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


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.

I began to call “Granny” at the top of my voice. Again and again I called, piteously and at length desperately. Nothing happened. I noticed vaguely a small group of passers-by gathered on the footpath across the road looking up at me. I ignored them and kept on calling, by now in a tearful voice.

At last there was a noise of doors downstairs, a rush of feet on the stairs behind me, and then my mother was in the room and lifting the window. The dentist’s wife next door had seen the crowd collecting and, not knowing what the cause was, had come round to give the alarm. Not even she had heard my shouts. I think everyone was quite amused, but all I remember is my mother’s remark that she was sorry she hadn’t taken advantage of the position in which I was pinned to give me a good “skelping”.

Of course, the journey to Belfast, whether by train or car, was the gateway to the magic world and was full of anticipation and excitement. The arrival was a wonderful adventure – the specially installed miniature church in the railway station emitting hymn after hymn through its gleaming gold windows, the old familiar whine of the trams pregnant with memories, the great Christmas tree at the City Hall being decorated for its Christmas Eve illumination. Then at the house – which was very home for me – joyful welcomings and showers of kisses and my grandmother’s arms wide open for her “dear big son”.

It was as I said, only when I became an “infidel” and banished myself from the Eden of childhood that I had to work by the sweat of my brow and take a share in the preparations for Christmas. There was one task, however, which I cannot remember ever having been too young to perform: the grating of breadcrumbs for the stuffing of the turkey. It was a delight to demolish those formidable loaves into great heaps of fleecy crumbs. It gave me a sense of achievement when I saw the white mass mount up inside the great enamelled breadbin, the receptacle we used on this occasion. I suppose, too, that amid the fuss and bustle it gave me that feeling being needed, of “belonging” somewhere which every child yearns for.

Midnight Mass was an experience of my adolescence. Before that I used always go to early Mass on Christmas morning, usually with my grandfather. How I loved those mornings! Just as in my childhood superstition Sundays always turned out fine and Good Friday always rained in torrents, Christmas morning too had its peculiar quality. I cannot well describe what this was because sometimes the streets were wet and sometimes dry, sometimes there was frost or a light coating of snow. But it never rained on Christmas morning and the air was always indescribably fresh. I think this dry freshness and the peace of the morning in contrast with the hectic bustle of the days before gave it its atmosphere of exhilaration.

I loved when we met people and I could chime in my “Happy Christmas” in accompaniment to my grandfather’s greeting. There was a special happiness in greeting people on that morning and their greeting and smile seemed to have a heartiness and sincerity that were not of every day. Perhaps the joy and freshness that appeared to reign in the streets and in the church at Mass came only from my own heart – but I think it was more than that. I believe that in some way people who are together have a power without speaking to or even knowing each other, of communicating a sentiment creating an atmosphere.

Christmas morning passed with much excitement and a furore of cooking and the diningroom table put on its Christmas clothes. The magic of the Christmas table was due to my aunt’s never-failing ingenuity and it changed from year to year. The paper-napkins and tablemats with their holly branches and reindeer and sleds full of Santa and toys and cheering children, the strips of coloured ribbon, the little clay figures of “fellows” all muffled up in Santa red suits lying on the snow of the table-cloth or caught frozen, with one foot in the air, while scampering over it, the square of frozen water remarkably like a piece of mirror glass amid scintillating frost and cotton wool snow with more little fellows tumbling and sliding.

These things and more unusual inventions used set the fibres of my imagination a-tingle. For years now when I look at the Christmas table and see a lot of pretty decorations, I am amazed at my own prosaic mind and I wonder to what place above or beneath the earth has fled that other vision. In the late afternoon some of us would rouse ourselves – the grown-ups from their books and the fire or their postprandial nap and I from my dreamland of toys – and take a walk in the thickening twilight. The magic of these walks has not fled with childhood but while losing its wide-eyed wonder has become a joy richer and more contemplative. At that hour in those Belfast suburbs there hung a great quiet and the whine of a tram or the rumble of a bus was rare and lonely. The shuttling intercourse of the city was, for the moment, no more and its life had disintegrated into thousands of little groups gathered around Christmas trees.

You could see the tree in every window, whether of houses right on the footpath’s edge – as so many are in Belfast, so that you can see at arm’s length the trinkets and the silver-paper ornaments – or in windows of houses standing back behind gardens with shrubs or a shadowy tree thickening the darkness and showing up the fairy lights with greater brilliance. Almost every tree had its fairy lights and in few houses (till the war came) were blinds drawn, so to walk along a road was a thrilling experience.

The warm glow of light in the room and, if the tree were the only source of light, the dancing shadows of a fire on the wallpaper and pictures –these in contrast to the sharp clear air and gathering darkness outside produced an effect of homeliness and warmth, of intimate family atmosphere that told me I was looking at the soul of Christmas. And then we would arrive back home and find it all round our own Christmas tree and by the great coal fire which was the pride of my grandfather.

Adolescence was to bring Christmas joys of a different and perhaps of a deeper kind. An Adeste Fidelis would move me to tears, there would be nights of “Consequences” and “Postman’s Knock” and Dublin’s Moore Street on a foggy December evening with its stalls and crowds, its lights and its whole gamut of the calls of Christmas would hold me spellbound.

But the magic of childhood which gave its own special thrills to Christmas and which our language, being a language of adults, is unable to interpret – that magic went with that other “me” into the fairy hills and, like the lost children of Hamelin, has not been heard of since.

Desmond Fennell’s latest book is Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of European Civilisation (Publibook Ireland)

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