Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Christmas traditions remind us where we come from'

Making the pudding, hanging festive baubles and the annual Santa visit aren't just habits - they're the stuff of magical memories, writes Carmel Harrington

Family ties: Carmel Harrington has passed on her childhood traditions to her son Nate, 4, and daughter Amelia 5. PHOTO: MARY BROWNE
Family ties: Carmel Harrington has passed on her childhood traditions to her son Nate, 4, and daughter Amelia 5. PHOTO: MARY BROWNE

Carmel Harrington

When I close my eyes and think about Christmas, my mind jumps through an array of snapshots, from early childhood to right now. Scenes of family togetherness with dazzling decorations, carol singing, present giving, feasting on turkey and ham with all the trimmings, parties full of laughter, all jumbled together making a beautiful festive collage.

And do you know what's interesting thing about these childhood memories? The things I remember most, are the moments with my siblings and parents, rather than the gifts I received

Watching It's A Wonderful Life. Playing board games on Christmas Day and catching my nanny cheat at gin rummy. Trying to sneakily pinch a biscuit from the second layer in the tin. Leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Daddy carving the turkey and making a toast to mammy, with a paper hat too small, splitting on his head. Pulling crackers and never winning, but my brother still handing me his prize. Laughter. Sing songs. Charades. Family.

Yes, Santa is there too, quite rightly so, as certain gifts will never be forgotten. Oh how I adored my Holly Hobbie tea-set.

I grew up in a typical Irish house, complete with two parents, a grandmother and three siblings. Fiona is a year older than me and John and Shelley, the twins, a year younger. We each have a slightly over-the-top love for Christmas, no wonder, because we grew up in a house where our parents put their everything into making the holiday special. With age comes understanding, and I know that many sacrifices must have been made, in order to do this.

Childhood visits to Santa dressed in our Sunday best was always followed by a rare treat in a restaurant. Now, with my own children, we continue this tradition. We've travelled in a vintage car to a Georgian house, walked through a wardrobe to Narnia and enjoyed a steam train ride all to meet Santa. Followed by hot chocolate and cake of course. It's magical, every single time, just like it was when I was a child.

Another ritual that is now in its third generation, is the making of Christmas puddings. Fiona, John, Shelley and I would drag kitchen chairs over to the worktop and surround mam as she made hers. We'd each take a turn to stir the batter and throw in a 50p piece whilst making a wish.

Mam says, 'I did the same with your grandmother. It was a sixpence back then though, always silver for good luck.'

Now, when I watch my children close their eyes fervently, when they make their wishes and stir the pudding, I think of my mother and grandmother.

My family unit is relatively new, but we already have our own rituals in place. Most stem from my childhood, but others are created by my husband and I. Our children get to choose one ornament for the tree every year. What they don't know is that when the time comes for them to celebrate Christmas in their own homes, for the first time, I will give them a box filled with these special ornaments, that they've chosen over the years.

My hope is that these baubles will spark memories of their childhood. And maybe one day, with children of their own, they'll do the same for them and think of us.

For my friend Cat, Christmas only begins with the arrival of a special statue. "For as long as I can remember, Christmas began in my house, not with the switching on of lights or the placing of an angel on the tree, but with the ceremonial mounting of the bespectacled Christmas granny in the mini wicker basket on the kitchen door.

"The granny was passed on to my mother, from her mother, as she celebrated Christmas for the first year as a wife. Nearly five decades later, the granny is still on the go, loved as much as an old family friend," she says.

And while this tradition is most definitely unique to the Cat's family, there are others that are shared by families all around the country. As the Smyths Toy Catalogue arrives and children grab their pens to diligently make their Santa wish list, excitement is unparalleled.

Amelia and Nate will mark nearly every item in the catalogue and I'll gently remind them, that Santa Claus cannot possibly bring all the toys to this house. Ruthless culling is done then it's time to write their letters. The innocence and wonder on the faces of my children, as their letters disappear up our chimney, by magic to the North Pole, never fails to render me an emotional mess.

How I spend Christmas Eve is also reminiscent of childhoods past. Sausage rolls and mince pies are baked, resulting in burnt tongues, as impatient little ones can't wait for them to cool. We all get new pyjamas too, as one must look their festive best, on such a special occasion.

Do any of you share the same tradition as us, that of opening just one present early on Christmas Eve? My parents created this tradition out of necessity, as us four were a bit of a handful at times. Mam tells me, "The four of you were always so hyper we had to come up with something to keep you quiet."

With fierce giddiness, we'd poke and prod the family presents under the tree. We didn't want to open a gift of clothes, we just wanted toys, so picking the right gift was of paramount importance. Now, as I watch Amelia and Nate do the very same thing, I feel a connection to my parents.

Our house is always chaotic first thing on Christmas morning, as is the norm in most houses where Santa has been. But for my sister Shelley, my brother-in-law Anthony and his mother Mrs Mernagh, a more sedate start to the day is enjoyed. In a tradition that dates back to the 17th century, every Christmas, novenas are said at St Anne's Grotto. And at The Mass Rock in Tomhaggard, mass is celebrated on Christmas morning.

Shelley says: "In our wellies, we walk through two fields to get to the Mass Rock at 7.30am." Anthony filled me in on the history of this particular tradition. "It all started when local priest Fr Meyler had to take desperate measures to say mass, as his church was burned down by Oliver Cromwell. He was murdered by Cromwell's men as he said Mass on this rock, in 1653."

When the kids are a little older, we'll join them in that field. I like the idea of standing in a spot, where our ancestors stood hundreds of years ago.

The food we eat on Christmas Day often stems from family traditions too. My husband's family never put custard on their trifle. To me, that's like having chips without vinegar. And don't get me started on their choice of YR sauce with turkey sandwiches. Everyone knows it must be Hellman's mayonnaise!

Another friend, Caroline, tells me: "Our children love pancakes and having ice cream for breakfast is just the best thing ever. We discovered this a few years ago when I forgot to buy sausages so we decided to make pancakes instead and the children remind us every year not to forget to make pancakes with ice cream."

But here's the thing. It doesn't matter what our traditions are, as long as we have some. They spark memories of family, love and warmth of holidays passed. They give us our unique identity and tell a story about where we came from.

As a child I didn't understand the importance of this, but now I get it. It's all about creating legacies that are passed down. I think that's kind of wonderful.

Irish Independent

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