We won’t be posting much over Christmas, so while we’re off eating our own weight in Cadbury’s Roses, watching Doctor Who and Upstairs Downstairs, and trying to stop children and pets climbing the Christmas tree, we’ll leave you with these memories of Christmas past from several of the Anti-Roomers…
There is no other point in the calendar year that has a mythology quite like Christmas. It’s essentially the trophy cabinet of memories and, if you’re lucky, a place that is home to lots of our happiest moments. Settling on a definitive Christmas to write about proved tricky. There are multiple childhood ones, including the year we all got bikes. My brother’s Santa belief was shattered after hearing my poor dad, sweaty and swearing, trying to wrestle a Raleigh racer through the porch doors at 3am. Then there are the adult ones: trying to explain to my parents the expensive underwear bought for me by my first boyfriend; the much-anticipated visits home from my older brother who lived in Australia; the American man I spent three days with the previous summer who wrote twice a week and flew to Dublin to ask me to marry him; the year I felt off-colour, not realising a clot the size of a tennis ball was forming in my lung (hello, leukemia!); the Christmas week I lost my job and my husband proposed on the same day; my sixth month old son in a Santa babygro. The latter ones have their own significance, but one momentous Nollaig has become lore in my family. It was the early 80s and is burned into the collective Gleeson memory as “The Year of the Millennium Falcon”.
Few kids born in the 1970s were immune from the intergalactic lure of Star Wars. As an only girl with two brothers, I was no different. We watched the films and cried when Yodo died (I also did when Luke Skywalker got his hand chopped off, but mainly because I had accidentally locked myself in a toilet in the Ambassador cinema). Like all good devotees, there was merchandise binging. We had an X-wing Fighter, Darth Vader’s TIE-fighter, an AT-AT walker and a cardboard Death Star, complete with moveable wall for recreating the garbage crushing scene. We had figures with brilliant names (Hammerhead, Boba Fett) and challenging faces (Admiral Ackbar, Greedo) and I owned three different Princess Leias. It never occurred to me that a) there were no other significant female characters in the films or b) that I was as entitled to own Lando Calrissian as Leia. Regardless, hours were spent making up our own games, using various parts of the house as locations (a hollowed out beanbag made an ideal pit of Sarlacc).
That fateful Christmas, we asked for Han Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. It was the ultimate in Star Wars memorabilia – there was nothing better. Three letters were duly dispatched to the North Pole, hoping that the triple request would be as powerful as crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. On Christmas morning, we raced downstairs with our bleary-eyed parents in tow. Santa had arrived and been good to us. Three sets of eyes swept the room in panic – where was it? Not wanting to seem ungrateful, we didn’t say a word and happily opened our other gifts. My brothers smiled cheerily but could barely hide their heart-dropping disappointment. In our kitchen, there was a second Christmas tree and my dad, in one of his unsubtlest moments, feigned curiosity: “I wonder if Santa left anything in the kitchen?”. Sure enough, under a fake silver tree, there she was: the “ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs”. There was collective screeching. One brother leapt on my dad with a hug. The other one started crying. It was the childhood equivalent of winning the Lotto or bagging an Oscar. Such crazy joy over a lump of grey plastic. A few minutes later when we had all held it – awestruck, examining its fake floorboards (for Han Solo’s smuggler runs), the chessboard and the cockpit – clarity kicked in. My younger brother asked my Dad what we were all thinking: how he knew it was in the kitchen? Coughing to buy time, his brain conjuring a response, he stared at the ship. “Oh, I, er, came down in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and spotted it”. We all nodded understandingly. It didn’t matter whether we believed him or not. The Millennium Falcon was HERE.
Christmas morning 1981 at some ridiculous hour: I’m padding about half dressed amid a jungle of wrapping paper, Lego kits and stray Sindy shoes. Santa’s bounty unwrapped; my siblings and I dabble in the delights of selection boxes while appraising new treasures with chocolate-smeared fingers. My mother is feigning surprise at the existence of some Star Wars figure or other while drinking tea anad my father is behind a camera recording it all for the years to come.
