John Lennon Cohen recalls how his mother’s touch made Christmas a special time in his home
For some reason we always called Santa, Santie. Perhaps it’s an Irish or Dundalk colloquialism. A version of him used to sit outside Parks’ shop in Clanbrassil Street in Dublin, which was a café, as well as a sweet shop. I was always a little nervous of him and after my visit to him was over, and I had told him specifically what I would like for Christmas, we made our way to Toyland in Bachelors Walk.
Well, my eyes lit up when we went inside for I never saw such an array of toys in all my life and all in the one place.
To me and my sisters it was heaven, an Aladdin’s cave for there were toy train sets, cars, cowboy suits, guns, soldiers, dolls and prams, board games and every conceivable toy you could think of.
I picked a cowboy suit, which consisted of trousers with special trimmings running down the sides and a waistcoat, which also had the special trimmings and of course to complete the outfit, the cowboy hat with a silver star. I tried it on and with the silver gun, sure I thought I was the Lone Ranger.
In the hustle and bustle of the run up to the big day, my mother found time to bake a Christmas cake and pudding and we always knew that the big day was fast approaching when she had the currents, raisins, sultanas, flour, and the mixing bowl out on the table as we came in from school.
We all were invited to turn the mixture of the pudding three times and then we could make a wish, an old tradition I expect!
Closer to the day we would go to James Wood’s fruit and vegetable shop in Church Street to purchase our Christmas tree that was just freshly cut from the forest. I don’t think that artificial trees were on the go then. Why a ‘fruit and veg’ shop sold trees is beyond me but I suppose they had a good name to sell trees.
Once this task was completed, we knew it was a reality and the great day would very soon arrive. So we then began to adorn our humble abode with paper decorations that straddled the ceiling and holly with red berries embellished every hanging picture that could be seen.
We would then dress the tree with tinsel, coloured sparkling balls and fairy lights and last of all the Angel Gabriel took pride of place on top of the tree.
Of course a small crib and a red candle were placed in the window.
The candle was lit late into the evening on Christmas Eve and this was to show the way for the Holy Family and to let them know that they were welcome in our house.
The effigy of the baby Jesus could not be placed in the crib until after midnight on Christmas Eve, and this signalled our cue to go to bed.
We were never permitted to let the tradition of Christmas or its true meaning, the birth of Jesus Christ, go, despite all the commercialism especially in later years and my mother made sure of that. After saying our prayers we were tucked into bed and tried to get to sleep.
The morning announced her arrival with a brightness that peeped in through a gap in the curtains to partially light up my room – the big day had arrived.
With eyes still closed tight I crawled deep down into my bed and with my feet rummaged about the bottom to investigate whether any presents were left and hoping at the same time that I didn’t get a bag of cinders that were always promised to bold naughty boys.
You see ‘Santie’ in our house always left our presents at the bottom of our beds and not under the tree and I think that it was a more personal touch to have him visit our own room. I got exactly what I wanted, a cowboy suit and a gun and holster. My sisters got exactly what they asked for too.
Mother made breakfast and then we prepared to go to Mass. As we walked up to Saint Nicholas Church our hearts were still pounding with that much pleasure that Mother had to subdue us so that we could compose ourselves for the ceremony.
The church was beautifully decorated with garlands and had a huge crib. Mother cried at the mass as the choir sang ‘Oh Holy Night’ as she was probably thinking of times past and her deceased parents who would have taken her as a young girl to the same ritual. When the Mass was over we went and said a prayer at the crib and Mother took a piece of straw for each of us, told us to keep it in our pockets and we would never be short of money, another old tradition I assume.
Then we walked home, our minds filled with images of the magnificent traditional Irish Christmas dinner that our mother had worked hard to prepare for us. My mother made a very bad situation good for us children, sheltering us from a cruel reality that she hid by placing it firmly and entirely upon her own shoulders and by doing so she made us oblivious of our dire situation. Who else but a loving mother would do such things for her children? She made Christmas special.