Blast from the past

Has the magic of Christmas survived the digital age? Kevin Courtney asks three well known faces to compare Christmas past and present and share some highlights of their childhood Christmases


Miriam O’Callaghan
TV and radio presenter/broadcast journalist with RTÉ

Christmas was a magical time for Miriam O’Callaghan, who grew up with her four siblings in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house in Cornelscourt, south Co Dublin.

“I grew up the daughter of a Kerry father and a Laois mother, so it was a very country-influenced Christmas,” she says. “My parents were very conservative, so we’d always go to Mass. The really exciting thing was in those days you got new clothes. These days, kids get clothes whenever they want them, but in our house we didn’t get clothes that often, so Christmas was really exciting.”

Her most memorable item of Christmas clothing was a pair of black bell-bottoms from a store called It’s A Beautiful Day in the Dandelion Market. “And cowboy boots. I used to love getting cowboy boots.”

In Miriam’s day, the ultimate in technology was the portable cassette recorder, the flat yoke with the sticky-outy buttons that predated the boombox. These days, Santa brings X-Box and Playstation games, but, she says, her youngest kids also like playing old-fashioned board games such as Cluedo and Monopoly.

“I think one of the extraordinary wonders of the world right now is that, with all the technology, all the commercialism and cynicism, people still keep the wonderful magic of Santa Claus,” she says. “And even in a house like ours where there are lots of teenagers, everyone protects the magic of Santa for the little ones in our house. That’s really special, I think.

“My mum and dad used to leave out milk, carrots and mince pies [for Santa], sometimes whiskey, although we’re living in a PC world now, so I don’t think Santa should be driving his sleigh intoxicated.”

Another tradition Miriam holds over from childhood is a Christmas dish her mother used to make. “I make croquette potatoes, but only at Christmas. I suppose it reminds me of my Christmas as a child.”

She still attends Mass on Christmas morning, but these days it’s a multidenominational Christmas.

“Steve is a Protestant so he will go to the Presbyterian church and take a few of the children, and I’ll go to the Catholic church. It’s not like I go to Mass all year, because I don’t, but I do go on Christmas day. I think it’s a ritual, and I think it’s important.”

“I know a lot of people say it’s not, but I think Christmas is absolutely magical. Despite the world moving on, and everything being different, I think Christmas is exactly the same. There’s something comforting in the familiar: that’s what I like about Christmas.”

Maia Dunphy
Broadcaster, writer and producer

For Maia Dunphy, Christmas was a far simpler affair in the past.

“I don’t remember Christmas as hugely extravagant when I was a child, and that was fine by us. There’d be the odd year when a big gift like a bike would appear, but for the most part I don’t remember feeling the pressure kids seem to have now to keep up with peers giftwise.”

Those days, the must-have gifts were “possibly an etch-a-sketch or a walkman. Don’t scoff – they were the iPad and MP3 player of their day!”.

Chrismas in Dalkey, Co Dublin, where Maia grew up, was spent with her parents, two siblings, two grandmothers “and the occasional couple of wonderful great aunts”.

Maia’s strongest memories of the season were of the days leading up to Christmas, as the anticipation built up.

“Immeasurable excitement; fighting over the last door of the Advent Calendar (but always conceding to my little sister); collecting my grandmother from the airport and thinking the terminal was like Disneyland; Grafton Street and the Switzers’ windows on Christmas Eve; my brother swearing on his life that he heard reindeer hooves on the roof; truly believing that my Mum made a better Christmas dinner than anyone else; my sister and I wearing matching outfits . . . oh, did you mean just one memory?”

The Christmas day routine began with Zig and Zag on The Den on Christmas morning – Maia never dreamed that, years later, she’d be working with the bug-eyed brothers from planet Zog.

The family would go to Mass, then collect Maia’s granny (her other granny would already be there) and drop into family friends for drinks. “And then it was lockdown, with food, TV and selection boxes for the rest of the day. Bliss.”

She still spends Christmas with her parents and siblings. However, they’ve recently welcomed a new guest for Christmas dinner – Maia’s husband, the comedian Johnny Vegas. “He spent last Christmas with my family, which was lovely, but he will be with his son and relatives in the UK this year, and we’ll spend New Year together. It’s not ideal, but we both know how important Christmas is to our respective families.”

So, what Christmas traditions would Maia like to see preserved or reinstated? “The Zig and Zag Christmas specials need to come back!” she says.

But despite the outbreak of “premature jingling” which has marred the run-up to Christmas, Maia still believes we can preserve the magic of Christmas.

“The wonder can always be brought back – it’s all within the control of parents, I think.

“The commercial side has become a machine, but I honestly believe a child’s Christmas will not be shattered if Santa doesn’t bring an XBox. Think of the begged-for ponies that never turned up in our day!”

Jason Byrne
Comedian and presenter

If comedian Jason Byrne had a time-machine, he’d be whisking his kids back to his own childhood Christmas, and replacing the Xboxes with bicycles and the iPads for an old-fashioned telly.

“We only ever got one main pressie from Santa, and a surprise in the sock at the end of your bed,” recalls Jason. “One year I asked for a space shuttle with men in it, and I built the moonbase for it out of cardboard and tinfoil. I tell ye, kids have it easy these days!” The ultimate Christmas gift was a bike. “It was rare but the best thing to get, not like now, the way kids are just bought bikes at the drop of a hat. I tell ye, kids have it easy these days!”

On Christmas morning, the neighbours would drop in for a drink and then the family would go visiting. The itinerary would take in a granny in Finglas, a few aunties’ houses, and relations in Ballybough in Fairview. “I got the Beano annual each year off my nana – until I turned 12, when she handed me a pair of socks instead. I was devastated.”

Now that he’s a father of two, Jason doesn’t do as much visiting on Christmas Day. “I spread it out over the holidays more. Also, we now have Santa coming to my house, so that needs to be set up .

“I’d love to be able to hand my kid a Beano at Christmas, but with all their iPads and electric windows they just have it too easy. On a plate I say, on a plate.”

Just like many of us, Jason would like to see a few old Christmas traditions coming back, but there are others he’s glad to consign to history. “I’d like to see more red scarves and rocking chairs, and less money spent, but I’m glad the tradition of being paid in coal has gone. One year my dad way paid in coal, and I had to help him carry it home from work. I tell ye, if you asked a kid today to carry a bag of coal, they’d check if there was an app for that, which there probably is.”