By Veronica Hogle
It’s Christmas Day, a time for customs and celebrations. Most of all, it’s a time for cherished memories. When I was growing up in Ireland, I loved Christmas Eve, last-minute shopping and going to Midnight Mass. Men who worked in the flour mill were paid Christmas Eve morning, received a bonus and were let off work at noon. My Da was in charge of the goods department of the Bagenalstown Railway Station, and he had to work all day.
Every Christmas, merchants donated food hampers to old people living alone. The mill workers put the hampers in wire baskets on their bikes and arrived singing, “Christmas is coming, an’ the geese are getting fat …” The hampers were filled with ham, salted fish, cheese, sweets, fruit, lemonade and whiskey. This put lights back into faded old eyes.
After the hampers were delivered, the men gathered at Dooley’s Hotel and ate platefuls of colcannon, made with mashed potatoes, parsley, scallions and a big dollop of country butter. They stayed at Dooley’s practicing the hymns and Mass in Latin.
The streets of Bagenalstown were crowded with shoppers buying imported fruits and wind-up toys. Some shoppers carried a plucked goose or a turkey under their arms. The trains whistled into the station. The young people returning from England for the holidays were jubilant to be home.
Children old enough to be out alone pressed their noses against the glass windows of Cleary’s big shop. They wanted to listen to the little man playing Christmas songs on his organ.
As the day rushed by, ornaments, clothes and perfumes with French names disappeared from the shop windows. Christmas music drifted through the frosty air. Two tinker boys stood in the market square playing tin whistles. They parked their horse-driven caravan, painted in bright colors, by the river. Their pie-bald pony swished his tail and grazed along the side of the road. Churchgoers threw coins that jingled as they landed in the boys’ upturned caps.
Children waited wide-eyed, and tried hard to stay good. Soon Father Christmas would come down the chimney and leave toys in our stockings, hanging at the end of our beds. Santa always left an orange, stamped Seville, in the toe of my stocking.
Da banked the coal fire high in the kitchen grate. A fat lit candle flickered in the window to signal a welcome. Our goose hung by his feet on a big nail in the scullery. Mammy would stuff it with seasoned potato stuffing early Christmas morning. The aroma of it roasting would seep into every corner of the house. Mammy decorated the fruitcake.
“It’s as lovely as the ceiling in the Basilica,” Da said.
He went outside and cut an armful of red-berry holly. He and Mammy put sprigs over the framed photos on the wall, mantelpiece and oil lamps. I arranged the Christmas cards on the window sills.
The bell from St. Andrew’s Catholic Church rang out a call to attend Mass. Hundreds of feet clad in leather shoes could be heard walking toward the church. Inside, the smell of incense and candles spiraled up and became trapped in the dome of the high ceiling. The priest and the choir sang the Mass in Latin.
Outside a train gave a long whistle, the convent bell joined Saint Andrew’s in ringing out a joyful welcome to the newborn babe. The ringing church bells, trains and organ music carried for miles along the river that mirrored the big silver moon.
The cherished memories of Christmas Eve in my little town in Ireland remain forever in the catacombs of my heart.