By Tom Nestor
The house was always warm on Christmas morning. The range had an early start. Hardly worth raking it over at all, my father used say. He was last to leave the kitchen and his final and major chore was to settle the fire in the range so that it sprung to life almost as soon as he opened its door in the morning.
The small pieces were the key, those that we called ‘ciarawns’, covered over with embers and an allotment of ashes that bound it all together like an ancient fire-makers craft in a world thousands of years ago.
We left early for Mass, half past five in the morning. Normally it would take less than half an hour to reach the church. But this was one day when no one would be shamed by being late. It was always cold, my memory tells me, hard frost mostly, snow, wind and rain.
When the ground was wet – we went by a Mass-path that five generations had trod on – we wore the wellingtons through the fields and when we reached the dry laneway leading to the church we hid the wellingtons in the hedgerow and put on the Sunday footwear.
But most times, there was no need for the auxiliary footwear. It always seemed to be a sky glittering with stars, as if the whole world was candle lit, shimmering and blinking in a majestic display of brightness, as if the heavens were all bound together in this wonderful outpouring of adoration for the Saviour in the stable.
That was my father’s interpretation of those frost bound skies and their ethereal brightness. His father had explained all that to him long ago when they walked this same Mass-path in a time that seemed now to have been a different world.
When we arrived back the dancing tradition was played out. Long ago, when our parents were newly married, there was no range in the house. The open fire had to be re-lit when they arrived in after Christmas Mass.
To stay warm, my mother and father waltzed round the kitchen table, round and round, like one of those musical boxes that played a tune when a key was turned, and the effigy of man and woman, beautifully turned out, danced round the perimeter of their china platform.
My father was no singer, but he could match a hodge podge of words to the dance tune. A skill that a travelling dancing teacher taught his class of young recruits.
Father Murphy, Father Murphy,
Father Murphy’s top coat,
Biddy Malley, Biddy Malley, Biddy
Malley’s gold ring.
And so the dance went until the flush warmed our mother’s face and she declared to her children that she had more to do on a Christmas morning than ‘frivoloting’ around after Biddy Malley’s gold ring.
She had a full house of curious excited faces as she started to prepare the Christmas goose. Yesterday she had removed the wings and put them away in exile until time called for their usage. And the usage was wide and inventive.
A goose wing had a myriad of usages. Before the range was installed, the open fireplace had a hob at each side. No better tool than a goose’s wing to remove the debris that settled on the hob, to dust down the shelf above the fireplace, from window sills, from under the places where a brush would never navigate.
She hid them away, because himself, the boss man, would take them out to do a small job in an outhouse and bring them back, useless, caked with grime and grease and mortar. And cow dung.
We watched as she folded the stuffing in and stitched it in place. Stuffing was miracle food. She would never tell how she made it, what were the ingredients. She explained it away by saying that it was a concoction of her own and some tips that her mother had told her about.
If I was put to the test I would have to say that roast goose barely shaded the wonderful taste of that stuffing. Part of the wonder was, that while goose by and large tasted the same from year to year, the stuffing seemed never the same as before, every year more tangy, more voluptuous, daring the follicles of the tongue to bide their rapacity, and let the taste linger, and linger, and melt away before the swallow destroyer ran out of patience.
We watched in silent rapture as the goose was settled in the pan. It looked as if it were some kind of priceless offering being prepared for a great dignitary. A circle of peeled golden wonders, saved for this day, accompanied it.
Himself, the boss man, had grown them surreptitiously in the haggard because he wasn’t sure if they would take in the patch of ground he was experimenting with. Slivers of thyme, rings of purple onions.
Then we stopped watching. We listened. We listened with such rapt attention that nothing stirred a sound, unless a sliver of wind coming down the flue or the murmur of prattling calves in the lean-to shed.
Someone, still in the domain of early childhood, would wonder out loud if calves had a day like our Christmas day, and what did they get to eat to celebrate it with. We listened. And then came the rhythm, the crackling skin, the shimmer of juices twittering within their surround. All was well.
And then, as the sounds and the rhythms, and the pulse of certainty, declared that all was well, the special table cloth was removed from the press on the other side of the fireplace. As it unfolded, it disturbed little colonies of mites that had sheltered in its cocoon since yesterday’s ironing.
We knew, knew with certainty, that all was in order, all in control. The table cloth, with its squares and its parallelograms shaped by the iron, fell perfectly into place, as if they had been designed for this square of cloth that adorned this moment.
A pause then as if the occasion had reached an operatic intermission. The woman opened the oven door, swished aside the swirl of smoke, drew the pan gently from within for a moment’s scrutiny and closed it again with a surety that all systems were right.
The odour that filled the kitchen spiralled from corner to corner, reached into humps and crevices, fell beyond the walls through drafts unimproved, rested against the blackened spars that held the thatch in place and had done so for five generations.
A little cloud of azure blue filaments spiralled from the door of the oven. It swirled through her finger as she closed the door again, nodded her satisfaction and pursed her lips. It was the nearest that she made to a smile. That would have to wait until it was all over.
And then, perhaps, someone would have the sense and the understanding to compliment her.