An Irishman's Diary
Attics are in many ways dumping grounds for scraps of our memories. They are the hidden-away recesses where we can put the things that are no longer of any real use but, at the same time, hold too many memories to be thrown out. You wrestle with this warped logic especially at this time of year, during the foray into the attic to locate the slowly crumbling boxes with the Christmas decorations and tangled meshes of fairy lights and, again, around now, as part of the drudgery of returning the whole lot to the furthest corner of the storage space.
Entering an attic can be like tiptoeing through a memory minefield. Put a foot wrong and long-buried memories are ready to erupt.
For me, in recent years, the Dancing Santa best captures this oddly disquieting love/dread attraction attics hold. For a few years now he has been left alone in the attic at Christmas and all because his presence beside the Christmas tree would open up too many clusters of recent memories.
Funny, really, when you realise that Dancing Santa is actually a 1½ft-high plastic mechanical toy, made in China, and bought cheap from a stall on Dublin’s Henry Street. Yet it was this fairly shoddy, gimmicky Santa that set off so much glee and laughter in my mother during what was to be her last Christmas.
By then she was well into her eighties and had come to Dublin to stay with family to be close to the medical treatment that would help slow down the inevitable.
She would sit in our home in Rush and talk about going back to her village of Parke in Co Mayo, to her own house, familiar sounds and smells, the television and her two radios. She said twirling knobs only mithered her so one radio was permanently tuned to RTÉ1, the other locked on the local Mid-West Radio. There were times I would find her sitting there lost in herself, as if knowing, deep down, she would never again see the daffodil bulbs she had planted before leaving her home burst through into golden life.
That Christmas we all longed for a bit of distraction. And, from the moment we saw the Dancing Santa gyrating and giving it socks on the stall in Henry Street we reckoned he was the man for the job. We knew because my mother was a great one for knick-knacks. She had her fair share of them: the Cuckoo Clock that housed a hermit bird, Diana and Charles commemorative wedding mugs, teapots shaped like Alpine chalets.
The box Santa came in told us, somewhat loftily, “This item is a Christmas animated ornament and not a toy.” And sure enough, while it was a bit tinny and grating, as Santa belted out his tunes you felt there was a bit of Elvis or Jerry Lee buried in there somewhere.
Hit the red button and Santa sprang into animated action on his little plastic stage. Hips swivelled, knees bent and twisted and then he let rip with his song – “Come on Santa, well it’s a Christmas time”.
The Dancing Santa was quiet under our Christmas tree when my mother arrived. She was now a woman a bit afraid, unsure.
Yet, once she clapped eyes on the little beaming Santa, a bit of the mischievous fun we loved seeped back. “Ah, what kind of a gee-gaw is that? Does he do anything?” she asked eagerly. She pressed the red button. Santa let rip with his rollicking performance. She loved him.
A few days later she even insisted we take him on tour, to my sister’s house, on Christmas Day. I can still see her vividly in the fireside armchair, watching Dancing Santa performing, a look of wonder and curiosity in her eyes, and giggly joy animating her mouth. And when he finished she hit the red button again, and again.
With the help of Dancing Santa, we got through that Christmas.
Early in January he went up into the attic with the other decorations. A few weeks later my mother died. When we took her home to Mayo it was around the time the daffodils in her garden were nudging up, straining to open.
The following Christmas we didn’t have the heart to take down the Dancing Santa. We said next year, but when it came, and our children made their assault into the attic to haul down the decorations, they brought down everything except the Dancing Santa. Nobody said anything. There was no need to. And so Santa has remained in the attic and, as far as we know, has not danced. Now we’re thinking, next year, definitely.