Tuesday 12 December 2017

The gift of an authentic Christmas . . .

This festive season, skip the lines for Santa at your local supermarket and find an enchanting alternative that the whole family will enjoy

Oonagh Montague

Have you ever stood in line to meet Santa Claus at the supermarket? I have. We waited in a queue, hemmed in by shopping bags and over-excited kids. When my daughter and I got to the top the sight of a beckoning Santa in a black bin-bag grotto was enough to change her mind. "I don't like it!" she wailed. Neither did I.

This year I did my research. I was looking for an affordable yet authentic Christmas outing -- one less about the present you're going to get and more about the memories you're going to keep. The good news is, it turns out that Ireland has a lot to offer in the way of an authentic Christmas experience.

Sarah Curley, mother of Cameron (eight) and Sophie (three), has been going to Glenroe farm in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, at Christmas for over 10 years.

"It marks the start of Christmas for our family. I used to go with my mother and now she comes to Glenroe with us. It's a lovely thing to do as a family."

Sarah has tried the supermarket Santa Claus experience but for her there is no comparison.

"For starters, you don't even have to queue. Once you arrive you're given a ticket and off you go around the farm to see the sights. When it's your time to meet Santa Claus someone comes to find you."

Mrs Claus kindly looks after the children in a little house filled with old-fashioned toys before they are brought in to meet her husband.

"Santa Claus is sitting in a huge armchair by an open fire with his slippers warming by the hearth. It's lovely. He takes his time with the kids. The whole thing is so real you get excited yourself."


If you're thinking Glenroe sounds familiar, it is. For those of us old enough to remember, the farm was once home to Dinny, Biddy and Miley from RTE's 'Glenroe'. Dinny's 350-year-old thatched cottage is still there. These days the farm is home to horses, fellabellas, pigs, pigmy goats, sika deer and farm fowl, among others.

There's a petting corner where children can hold rabbits, gerbils and guinea pigs and any adult needing a break from the excitement can go for a stroll through the marshlands of the Wicklow coastline.

According to Sarah, Santa Claus's arrival at Glenroe is something special too. "He arrives by helicopter and is met by Mrs Claus. The kids get so excited. They've been talking about it ever since -- they'll be talking about it for weeks."

Glenroe Farm's Santa Claus arrives by air, but Belvedere Estate's Green Santa arrived over water. Since 2005 the beautiful 18th century estate at Belvedere in Mullingar has been transformed into a magical trail based on 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe' by C S Lewis.

This year, to celebrate the third film installment of the Narnia series, ''The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', Green Santa, wearing his traditional Victorian robes, sailed across Lough Ennell on a boat.

Emily and Tom Wallace and their children Eve (nine), Aimee (four) and Jamie (three) were there to witness it.

"It was magical. That's the only word for it. He came out of the mist, everywhere was white with snow. It was everything Christmas should be."

The Wallaces are huge fans of the year-round experience at Belvedere, but Christmas plays a particularly significant role.

"Christmas for us is not about the quick fix, the gifts, queuing for 10 minutes while you do your shopping. It's about what Christmas means to our family.

"The perception is that these kinds of outings are too expensive but it's actually not. It's not just the Santa visit, it's a whole day spent together. The kids love it, we bring a picnic, explore the grounds, go to the playground, the fairy garden, the lake."

Also refreshing is Green Santa's take on the traditional gift. Instead of a toy he helps the children pot up a native Fir or Holly Tree for them to take home. "It's raw, heartfelt, it's nature."

Says Emily: "It brings the children back to the real value of Christmas."

Louise Keelan from Dublin is a firm advocate of an authentic Christmas experience for her family. Every year Louise, husband Anthony and children Janice (17) and Sean (seven) board the Irish Rail Preservation Society's Santa Steam Train.

"It's a totally different experience to the plastic Santies, as we call them. It's the atmosphere of a real Christmas. Waiting at Pearse Street station in Dublin you can hear the choo-choo and the puff-puff of the steam train coming toward the platform. Santa is leaning out the window waving," says Louise.

"It's very nostalgic -- like being back in the old days."

When the train leaves the station a band travels through the carriages and, according to Louise, everyone gets up to start dancing in the aisles.

"It's done in conjunction with Iarnrod Eireann but Santa Claus, the band and everyone running it are volunteers from the Irish Rail Preservation Society. That makes it even more special. I love it, the kids love it -- it's as if you're suddenly in 'It's A Wonderful Life.'"

Mary Ellen Chase, the famous American school teacher and writer once said: "Christmas is not a date. It is a state of mind." This Christmas season should definitely not be about getting in a state, that's for sure.

So if, this December, you're looking for a magical alternative to your local supermarket grotto then you know where to go. Once you've got the shopping done.

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