Christmas Memories From Athlone
I was born in the early nineteen eighties, in a time when the Irish economy was in the middle of recession and “things were tight”. However, everyone always celebrated Christmas in good spirit as being a special time of year. Christmas in our house back then, was still as full-on as the Christmas we have today. There may have been no Internet or “Black Friday”, but there were plenty of Christmas jumpers (which are now back in fashion), and I remember especially one year, Santa bringing me a “Walkman”. This of course became the CD-Man, then the Mini Disc Player, then the MP3 Player, then the iPod; all of which are now obsolete and have been replaced with streaming and “Alexa: play Jingle Bells!” Isn’t it just amazing how some things change while others remain the same?
My Christmas as a child usually started each year with rehearsing for the annual Christmas Nativity play at school. I never had a major part; I think I may have been a shepherd one year, but I always enjoyed the carol singing. The teacher would put up a small Christmas tree which we would decorate with paper chains. We made them ourselves and coloured them in with crayons. We would also make Christmas cards to give to our parents and relatives.
In the weeks coming up to Christmas I would enjoy seeing another candle been lit on the Advent wreath at mass as it got closer to the big day. We would also be brought up to the front of the church to see the crib and to light a candle and say a prayer. Christmas didn’t start until the “Toy Show” was on TV. We would enjoy watching the “Billy Barry Kids” who would perform and would always hope that Santa would bring us the latest toy which was most popular that year.
Even more exciting was a visit to Santa himself in the Shopping Centre where you would receive a small surprise, I remember getting a small wind-up toy. When I was a little older I remember playing the tin whistle again in the Shopping Centre in the school band wearing our homemade striped red and white hats.
Putting up the Christmas tree each year was also exciting. We usually had an artificial tree (which didn’t look very real) but I remember some years my uncle bringing down a real tree which we would seem huge to us, right up to the ceiling! Untangling the lights was usually my Dad’s job as you had to be careful. If one bulb broke the whole set of lights would not work! I remember one year where luckily a neighbour gave us bulbs. The lights were always coloured and although now I rather simple white lights when I see coloured lights now it still brings me back to being a child. We all helped to decorate the tree, my brother and my two sisters and each of us would first choose our favourite decorations and then add what we had created in school. There would be lots of tinsel also, which has now gone out of fashion! We usually made a wreath in school from holly and tinsel and this would be placed on the front door.
A trip up to Dublin at Christmas time was always magical. The window displays of Arnotts, Switzers and Clerys would keep us enthralled with their moving characters and a visit to “Legoland” in Arnotts was a real highlight. The market stalls on Henry Street would catch our interest with more toys, “Cheeky Monkeys” being popular one year, and everyone knew; “lighters were five for a pound”.
When at last Christmas Eve came, we would go to mass that evening and then later would be told to go to bed early or Santa wouldn’t come! A mince pie would be left out for Himself and a carrot for Rudolph. I could never sleep though, and I remember one year getting up at 3.15am to see what I had got! My favourite present I received was a skateboard, but we also enjoyed the surprises in our Christmas stockings and of course selection boxes with the picture on the back to colour in.
We usually bought my mother perfume for Christmas; I think my father usually got socks. Any presents left under the tree would often be found to have a little hole in the wrapping where one of us would have been trying to discover before what was inside!
Christmas morning was spent playing with toys, the fire would be lit, and my Dad would play Christmas music. He had a record of Christmas music which had a cardboard pop-up Christmas scene of a house with snow as part of the sleeve, which I was fascinated with. I remember my youngest sister receiving a Christmas card from her godmother which played Christmas music with flashing lights when opened, which was played all day. My mother usually had relatives for Christmas dinner which meant even more presents… I would usually help my mother by setting the table, which would have a Christmas tablecloth and brass candlestick holders with red candles lit as the centre piece. The best delph and silver cutlery was taken out and red serviettes were folded into triangles and placed on every side plate. A great treat were Christmas crackers which although may not have much inside, were great fun with everyone enjoying the jokes.
I always remember being starving by the time dinner was ready! This was usually due to relatives arriving late but it was great having everyone together. My mother would carve the turkey and ham and my Dad would dish out the vegetables and potatoes and I would then help by serving the dinners to everyone. As a child I didn’t like Brussel sprouts but I’m quite partial to them now but I always liked plumb pudding which we always had for dessert.
After dinner everyone would move into the sitting room and the TV would be turned on. There usually wasn’t much on maybe an old film like “A Christmas Carrol”, but as kids we loved the short-animated Christmas film “The Snowman”. I remember my brother having the book along with a tape you could listen to. Christmas Day usually was a dark, cold, damp day and I distinctly remember gazing out the window wondering; was it ever going to snow? My Dad’s favourite Christmas song was “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.
My favourite Christmas was one where we all played cards, I had a gran-aunt who played so I learnt for the first time how to play “Snap” and “Old Maid”. I remember boxes of chocolates been passed around; we had the cold turkey later in the evening… like the song by John Lennon it was sure to be cold turkey for the next few days…