Saturday 3 December 2016

Childhood ghosts of Christmas past

Praise the Lord and pass the festive TV guide - that was Eilis O'Hanlon's strategy for getting the most out of Christmas

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

Santafied: In Eilis O'Hanlon's day, getting Christmas presents meant pleasing Santa as well as getting on the right side of God
Santafied: In Eilis O'Hanlon's day, getting Christmas presents meant pleasing Santa as well as getting on the right side of God

Growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, the traditional Christmas wish for universal brotherhood always felt like a black joke. Peace on earth? Goodwill toward men? If only. It also seemed much more unfair than usual that there should be violence at the one time of year when everyone was in such a good mood. Though having said that, I don't recall ever asking Santa for world peace. I generally wanted toys and lots of sweets instead.

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Getting them was a hell of a palaver, though. You didn't just have to make sure that you weren't on Father Christmas's naughty list. Apparently God was involved in the deal in some mysterious way. In order to get on the right side of one guy with a big beard up at the North Pole, you had to get on the right side of another, rather less jolly guy with a big beard up in Heaven. That meant going to Confession to prepare for the big day, and not complaining when you were dragged along to Mass, no matter how boring it was. You were happy to do it, because - hello? - presents.

Then Christmas Day would dawn, you'd unwrap your new toys and be settling down to play with them, only to be dragged off to church again. We had the presents, why did we still need to be sucking up to the Almighty? Santa was satisfied with a mince pie. Forcing small children to go to Mass on Christmas Day still doesn't seem right somehow, but that's the way it was. The festive season was a much more religious affair back then than it is now.

After the presents and the relentless God-gratifying, the most memorable thing about Christmas was finding out what was on TV. There was no RTE Guide in Belfast. Up there it was the Radio Times and TV Times. We didn't normally buy them because they were expensive magazines to be getting every week, not least because you needed both of them, one for BBC programmes, one for those on ITV.

As soon as they arrived, some time in mid- December, you'd sit down with them excitedly with a felt-tip pin and mark out everything that you wanted to watch from Christmas Eve through to New Year's Day. There always seemed to be something on worth watching.

That was equally as thrilling in its own way as flicking through the toy section of the catalogue, checking out all the things you'd love to get from Santa but probably wouldn't. George Michael remembers what's important about Christmas as a child. As he puts it in his December Song: "I could believe in peace on earth, and I could watch TV all day."

That didn't happen at other times of the year. You'd either be sent to bed when the interesting stuff came on, or else the adults would be watching the news. They were always watching the news. My own children say I do the same, but they have no idea. Watching the news was practically another religious sacrament in our house as a child.

At the risk of getting nostalgic - though if you can't get nostalgic at Christmas, when can you? - it's not the same any more. Not only because we're older and some of the mystery has been brushed off the holiday, but because this sense of the festive season as a time of gathering round the TV to watch certain programmes is a bit old hat now. In those days, a James Bond film was a special event.

The only time you got to see big blockbuster films was at Christmas, Easter and bank holiday weekends.

The rest of the time, if you wanted to watch Diamonds Are Forever, tough luck. There was no such thing as Netflix. No catching up with shows you'd missed on a laptop or tablet. You couldn't pause and rewind TV. You all had to experience it in real time.

There were certain films that were indelibly associated with Christmas - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Wizard Of Oz, The Sound Of Music, obviously. Also, weirdly, The Great Escape, though why a film about a group of prisoners of war tunnelling out of a Nazi camp was considered particularly festive is anybody's guess.

It wasn't that TV was necessarily better in those days. One of the benefits of the internet is that you can easily look up what was on in years gone by, and what you find when you do is that Christmases in the 1970s and 1980s contained more cheese than a Frenchman's larder. Rubbish, it turns out, is always with us. I'd still watch Dave Allen At Large or the To The Manor Born Christmas Special if they were on this year, but I'm not sure I'd bother with Crossroads.

It's harder to find old copies of the RTE Guide online, but there is one from 1983 that reveals that a highlight of Christmas Day on Irish TV that year was Murphy's Micro Quiz-M, with the top prize of a Ford Transit van. It's hard to pretend that this was some televisual winter wonderland, but that's not the point. It felt like you were part of some special collective experience, whereas now there might still be plenty to watch but everyone does their own thing in their own time.

There is Downton Abbey, I suppose, but last year Himself spent the whole episode listening to his iPod and Himself Junior was playing on his Nintendo DS, so it wasn't quite the same.

On the plus side, no one got dragged to Mass, so a modern Christmas does have its benefits.

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