A childhood Christmas

Desmond Fennell recalls his innocent wonder at the ‘real, the true, the venerable’ Santa, the mysterious ‘Arabian Nights’ glitter of the Belvue tram and the comforting magic of a twilight stroll through the suburbs of Belfast

Wed, Dec 25, 2013, 01:00

When my 12-year-old granddaughter writes her letter to Santa Claus and looks forward eagerly to his coming, I often wonder is she very shrewd or merely very innocent. I like to think the angel who guards the magic of childhood has given her a more than ordinary wisdom –a blessed reluctance to tear that veil of spider-silk which bears no patching. For Santa Claus is surely the focal point of the enchanted adventure which Christmas meant for all of us children and when we cease to believe in him we cease to be children.

I must have been very young when I listened in amazement while the Santa Claus in a Dublin shop told me of his trip from the North Pole and – greatest of thrills – pointed out to me, suspended from the ceiling, the actual balloon in which he had travelled. I still remember the feeling of reverence with which I reached up to receive a present from the very hands of Santa as he smiled from the chimney of his cottage in Woolworths of Belfast.

But my loss of faith in the “shop Santa Clauses” in no way weakened my belief in the true one. I did not even regard them as imposters: rather they took the place in the ritual of my Santa religion that statues of the saints have in Catholicism. They “excited my devotion”, prefiguring the real and true, the venerable Santa Claus.

By the time I had become a sceptic, people were not so anxious that I go to bed early and the really significant change occurred. At first I was allowed to help in putting up the decorations; later I was given the job as my own. I had been taken from the pit where all was a world of fantasy and put in charge of the props and the scenery. Child no longer and not yet adult, I was left standing in the wings, and from there I watched the make-believe go on for the benefit of my young sisters.

Of course there was still a joy in the morning in finding the never-failing present of an aunt and uncle; but the old fever was gone – the fever that used send me creaking my way downstairs in the dark amid a sleeping household to glance half-fearfully at the line of stockings above the kitchen fireplace and, finding my own, untie it to feel those seconds of suspense while my fingers groped their way towards the unseen treasures and brought to light the first of them. And the super-present under the Christmas tree with a note from Santa himself had vanished with my childish innocence.

My childhood Christmases were spent in Belfast and that city, of necessity, clings to all my Christmas memories. The “Belvue tram” had a very special place in creating that enchanted atmosphere which seem to me now to have swirled around and transformed those days at the end of December. This was a tram all lit with rows and rows of lights which used pass our house at a particular time each night for a number of nights before Christmas. Its purpose was to advertise the carnival at Belvue. But in my imagination it was much more than a tram with lights. I knew it was a tram, of course, but that was a troublesome detail best forgotten. It was associated in my mind with all that was wonderful and magical, with the sparkling treasure-chambers of the Arabian Nights and the jewelled gateway of heaven.

There is one very concrete incident which will never allow me to forget the Belvue tram. I was getting ready for bed one Christmas Eve in the room at the very top of our three-storey house. I had my pyjama-trousers but nothing else on, when I was tempted to look out and see if the tram was coming. The lower part of the window was up and, leaning out as far as I could, I looked up the road. Just then the window-sash fell gently onto my back, pinning me. I could neither move backwards nor raise the window.

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