‘My mother made Christmas magical. My love affair with it is her gift’
Our Christmas memories are planted in childhood and every year reawaken, says Alice Taylor. I am grateful to my mother for the gift of Christmas memories
An Irish family create a “wren” from ribbons, holly and feathers, ready for St Stephen’s Day or Wren’s Day in 1955. Photograph: George Pickow/ Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Recently I watched Monty Don on Gardeners World plant his amaryllis lilies in preparation for Christmas. First he advised choosing a large, healthy bulb and his certainly fullfilled that criteria, then he filled a heavy clay pot with good gritty draining soil into which the bulb could send down long, sturdy roots. He eased the soil in around the now wispy roots to encourage strong growth and advised standing the pot in a warm place with good light.
As he planted, he turned my thought to Christmas and stirred up Christmas memories. Our Christmas memories are planted in childhood and every year reawaken. Monty’s chosen location for his planted lily was a shelf in his greenhouse. Up to that point he and I were in agreement but here we parted company as my pot goes into a tall crystal vase which sits on my window sill where I can watch the daily magic of the bulb sprouting into fresh green life and gradually climb tall and elegant. A tendency to tilt in any direction is curtailed by the deep container and when at Christmas my bulb burst into gorgeous red blooms the sparkling vase is a fitting upholder of its beauty.
I am a lover of beautiful vases, partly due to the fact that I am a gardenaholic and feel that my wonderful flowers deserve the best of display containers or maybe it harks back to my farmhouse childhood where vases were practically non-existent and our garden and wild flowers ended up in jam pots. Nothing wrong with jam pots, you might say, and indeed you are right but while they are worthy recipients of bluebells and buttercups they do nothing to enhance a long-legged elegant rose or a big, floppy-headed hydrangea to which my mother was partial.
So inside in me grew a hidden longing for elegant vases! And this year while embarking on a decluttering campaign I cleared out an old mahogany press lurking at the end of my hallway. Clear of clutter, I clothed it with scented drawer liners and filled it with my collection of vases accumulated over the years. Some were inherited from maiden aunts who were into the finer things of life, others gifted by flower clubs for which I had rendered services and others passed on by golf-loving sons who won them for the love of the game not for the cut-glass crystal trophy.
All these vases I washed in hot soapy water and they now stand gleaming side by side in my scented press. They do my heart good and I use them on every possible occasion and at Christmas they come into their own, gleaming with red berry holly and scented lilies. That press full of sparkling glass vases is probably so much appreciated because I grew up without them. My appreciation of Christmas is the result of the direct opposite experience.
My childhood Christmas I savoured and loved. My mother made Christmas magical. My love affair with it is her gift. She wove magic into Christmas and planted those seeds deep in our young fertile minds and every year like perennials they blossom again.
Every spring our geese laid large, white eggs and when they reached the required amount mother goose turned her mind to hatching. But first she made a nest with soft hay and her own downy feathers. Watching a goose making a nest is to witness the supreme art of bed making. She wove her down and small white feathers through the yellow hay until it was a blend of comfort and then moulded the entire creation into a comfortable circular nest.
Into this my mother placed her large, white eggs and on it mother goose sat for one month until inside the eggs tiny goslings had formed. When they emerged the delighted father danced with delight and led his beloved and his brood down through the meadows to the river. Over the summer months they grew into leggy teenagers and finally young geese who were then fattened and taken to the Christmas market to provide my mother with money with which to buy her Christmas necessities. Money was scarce and the geese were a valuable source of income.
But despite the scarcity of money or maybe because of it Christmas glowed like a warm jewel in the midst of barren winter. It lit up the long winter months and into it went much preparation. The plucking of the geese was the first step into the food preparation. When the geese were taken to the Christmas market three were held back for home consumption – Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Little Christmas Day and a few others for town cousins who were not in the way of raising their own Christmas dinner. When my father and mother went to town for “Bringing the Christmas” as we called it, they took these geese and bags of potatoes as gifts to town cousins.
My town aunt made a cake and pudding for us and a cousin with a pub gave my father a timber box of porter bottles and sometimes came good with a bottle of whiskey. In that world there was no such thing as Christmas presents but there was an exchange of goods and the shops gave their customers tokens of appreciation for their support throughout the year.
On the Sunday before Christmas we went to the wood for holly and tied it up in bundles with foxy binder twine to bring it home across the fields. Holly was the main decoration but nothing went up until Christmas Eve and by then Black Ned had come to clean the chimney and the whole house and farmyard was in readiness for the big occasion. My mother left us in no doubt about the sense of the sacredness surrounding Christmas. To her it was all about Bethlehem and her symbol to mark the coming of that light into the world was the lighting of the Christmas candle.
When dusk descended on Christmas Eve we gathered around the tall, white candle standing in a big yellow turnip and decorated with red berry holly. My father lit the candle and my mother showered us with holy water. Christmas had arrived and with it came lemonade, cakes, new gramophone records, roast goose and Santa. There was magic in the air.
Now I am grateful to my mother for the gift of the Christmas memories that she left behind. It was another time and another place but I can still remember the sense of wonder that was then. Over the years I have incorporated her Christmas into mine which is now a mixture of Christmas past and Christmas present and hopefully the next generation may bring a flavour of it into Christmas future. With that in mind I wrote Home for Christmas.
Home for Christmas by Alice Taylor is published by O’Brien Press at €15.99