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Irish Christmas Light Dispelled Wartime Darkness

BY Mariawhitla OĆ­reilly

November 04-11, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/4/01 at 1:00 PM

 

While Hitler was dropping bombs (accidentally, he said) on Dublin in the dark days of the early ‘40s and Churchill was hitting the country with severe economic embargoes in retaliation for Ireland's neutrality, my mother's Christmas spirit was unbowed.

Though she had to clip small green coupons from a book to buy rationed groceries, with no possibility of finding sugar, almonds and sultanas to make the traditional Christmas puddings and cakes, I had no idea of privation, for my mother threw herself heart and soul into the joy of the season.

Gas masks hung in the cubbyhole under the stairs where I played among the racks of shoes. I would try on my mother's silver dancing slippers, my father's shiny black shoes, and the ugly gas masks with leather straps.

As Christmas approached, my mother fired our imagination with stories until the fantasy reached epic proportions. We would take the tram to the big department stores in Dublin, queuing up at Pims, Cleary's and Switzers to visit Santa Claus.

I still remember the toys Santa pulled from his sack—a painting set with lozenges of bright colors, a noise-maker or a wooden top that I tried to spin with a whip like the older children on the street.

Switzers, in Grafton Street, had the best Toyland, where we boarded a small train that traveled for hours (it seemed) through the painted countryside, as trees and mountains flashed by until the doors opened at the North Pole.

Though frequent tram and train strikes paralyzed the city of Dublin, they never cramped my mother's travel plans. She always managed to find a horse-drawn cab to ferry us into town. Swaying in the tufted leather interior, a rug over our knees, we clip-clopped over cobbled streets from Sandymount to see a pantomime at the Capitol or a vaudeville show at the Theatre Royal.

When the curtains opened, we sat enthralled by the music, the glorious kaleidoscope of lights and the Royalettes, resplendent in sequined costumes, tap dancing across the stage. I wanted those shoes. And when the fairy godmother waved her magic wand, I wanted one too. My father could never convince me there was no such thing as a fairy godmother.

At home, like a conjurer, my mother produced golden lanterns with red and black Chinese lettering for our tree. At the time, I wished for the multi-colored lights of our neighbors. Now I realize ours were far more beautiful.

I can't imagine where they came from, or where my parents found the sparklers that showered the room with silver stars when the lights were turned off.

Surprise Pageant

My mother appeared as a Christmas angel in the drawing room one night, and danced around the room in a long white garment with embroidered butterfly sleeves that I had never seen before. My father enjoyed the surprise pageant as much as we children did.

At bedtime, my mother wrapped her arms around me and held me close.

“I'll be your armchair,” she would laugh.

As we said our prayers together, we could hear carolers singing from door to door in the crescent where we lived.

One Christmas morning, Santa Claus brought me a huge doll's house.

“It's much too big for our small house,” my father said.

But I loved it. And if I scrunched myself small, I could sit inside arranging the spice jars that my mother had filled, inhaling the scent of cloves and tea, and dipping my fingers into the flour and sugar.

Grandma's House

It seemed like the middle of the night when my mother lifted my brother and me out of bed one pitch-dark morning just before Christmas. She dressed us quickly, and we hurried to Westland Row Station to take the train to the West of Ireland where my grandparents lived.

It was dark, too, when we arrived in the small market town of Ballinrobe. When the door to their house opened, my grandmother stood framed against the blaze of a huge hearth.

She held a cast-iron frying pan over the turf fire, cooking bacon and sausages, and spooning hot fat over eggs. A large, soot-blackened kettle hung on the hob, hissing its readiness for tea.

My grandmother was dressed in black from head to toe, and a long, black apron hugged her ample waist. Her hair was drawn back from her plump face and fastened in a topknot. She called us Agra and Astore, terms of endearment in Irish.

My grandfather was tall and slim, with snow white hair and a mustache that tickled when he kissed us.

The table was set with my grandmother's best linen and china (some of which I treasure today). We talked for hours after the meal was over, drinking strong tea with tiny flecks of cream on top.

Dreaming of Cows

The glow of the fire, the strong aromas of tea and turf, the warmth of an extended family suffused my being, until I was at last carried upstairs to dream of cows being milked and pigs with rings in their noses.

One special night, as cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents gathered round the fire in the big stone kitchen, a loud knock rapped on the back door.

Santa's jolly whiskered face appeared in the window, a huge sack over his shoulders.

He lifted the latch and came inside, terrifying my cousins who had never seen him before and causing them to hide behind the grownups.

But I had seen him so often, he was a familiar figure. When my turn came, he handed me a beautiful red handbag and spectacles—he knew exactly what I had been yearning for.

We children hardly knew the horrors that were filling the world all around us. The small joys of Christmas were too big.

Maria Whitla O‘Reilly writes from Darien, Conn.