Róisín Ingle on . . . mother christmas


There was a Christmas fairy on the top of the tree and I wish I knew where she was right now. She had a moon-shaped face, sparkly disco trousers and jet-black hair in a bun. For a fairy she had a serious lack of appropriate equipment. Like Peter Pan, she flew on pixie dust, needing nothing so obvious as a pair of wings. More than Santa and his pillowcase full of diverting bits and bobs. More than the precious holy anointed smoked salmon that sat on the washing machine in the coldest room in the house, that I’d scrape bits off when nobody was looking.

More than the stash of Borza’s fish and chips that would arrive late on Christmas Eve after they’d closed: all the leftover deep-fried deliciousness which Bruno would pack up and bring round to us.

More even than my mother’s trifle which is, obviously, the best in the world.

More than all of it. That fairy was the most magical part of the most wonderful day of the year. The chocolate smudges on her innocent face on Christmas morning. The empty chocolate wrapper from the decoration she’d demolished in the night. The irritation on my mother’s face as she tutted about the flipping cheek of fairies taking liberties and dainty bites out of other people’s treats.

She wasn’t big on Santa but she conspired with the fairy to fly down and demolish the edible decorations. So, I suppose, Christmas credit where it’s due. My mother was the one who made it magic.

A lovely nun, Sr Agnes, was her saviour, bringing bags full of discarded toys handed in to the convent for “the poor”. We were “the poor” but my mother never resented the label or hand-outs from St Vincent de Paul if it meant she could make Christmas happy for everyone.

She had her limits though. One year the parish priest came to the door. He was having difficulty finding candidates, in well-off Sandymount, for the annual Christmas dinner for the homeless of Dublin in the RDS. He was offering tickets for our family to attend.

She didn’t take the tickets, not wanting to haul us out of our home to spend the day with strangers. Instead, she made the magic happen. And the thing is, because she was such a skillful magician, us younger ones had no idea what it took to put on that production each year.

We weren’t the only ones. Our father didn’t take much of a role in making sure Christmas occurred. He was somewhere else a lot of the time then. Physically, I mean. Mentally, too, through no fault of his own. I don’t have any Christmas memories with him in them.

But one my mother has is a cracker: my father had just come back from a longish spell in a hospital where he’d been given some temporary release from his problems. As my mother puts it: “Some sanity had been restored.” She tells how he came home and slowly took in all the signs of Christmas: the presents wrapped for eight children under the tree, the front window one sister always decorated beautifully, the puddings and cakes, and general well-oiled industry of Christmas. He looked around, drinking it all in as though seeing it for the first time, which may well have been the case. And then he said, with a mix of admiration and puzzlement: “Do you do this every year?”

There was one year it nearly didn’t happen. The time my mother trawled the city’s pawn shops to get money for a marcesite ring which she thought must be worth something. The pawn-brokers of the capital didn’t agree. The last place she brought it to was the now long-gone antique shop in the village where the lady behind the counter took it off her, for far more than it was worth, because she knew the difference the money would make to one family that Christmas.

This morning my mother and her 16 grandchildren will have their photo taken in a professional studio. A Christmas present for “Nanny”. It’s the first time our family has done this and I expect it will be one of those painful experiences that will be worth it in the end. A bit like the pain some parents in this country have had to go through to make the magic happen this year. Memories will be made. Tiny hearts will beat faster. It will all be worth it in the end.

There was a Christmas fairy. I know exactly where she is right now. And I’m fairy grateful.


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