Mam, at 32 in green cord dressing gown and sleep-tousled hair smiling at the chaos and wincing at the high-pitched shrieking of her four young children. She looks utterly content.
Christmas 2010, I’m 32 and my Christmas morning will no doubt be further removed from hers at this age than either of us could ever have imagined.
Apart from the happiness.
My work Christmas party has been postponed because of the snowpocalypse. I am disappointed, not because I won’t get the opportunity to drink my body weight in free plonk, but because I now won’t get a chance to have a recce at my new colleagues when they are at their most vulnerable. (Insert evil cackle here).
I had planned to stay on the sidelines for this, my first viewing of the office folks with their prosecco goggles on. If I remember work Christmas parties – and I do, patchily – they reveal more about Ted from Accounts in one shot-slamming night than an entire year of nods over the watercooler. Ted doesn’t in fact live with his mother and have a room dedicated to Star Wars toys, all still in their original boxes. Ted plays in a heavy metal band at the weekend and has groupies who have tattooed his stage name – Profane Master of Slaughter – with an ink-stained safety pen on their forearm.
So Christmas parties can be educational. They can also be evil. I agree with the thrust of this article in The Irish Times which suggests that there is not always veritas in vino. Overdoing it on the alcohol can make you do and say things that don’t necessarily reflect how you feel about a person or situation.
True, I’ve been there when someone told the boss that they are a pompous ass and it was clearly an explosion of the frustration they were feeling from having been recently passed over for a promotion. But one year I made a holy show of myself by drinking too much of the free Sexy Santa cocktail on offer and telling a colleague how much they irritated me. I believe it went along the lines of, “Everyone thinks you’re funny, but you earn cheap laughs by making someone else the butt of the joke.” I don’t know where that came from, I didn’t feel that way about the person when I was sober and I spent the next week apologising to them for the outburst.
It taught me a valuable lesson (don’t mix gin with brandy) but it also made me a bit more forgiving to the idiotic stuff I’ve seen others do at Christmas parties. I now feel deeply for the intern who unzipped himself beside the MD of the company at a urinal, looked him up and down appraisingly, and asked, ‘So what do you do?’ Or the girl who vomited on the editor’s wife’s jacket one year and didn’t appear to notice.
I’m still not sure about the guy who kicked me up the backside on the dancefloor another year. It was incredibly humiliating but his work bros told me later that he fancied me. In which case, I wish he had resorted to pulling my pigtails or twanging the strap of my training bra. It would have been no more mature but much less aggressive.
We could probably all benefit from looking at the Christmas work do as if it is akin to Christmas Day with the family. Acknowledge in advance that alcohol and the novelty of informality will lead to tension, sexual or otherwise. And don’t beat yourself up too much if you end up snogging a member of the work family – it might be inadvisable, but at least it’s not illegal.
The Rules of Christmas
Santa always left presents at the end of the bed, and they were never wrapped. Different rules applied in other households but we didn’t question this.
We all had to attend 10 o’clock mass together.
After mass, dad had to spend an agonisingly long time having coffee. Only after he had drained his cup could the non-Santa present opening begin.
All presents had to be put into a gigantic Santa sack and doled out by Dad, wearing a Santa hat – this continued well into the teens and twenties of his offspring.
Nobody could open any presents until everybody had ALL their presents.
We always had turkey soup for lunch, followed by trifle.
Christmas dinner was eaten in the rarely-used dining room.
It was always about an hour later than its originally scheduled time and was accompanied by much maternal fretting about the hotness or otherwise of the food.
Dad delivered his annual speech, always ending with the words ‘Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís’.
We never once strayed from the turkey and ham formula. Cranberry sauce never put in an appearance.
