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2002-12-24 Memories "Frank and of a wise man offering sense" to baby Jesus

It was an ice-cold Christmas Eve in the Austrian Alps. The year was 1818. The village of Oberndorf was snowbound, and the candlelit midnight mass had come to an abrupt end. There was no music.

 

The poor starving little church mice had chewed their way through the bellows of the church organ. The organist, Franz Gruber, and his pastor friend, Father Joseph Mohr on guitar, improvised a carol  Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. With words by a simple curate and music by a relatively unknown musician, this most famous of Christmas carols has since crossed borders and barriers and been translated into every language; its message of peace made all the more poignant by Father Mohrs death as a penniless priest, having given all his earnings to charity. That is how we have Silent Night.

This was one of those Christmas stories that let my imagination run wild as a child and had me yearning for a White Christmas, longing for a snowbound Sligo. I remember a light dusting of powdery snow in our yard on a few occasions, and the Dartry range had a Christmas icing more than once. I wanted to be properly cut off  no electricity, just open turf fires, and candles, but the full Christmas fayre nonetheless!

Despite waiting patiently for that elusive White Christmas, my childhood Yuletides are brimming with memories. While in Senior Infants at the Model, I was cast as the 2nd Wise Man. A tenor as a Wise Man, now theres a paradox?

I was responsible for delivering the frankincense to the new-born King, though why he needed Frank and sense was beyond me. And why was the 3rd Wise Man giving a baby a mirror as a gift? The shepherds shuffled on sheepishly, their tea-towels noticeably impairing their vision. What was Bean Ui Higi thinking when she cast the role of Mary?

That girl couldnt act her way out of a paper bag, and the way she perilously held the Baby Jesus, someone was bound to notice that it wasnt a real baby!

At the St Johns Cathedral Carol Service, a highlight was always the kiddies choir directed from the organ by Mabs West. Despite tears, nose-picking, fidgeting, and worse, we normally got through Away in a manger.

Then one year, my big chance came  a solo in Once in Royal Davids City, but the unspeakable happened: I cracked on the top note. My lip puckered throughout the duration of the rest of the carol and, as I walked back to my seat, my gait accelerated until I was in the secure and loving arms of my mother, who assured me no one noticed. But I noticed.

The decoration of the house, the tree and the cake was always something to look forward to. The tree ornaments included many which had come across the border from my Mums family in the 1950s. Every picture, clock and ornament was bedecked with a sprig of holly, and the cards hung from a long string which ran from one end of the sitting-room to the other.

My Grannie lived next door, and every year more and more cards arrived. One year she boasted well over 120 cards  wow, my Gran was so popular. I loved sitting and chatting to Grannie, while Cindy, her black labrador, stretched out in front of the open turf fire. Grannie always seemed to receive a nicer class of sweet at Christmas too. I suppose with 120 friends, you automatically get a wider choice?

Because Dad had a shop in the town, the build-up to Christmas was more pronounced. Jewellery and sports goods are popular Christmas gifts, so inevitably it was buzzing on Christmas Eve at No. 42 Castle Street.

As I got older, I was given the responsibility of dressing the Christmas window. Frustration set in every time a customer specifically wanted something out of my window, thus changing the whole face of my mini-set  destroying my creation. At 5.45pm on Christmas Eve, Aloysius Mc Donagh came in religiously for his free clock. That just left enough time for me to pop across to Sloweys chemists for all my Christmas presents!

After tea on Christmas Eve we threw our Santa letters into the fire above the flames. They were sucked up the chimney. We sprinted out into the yard where the letters were seen floating off into the starlit sky in the direction of the North Pole. I was always sound asleep in Blanket Street when that large man parked his sleigh on our slated roof and tumbled down our chimney, but one year, I saw him clearly at the end of my bed as he deposited my presents. I lay motionless until he left the room. Then he knocked back the Guinness, left the cake-icing, and off he went down the Point Road.

As I got older, I was allowed to join the rest of the family at midnight mass in Rosses Point church. There was something unique about midnight on Christmas Eve in that tiny seaside church, the gas heaters blazing, the candles flickering, and Mabs West pedalling for Sligo on that old harmonium!

On Christmas morning after the presents were ripped open, and the dogs were given their individually-wrapped presents, we took all the dogs for a bracing walk at Streedagh. Christmas dinner was eaten mid-afternoon, and as the years rolled by, the hoard of inherited relations got smaller and smaller.

We had a huge Woodmartin turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and my mother made the worlds greatest Plum Pudding with Brandy Butter. Our crackers had the worlds worst jokes and most embarassing hats. Some of the older relations paid Mum the highest compliment by offering around indigestion tablets.

As our turkey was digesting, we were all summoned down to Rosseville in Ballincar, the home of my late Uncle Allan and Auntie Meta Stevenson, where the same mob would proceed to devour mince pies, Christmas cake and buns, until there was simply no room at the Inn for more.

The stunning old house was a Dickensian dream, though candles would have been more appealing than the 200 watt lights in every room. Christmas TV was always criticised for being not what it used to be, and so the Tiny Tots Champion would often end up playing the piano for the assembled aunts.

One year I had measles, and our entire family tossed for it. Who would baby-sit James? Mum won the toss, but it may have been a fix.

There had been ads on TV since September building up to Christmas, and it was all over in a flash. Someone said that Christmas is the Disneyfication of Christianity and, with all the commercialisation, the real message always seemed a little secondary.

I loved the more relaxed St Stephens Day. We had a walk, or rather a brisk waddle, in the morning, then cold turkey and home-made chutney by the fire for lunch. The Wren Boys normally paid a visit  a somewhat sinister tradition which always intrigued me. Santa made another brief appearance at the Sunday School Party and to this day I marvel at his mastery of the Sligo dialect.

For several years, I was involved in some Christmas charity concerts at Markree Castle in Sligo  the perfect setting for a fairy-tale Christmas. A giant tree, a huge open log-fire and mulled wine, to the Medieval recorder sounds of the Sligo Early Music Ensemble in the galleries above.

Since then I have seen the Christmas tree in St Peters Square in Rome, the Oxford Street Christmas lights, the unique and magical Weihnachtmarkt in every German town, the Christmas tree at the Rockerfeller Center, ice-skating in Central Park and shopping second to none on Fifth Avenue in New York.

A few years ago, I was engaged to sing in a series of Christmas concerts in the village of Grindelwald, high up in the Swiss Alps. Christmas had always been in Sligo, but this was a chance for my childhood fantasy to be realised. As we made our way slowly up the mountains from Zurich airport, the snow fell heavier and heavier. It was Christmas Eve and I was snowbound in the Alps. We checked into our five-star hotel and had an open-air swim and jacuzzi  the snow forming a perfect frame to the steaming pool. Then we made our way slowly through the deep crisp snow up to the little candlelit village church. The packed congregation joined as one auf Deutsch  Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles schlaft, einsam wacht. The childhood dream of the little 30 year-old Sligo boy had come true. Lets hope that the universal message of that carol will echo throughout the world for all to hear.

For us, facing our first Christmas without the most important lady in our life, may Mum sleep in heavenly peace.