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Remembering the joy of Christmas long ago

When there's heavy snow on Christmas Eve, I remember the year I was 9 years old and a heavy fog threatened that which would make me happy for Christmas.

Because my parents were in a hospital, I was living with my widowed grandmother in the Village of the Monks, County Kilkenny, Ireland. I'm the only child for miles around and often shout: "Who wants ta play with me?"

But the only voice that takes its time to come back over the fields and gray rock walls is mine. To keep me from being lonely, Gran takes me with her everywhere.

She wakes me, saying it's Christmas Eve morning. Tonight, we're going to Midnight Mass in the 13th century Cistercian Abbey.

I watch Gran scrutinizing Mount Leinster. "There's a heavy mist on the mountain. The fog is so heavy, there's not a bird in the sky," she announces.

"For Christmas I want to go to my first Midnight Mass in the Abbey and go there by pony and trap," I say.

"But we can't take the pony out in such weather," she says, knowing my heart is breaking. To stop me from crying, Gran lets me wear my new rubber boots in the house. They squeak when I walk.

Around noon, a man on a bike arrives singing, "Christmas is comin' an' the geese are gettin' fat." He gives Gran a Christmas hamper filled with dried fruit, cheese, plum pudding and whiskey. It's a present from Mr. Joyce, the grocer.

We decorate the fruitcake and arrange red berry holly over the fireplace and pictures. The postman knocks. "I've more Christmas parcels for ye!"

Gran shouts back, "Come in! Come in! Here, have a small one. A damp foggy day chills a body ta the bone." They pour from the bottle of whiskey and clink glasses.

Gran goes back up to examine the mountain. "I see ripples formin' on the river," she says, and she walks down to the gate to ask a farmer coming from town if he's heard any weather news. He says the man on the wireless announced strong winds are coming in from the Atlantic Ocean.

"We need a strong wind ta lift the fog," she says, climbing back up to study the mountain.

"The heather is turnin' purple. The blackbirds are comin' back in the sky!" she announces. My heart beats like a hammer as she ties my hair with green tartan ribbons.

As night falls, I wait at the window. My heart swells to bursting when I see the pony and trap arrive to take us to the Abbey.

In the distance, the stained-glass windows look like giant storybooks. We enter the nave and parade up the mosaic floor. The organist plays, and people smile hearing my new boots. The choir soars, and smells of candles and smoky incense spiral up to the rafters. On the way home, my eyelids become heavy and I fall asleep.

When I wake up on Christmas morning, a doll with a bald head, a book titled "Treasure Island" and shiny black-buckled shoes are at the foot of my bed.

I heel up my navy wool stocking and shake out a game of dominoes, play putty and a tin whistle. An amber orange, stamped Seville, rolls out of the toe.

I'm so happy I think I'm dreaming. I reach back and feel the green tartan ribbons still in my hair.

Then I remember. Last night, I was at my first Christmas Eve Mass in the Abbey. I went in the grand pony and trap. My two Christmas wishes were granted!

I always remember that Christmas Eve, especially when there's heavy fog or snow.

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