Crackers could not be pulled until dessert was served – too messy. Pudding was always accompanied by brandy butter. The cake always had the same tiny snow-covered house and giant plastic robin stuck into the icing snow.
Dinner was followed by TV, dozing, possibly a card game and always Roses, never Quality Street.
They were the rules of our childhood Christmas in my parents’ house. We’re all grown up now, and the family is too big to recreate it. We all loved its familiarity, and wouldn’t have changed anything.
My Mum’s one of seven, and throughout my childhood and into adulthood, Christmas was the time when the clan gathered, squealed, argued over who ate the green triangles in the Quality Street, who got the best seat for the Corrie special, whose turn it was to open the next bottle of wine. Christmas, for me, is all about noise, chaos, and family.When I had my own family, I assumed, it’d be just like that.
Huh. My first Yuletide as a mother found me thousands of miles from extended family, hallucinating with sleep deprivation, walking the floors with a tiny baby who had no concept of sleeping for Santa. Our relatives, eight hours ahead and desperate to see the new baby, had left eighteen voicemail messages by the time we dragged ourselves out of bed. Bowing to the requests to switch on the webcam before anyone became too half-cut to operate a computer, we literally tore through the unwrapping of presents then dialed into Christmas. There they all were; crammed around the PC in my parents’ spare room, party hats askew, beaming with season’s delights and the slightly surreal experience of watching a baby through a computer (this was 2005, before we all took Skypeing utterly for granted). The webcam panned shakily from one of them to the next, accents and gestures as familiar to me as my own, warmth beaming through cyberspace. It was Christmas.
Then we said goodbye and switched off the camera, and Christmas evaporated. Instead of crackers and daft, generations-old jokes, and someone cooking the world’s biggest roast, we were once again two exhausted foreigners with a bit of tinsel and a magical but non-sleeping infant. It was too much for even my natural optimism. I looked at my husband and burst into tears. He sent me back to bed, and heroically cooked an enormous roast whilst juggling the baby.
Five years and two countries later, we’re home for Christmas. We’re going nowhere, but we’ve invited everyone we care about to spend it with us. There will be arguing over the Quality Street, and endless cooking, and endless laughter. Our two boys, five and three now, are beside themselves with excitement. Me too. Nobody’s switching off Christmas this year.
NUALA NÍ CHONCHÚIR
I love Christmas. We didn’t have Santa Claus in our house – he didn’t give us presents, our parents did. I’m not sure why that was but I presume it was to do with my parents being very Catholic. Anyway, our Christmases were magical – I loved the ritual of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve; the baby Jesus going into the crib on the morning of the 25th; the enormous dinner; all the goodies; and, best of all, Coca Cola in glass bottles – the glamour! We also had (still have) a tradition that I haven’t seen in other’s homes of having a baby doll in a basket under the tree as Jesus in the manger.
For years our presents weren’t wrapped then my eldest sister took on the work of Christmas and made it even more magical – beautifully wrapped pressies that went under the tree (tantalisingly) on Christmas Eve. With everyone home (9 of us), boxes of Lemon’s Santy sweets being passed around and Willy Wonka on the TV, life didn’t get any better.
My second eldest sister died on 23rd December nine years ago. That has made Christmas very bitter-sweet for our family but we are still a gang of Christmas nuts. Hearing carols she liked, particularly the old-fashioned ones like Gaudete or Silent Night in Irish, makes me well up in the days leading to Christmas. But once the day itself has arrived, I feel fine. I like nothing more than spending the day at home with my own kids and my husband, staying nicely tipsy for the day and eating half a ton of Roses. Bliss.
Nollaig shona to all the Anti-Room readers.
It is Christmas Eve in Baggot Street, and my mother packs three of her five grown-up children, with our clothes and books and presents, into her car, with the dog draped over our knees having her ears untangled. For the first time I can remember, we are leaving Dublin at Christmas. Darkness has fallen, and the car creeps along the Rock Road with the last of the shoppers taking their wrapping paper and perishable luxuries home to Blackrock and Monkstown and Dun Laoghaire. We have shaken the worst of the traffic by the time we turn onto the dual carriageway, and once we’re on the little road through Glenealy and Rathdrum, the drive is a black and quiet one, interrupted occasionally by a flash of headlights pointing to Dublin.
