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Dermot Bolger: Christmas - a time to pause and take stock of what home really means

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Dublin's O'Connell Street in the 1960s. Photo: RTE

Dublin's O'Connell Street in the 1960s. Photo: RTE

Dublin's O'Connell Street in the 1960s. Photo: RTE

Getting home for Christmas is no foregone conclusion. Ask the Mexican student who spent Christmas week in 2010 alone and bewildered at Dublin Airport after a Swiss girl invited him to visit her family in Zurich. As his flight from Mexico approached Gatwick Airport - where he was to catch a connecting flight - it was diverted by snow to Dublin, where he became stranded. Viewers kept glimpsing him in the airport terminal during reports about the snow-bound travel chaos that gripped Europe.

I remembered his ordeal this year because, for the first time, I have a son flying home. I'll take my place, like thousands of Irish parents, at an airport's arrivals gates before Christmas and at departure gates afterwards. Homecomings make Christmas special and for those of us with children living abroad, Christmas now has a different sense of wonder from their childhood years, when the magic came from their pent-up anticipation on Christmas Eve. Now it comes from simply being together, because Skype and Snapchat cannot replace the pleasure of being with those you love.

In the 1950s, my mother tried to ensure that her seafaring husband would get home to Dublin for Christmas when stranded in a foreign port. She wrote to him, care of the harbour master in the port he was sailing to, explaining how she was sending a fake telegram to help him get leave. Unfortunately, the telegram - which read: "Father dying. Come home" - arrived before her letter. He boarded a Dublin-bound ship but instead of hastening to Finglas (where she had a fire lit in the parlour for his arrival) he rushed to his native Wexford to find his father alive and well. Recognising my mother's mischievous desperation to have him home for Christmas, he managed to catch the last train from Wexford on Christmas Eve and reached Finglas just before Santa Claus.

My siblings were wonder-struck at waking to find him there. This same sense of childish wonder has survived the crass commercialism of Christmas, with Christmas ads now starting immediately after Halloween. Each year the "must-have" toy changes but yet highly manipulated crazes (which often break the hearts of parents who find them sold out in shops or simply cannot afford them) become superfluous to the day itself. What we mainly remember from childhood is the difficulty of falling asleep on Christmas Eve, overcome by excitement. Few of us can itemise the presents received, because the awestruck anticipation remains our strongest childhood memory.

Modern day Dubliners remember the window displays in Brown Thomas - a continuing tradition, with this year's window co-designed by children's author, Ciara Molloy Tan. But in O'Connell Street, a Victorian ghost sign exists for a long vanished shop - The Confectioners Hall. This neglected sign hangs above a Foot Locker outlet. When I pass it, I imagine ghosts of barefoot slum children, noses pressed against the window, back when this store was the epicentre of the Lemons sweets empire. Lemons introduced Christmas window displays for everyone to enjoy. In 1907 their Confectioners Hall's window displayed a city lit by electric lights "while high above the minarets and towers an airplane, laden with toothsome commodities, and guided by the beneficent Santa Claus, is seen careering with its precious burden."

This year, another O'Connell Street institution, Clerys, stands empty, as much a ghost as the vanished Confectioners Hall. It will be a cold Christmas for concession holders there, still only paid a fraction of money owed. It will be a hard Christmas for anyone unemployed or on low incomes, desperate to afford the gifts their children hope for. Christmas puts enormous pressure on us and makes us put enormous pressure on ourselves. Many television advertisements are deliberately insidious; callously using every emotional trick to unlock wallets with images of perfect mothers and fathers coming home with perfect gifts in perfect worlds.

Whatever Santa brings, he won't bring perfection. So while I abhor torture, I could tolerate the water-boarding of some advertising executives who knew the pain their ads would cause to people who have lost someone or families who cannot be put back together.

In Ireland, we make it hard for people who don't want enforced good cheer at Christmas. There is an honourable tradition of conscientious objection to war and we should also allow for conscientious objectors to Christmas: for the right of people to stand aside from the rush, because it brings back difficult memories or they are mourning irreplaceable absences from their lives.

Yet nobody can truly ignore Christmas because it is ingrained into our DNA. For many of us, what marks out each Christmas are the changing presences and absences around our tables. Amid the bustle, there is always a moment when you pause to take stock. Families sit down at Christmas to hold their own private census, with new arrivals hailed and absences mourned. Joy and sorrow are two sides of the one coin. This Christmas across Ireland, older people will mourn partners they nursed through terminal illness over the past year, while young expectant mothers will long for next year, which will be the first Christmas for a new arrival.

So while the advertisers plot their spring campaigns and naysayers mutter about the spirit of Christmas being irredeemably changed (as they undoubtedly did when Lemons put Santa in their window in an airplane in 1907), most of us will get on with the things that make Christmas unique.

The military planning required for discreet attic raids late on Christmas Eve; the carrot stump and empty brandy glass left beside fireplaces; the expectation and sense of wonder of children desperate to fall asleep and then the sound of bedroom doors flung open at dawn, of being woken by warm bodies clambering into bed beside you and the final moments of expectation that even the smallest child seemed to want to prolong.

Even when your children are old enough to fly home from across the globe, you never forget those shared memories that become part of every family's DNA. Whether you spend Christmas in a family gathering or choosing to walk alone in Wicklow, I hope you get to have the Christmas you want, as we mark another year's passing.

Dermot Bolger's novel, 'Tanglewood', and selected poems, 'That Which is Suddenly Precious', are available now

Irish Independent