Róisín Ingle: It may be a black and white Christmas but there’s still magic in it

I was standing in Aldi trying to remember the point of Christmas. My brain was tired

‘Tis the season to spread joy, not the virus. Photograph: iStock

‘Tis the season to spread joy, not the virus. Photograph: iStock

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How I missed eavesdropping in lockdown. I hadn’t realised exactly how much until I found myself at a table beside a group of three glamorous women out on the town, sitting on the twinkling terrace of a Dublin city restaurant.

It was their State-sanctioned Christmas night out. I was drinking wine on my own, having a sit-down after getting the last of my bits, hanging on their every word. I was hungry for people, I realised,that were not related to me. Hungry for their stories, the trivia of their lives. One of them, a blonde woman in a gold-sequined top, was trying to put words on this different kind of Christmas.

“It’s like Christmas in black and white,” she said. Pleased with herself and warming to her analogy she added: “It’s like Christmas without the colour.”

There is nothing festive about a global pandemic even when a merry-making vaccine is on the way

It was cold and raining and my table was under a leaky awning, but I couldn’t tear myself away. I ordered another glass of white wine and tried to look preoccupied with my own world while secretly engrossed in theirs.

The blonde woman’s dark-haired friend, wearing very red, very high-heeled shoes that seemed to laugh in the face of this black and white Christmas, began to list all her treasured traditions that had gone by the wayside. I nodded, agreeing with her into my wine glass.

This year our Christmas traditions tumbled one by one. There is nothing festive about a global pandemic even when a merry-making vaccine is on the way. And, while acknowledging the grieving, the sick, the dying and those on the frontline, there is no shame in feeling the loss of each cancelled Christmas ritual.

We all mourned the missing moments in what’s been a disorienting December. Those three women had theirs. You had yours. I had mine. Gone was the family trip to the Snowman in St Patrick’s Cathedral and the hot whiskey afterwards in the snug at Fallon’s. Absent was the promise of toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and sneaky afternoon wine in a friend’s house on Christmas Eve.

‘Tis the season to spread joy, not the virus, we reminded ourselves. Festive work parties were out of the question too, swapped for virtual gatherings, colleagues waving to each other from their sofas, wine glasses in hand. Gone, too, was the heart-lifting solace of Christmas carol services which could never soar in quite the same way online.

O Zoom, all ye faithful.

It got me thinking about all of us, more dutifully than merrily, going through the Christmas motions, the ones we’re allowed to go through anyway. It got me wondering why we didn’t just call the whole thing off. A few days earlier, I was standing in Aldi looking at a load of brussels sprouts on a stalk – when did they start arriving on stalks? – trying to remember the point of Christmas, trying to muster that magic. It wasn’t like me. It wasn’t like me at all.

“Your brain is tired,” a friend said when I mentioned my bah-humbug moment in the supermarket. “It’s a scientific fact that brains can get tired.” It must be true. She heard it on a podcast.

Perhaps she’s right. After the year we’ve had, our brains must be tired. And anyway it makes sense that in December 2020, the year we discovered the mute button, we are celebrating a more muted Christmas.

If the virus really is a teacher and if it taught us anything this year, it’s the importance of solidarity

We are able for it, I think. We can do this. We’ve watched cherished yuletide traditions tumble before. It begins in childhood when a crucial part of the magic is diluted in an instant, thanks to savage, sacrilegious playground whisperings. The sound of sleigh bells fades but the precious details of those formative Christmases remain, carefully stored away like delicate tree decorations in tissue paper, carried with us into adulthood.

Things change but we remember. We can’t help it. The miniature ice-skaters and Christmas trees decorating the snowy expanse of icing on the cake. The enigmatic facial expression of the fairy on top of the tree. The taste of thick marzipan. The grown-up smell of brandy. The timeless glow of blue flames melting into pudding.

On the twinkling terrace, the third woman, wearing jolly holly earrings, said she saw the virus as a teacher and over Christmas she planned to write down every single thing it taught her this year. I looked across and suddenly saw three wise women bearing pandemic gifts. I don’t care if it was just the wine talking.

If the virus really is a teacher and if it taught us anything this year, it’s the importance of solidarity, the strongest standing for the weakest, all of us in different boats navigating the same storm.

When traditions tumble, maybe all that is left are the things we tell each other and sing to each other at Christmas. Joy to the world. Tidings of comfort and joy. Peace and goodwill to all men. To all women. And all the girls and boys. Goodwill to the isolated and the lonely which, in a way, has been all of us this year.

It could be that this black and white Christmas will help us channel the spirit of the season more deeply than we ever did before.

And even tired brains know there’s magic in that.

Merry Christmas everyone.

roisin@irishtimes.com