I don’t know how to celebrate Christmas in any way other than the way we always have, with pillowcases and morning Mass in University Church, or Clarendon Street if we’re late, which is not unheard of, and then the aunts arriving for turkey and vodka and tonic, bringing unnecessary extra puddings and tins of Quality Street and boxes of chocolates. Christmas is about ritual and tradition, the deserted, Sunday feeling of town, hot baths with crumbled bath cubes, and lying on the carpet watching television in the peaceful certainty that on this day of the year no unexpected visitor will ring the doorbell. My father doesn’t care for unexpected visitors. Christmas is not about a rural laneway whose apparently dead end leads to a half-restored house which is not yet properly wired, nor plumbed. The only electricity available is from a single temporary flex and power point into the kitchen, into which we plug a gangboard and as many appliances as we dare.
Christmas is not about stepping into the pitch dark garden to go to the loo in a bush before bed – or worse, waking in the middle of the night, and finding yourself unable to put off a torchlit garden wee. But my parents have given up their city life for Wicklow, and Christmas will be where they are.
When my mother finally makes the sequence of gear changes that I have come to recognise as meaning we’re arriving at the gate of the house and descending the rutted drive, I am ready for the moonless night with the big torch that takes a battery as thick as my thigh. I struggle out of the hot car into the shock of freezing Wicklow. The car is parked on a slope, and the door swings shut against me and bangs my hip, so I am already muttering when I rummage in the boot for my rucksack and all the extra plastic shopping bags I’ve brought for this stay. I hear my father’s voice raised in greeting, and turn to the house for the first time. Soft yellow light spills from every window. I have never seen this electricity-free house lit like this. None of us has. Inside, we find that my sister and father have put tealights and candles on every windowsill and table. They have lit two vast fires, and somehow outwitted the chimneys so that hardly any smoke stings my eyes. The dining table is laid with the same pale Italian tablecloth and napkins I’ve seen every Christmas I can remember, and shines with the same polished silver and huge crystal goblets from which we are now judged old enough to drink wine. It looks like some sort of medieval feast, and is by a distance the prettiest start to a Christmas I have ever had.
“Thank God we don’t have electricity,” my father says, when he’s filled the glasses. Despite the fires, it’s so cold in the house we have kept our overcoats on, and I have to push my scarf down from my face to take a sip. “Spoil the effect entirely.”
My mother carries her glass up the steps to the kitchen.
“You might feel differently tomorrow,” she says. “Christmas lunch isn’t going to appear out of nowhere.”
“Quite right,” he says, “it isn’t. It’s going to appear from the Woodenbridge.”
“The hotel?” I ask.
“Yes. I’ve spoken to the head chef, a marvellous fellow, and all we have to do is bring the turkey down ready to go into the oven, and in it’ll go, along with their own turkeys, and out again when the time comes, crisp and golden, and we’ll streel down to collect it.”
This is exactly what happens. We have two-ring electric hob from someone’s bedsit, and a strange electric cooking pot from someone else’s, which we plug into the temporary socket. We put the vegetables on when the call comes from the chef at the Woodenbridge, and they are ready by the time my mother comes back up the hill with the hotel-cooked turkey, a vast 18-pounder. My father is delighted with the arrangements and says it has taken all the trouble out of Christmas lunch. Later, we peer at the evening Trivial Pursuit dice, trying to make out the numbers in the candlelight. No-one has the heart to tell my father that the chef has said this is the last year they will be open for Christmas. I think we are all wondering whether we’ll have a functioning oven by next year.
Given the choice of lavatory over oven, though, I’ll take a lavatory every time.