News Ian O'Doherty

Friday 29 August 2014

Stress, aggro, Noël neurosis -- have a Happy Christmas!

Published 25/12/2013 | 02:30

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Essential viewing: It’s not Christmas without ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's just rampant, rapacious commercialism. Yeah, yeah, I know. We're meant to be above such grubbiness. Yeah, yeah, I know all the arguments against Christmas.

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And I don't care. I love it. In fact, Christmas means a lot to me.

I reckon this uncharacteristically enthusiastic response is the result of having a mother who seemed to mainline on the stress of the whole thing. And, as someone who was an only child until I was 14, this meant that I got to see that stress up close and personal.

It was all well-intentioned, of course, and having parents stressing out in their efforts to make sure their Precious Little Mistake (we always had weird pet names for each other) had a good Christmas is hardly a big complaint. But the one thing I learned from back then is that if you take a step back you can see that so much of it is simply self-inflicted aggro that you can just ignore.

The Christmas dinner, for example, was always a minefield. In a classic case of self-inflicted Noël neurosis, the Ma would insist on doing the dinner by herself. This would result in an undeniable beautiful feast being put in front of us before she'd freak out and accuse everyone of being happy to sit on their arses watching Only Fools And Horses while she was left to slave away in the kitchen on her own.

This was hardly rational behaviour, but rational thinking doesn't feature very highly at this time of the year.

In fact, I still gape in amazement at the levels of anxiety people put on themselves when it comes to making the dinner, so by the time it's ready eat, everyone's half jarred and their stomachs are a ball of nervous tension from all the simmering, barely suppressed angst that surfaces in every family.

But me? It's my favourite part of the day.

Where once I got up early for presents, now it's for It's A Wonderful Life. It's on RTÉ tomorrow morning and, for me, it's simply not Christmas without it.

Sure, I've got the DVD somewhere, but it's not the same. So, like a big sap, I'll be sitting on the couch, big goofy grin on my face, silently mouthing the dialogue of the greatest, darkest Christmas movie ever made: "What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary" -- hackneyed in any other circumstances, it slays me every time.

In an entirely coincidental development, the last 10 minutes of that movie is also the time when the veg absolutely, positively has to be prepped -- which is obviously the reason why tears are always, always streaming down my cheeks by the time Clarence gets his wings. Those onions can really sting the eyes, don't you know.

But we certainly won't be watching Up this Christmas Day -- Sky showed it a couple of years ago and within the first 15 minutes, my wife was bawling her eyes out and accusing me of trying to ruin her Christmas by insisting we watch the saddest movie she had ever seen. I won't be making that mistake again, I can assure you.

In fact, avoiding mistakes is the key to having a good day. Every year, I get the usual order (turkey, ham and smoked ham -- but no goose. I tried that once it was a waste of money for very little meat) from my butcher, Derek of Ennis Butchers. Anytime I mention him I'm accused of being involved in some corrupt journalist/ butcher payola scam but guaranteed quality from a local producer is something that should be screamed from the rooftops (although he does tell a rather terrifying tale of one customer who had a full-on psychotic episode in the middle of his shop when she thought he had mistakenly sold her ham. He hadn't.).

So, the turkey goes on around noon and rather than freaking out, kitchen time is spent checking, tasting, prodding and pretending I'm a cook.

Although I did try to get all inventive a couple of years ago when I decided to do the sprouts in the ham's water. Brussels sprouts cooked in savagely salted water tasted like a sodium time bomb in the mouth and managed to rather spoil the whole thing.

However I always console myself at the fact that that mistake pales into comparison with one friend's rather epic disaster a few years ago -- he cooked a turkey in a roasting bag for the first time but didn't factor that change in the cooking time. When he returned from visiting the in-laws and checked the bird, there was nothing left but a bag of bones and liquefied meat. Yikes.

No, I have everything locked down -- the dogs have had their Christmas haircut, the tree is standing guard over the presents beneath, ready for them to the swapped at midnight tonight, to be cooed and ahhed over as Sam the terrier buries himself in the discarded wrapping paper.

As I look at the tree, I see the handknitted Christmas stocking take pride of place. A reader made it herself and sent it to me a few years ago and, as much as we all want to forget about work on this of all days, such a sweet gift deserves an important and valued position right at the top of the tree, beside the star (thanks April, for that).

And... you know what?

This one is going to be ace. The last few have been muted, and the memory of that Christmas afternoon spent visiting my wife's oldest friend in the ICU in the Mater (Fergal died at the age of 38 a few days later) will linger forever.

Of course, this is a time for remembering those who didn't make it and the memory of Fergal, and the echoes of my parents, are never far from the mind.

But as much as the living have a responsibility to remember the dead, we have an even greater duty to those who are still around and that's what makes this day truly special.

So you know what? Have a blast tomorrow. Seriously, treat yourself.

You've earned it.

We all have.

Irish Independent

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