Lyric FM is scrupulous in not playing Christmas music until 8th December. Driving through a double digit frost, with everything a dazzling white in the brilliance of the morning sun, the music seemed perfect for the day. Snatches of tunes heard at various moments during journeys around the parish brought a sense of something just out of consciousness, that feeling there was some important thought that would just not take shape – the only image that emerged was that of Christmas pudding in hot custard eaten in the primary school dining hall.
Perhaps those primary school Christmases, when magic was still possible, were the source of the feeling evoked by Lyric’s tunes. Christmas in school would never start until the last week of term, but it was observed in grand style. There was a Christmas dinner, prepared in our little school kitchen, and there would always be special guests from the village invited to attend to attend the occasion. The criteria for being a ‘special’ guest seemed unclear, in retrospect, they seemed to be elderly people from the village who lived alone: our teacher knew about inclusivity before the word was invented.
The dinner was always followed by Christmas pudding served with custard and cream, that enduring image of Christmas forty years on. There was a custom of putting a sixpenny coin into the mixture of each Christmas pudding; whoever got the sixpence was supposed to have good luck. It was a mystery how there came to be a sixpence in each dish. Forty sixpences, for there was one for every child in the school, would have made a pound, a pound that probably came out of the teacher’s pocket, though she would never have said.
The closing days of term would have been spent on the manufacture of decorations and Christmas cards. The decorations generally involved sticking crepe paper around toilet roll tubes and cutting out a piece of paper to make it look like a flame and sticking it in the top of the tube. Making the cards, robins and candles and snowmen were much easier to draw than anything religious; though stars in the sky weren’t too hard.
And then the holiday came and the excitement of Christmas and the desire to hold onto it wasn’t about anything religious. It certainly wasn’t about peace and goodwill, It was a desire to hold on to the sense of anticipation. The reality of Christmas never matched the expectation, but there was something in the build up, something in the looking forward, that made it a time different from any other.
There is a line in ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ that goes ‘This holy tide of Christmas all others doth efface’ and, without ever going near a church for anything other than the school nativity play, I felt could understand what it was trying to say. Forty years later, I still haven’t found the right words to say what it was expressing; this morning, driving through icy Co Laois, there was almost a feeling that the inescapable quality of Christmas might almost be captured.