among the best educated in the world.

I only wish that both my mother and he were still on earth to greet Christmas 1999. I really do feel that there are great years ahead for this little island.

But then, come to think of it, there were great years in the past as well.

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