‘I still remember the joy I felt as I tore open the wrapping paper’: The best Christmas presents we’ve ever received

An array of familiar faces talk about the Christmas mornings and childhood gifts that are burned into their memories

Patrick Freyne, Irish Times journalist

The best Christmas present I ever got was a yellow Lego castle when I was four years old. It had yellow turrets and a working red drawbridge and loads of knights with helmets, axes and swords, and Santa ensured it was completely assembled on Christmas morning because the man is a pro.

More specifically, my Lego castle was Set: 375-2. It had 706 parts and 14 figures. It was first issued in 1978, the first castle set issued by Lego. I know all this because like many young men I have been radicalised by YouTube and spend most of my spare time watching videos where people discuss and review Lego castle sets. It’s a whole thing. I’m realising as I write that my generation probably should have been forged by the fires of war instead of playing with yellow Lego castles. Well, it’s too late now. We are where we are.

Currently you can get the yellow Lego castle on eBay for £1,650. I just checked. I might have to buy it at this price because my mother gave most of my childhood toys to my nephews and niece. This is, quite frankly, the kind of sociopathic behaviour you’d expect from a Dickensian villain. She doesn’t understand that it’s perfectly reasonable for a grown adult to have Lego. Arguably, grown adults are the people who should have Lego because children are workshy thugs who just chew up the bricks and build things wrong. They are rubbish at Lego. They certainly can’t appreciate the yellow Lego castle on the many levels that I do.

Paul Howard, author

I was Star Wars-obsessed as a child. In 1981, when I was 10 years old, Palitoy introduced the Millennium Falcon. I used to go to Let’s Pretend – a toy shop in Dún Laoghaire Shopping Centre that had one little door for children and a bigger door for adults – and stare at that toy, drinking in every detail of it. It had a cockpit that opened to accommodate your Han Solo and Chewbacca figures, a gun seat in which Luke Skywalker could sit upside-down, and even a recreation of the famous chess table on which R2D2 pitted his wits against Chewbacca.


I wanted that Millennium Falcon like I wanted my next breath. But it cost £39.99 and my parents, who weren’t rich, said it was way out of their price range. In the weeks before Christmas, I kept going back to the shop, staring at the smiling kid with the pudding-bowl haircut on the box, hating him for having what I was never going to have. Then Christmas morning arrived. I went downstairs and there was just one present for me under the tree. I knew from the size and the shape of it what it was. It was the Millennium Falcon. I still have it, 41 years later. But better still, I can still remember the joy I felt as I tore open the wrapping paper.

Zainab Boladale, television presenter

My favourite present ever came from my mother when I was in my early teens and still in my sci-fi obsession phase. I had just spent the summer rewatching many seasons of Doctor Who, which I thought had gone unnoticed.

That Christmas, I was expecting clothing, accessories or something make-up-related, as per usual, but instead I got a Doctor Who-themed teapot and cup set. It’s something so small but we had never talked about my love for the show, so it was incredibly unexpected, and it brought me so much joy. I still make tea in it when I go home!

Jennifer O’Connell, Irish Times journalist

They say the real joy of Christmas isn’t about the material things. They say love doesn’t come wrapped in cheap paper in non-recyclable boxes, secured into place with 2,584 fiddly bits of plastic. Whoever “they” are, they are fools. And they never met my granny, Chris.

There are people who go all out for Christmas, and then there was Chris. The military-grade planning started every September, when she would collect us from school for a high-level mission to Fitzmaurice’s toy emporium on Barronstrand Street in Waterford. As children, our challenge was to weigh up the merits of the latest advances in doctors’ kits, roller-skates, games of Twister, Fisher Price Little People sets, dolls that wailed and cried and clapped and weed. Afterwards, choice reluctantly made, delirious with joy and exhaustion, we’d go for chips doused in vinegar followed by a slice of cake from Greer’s bakery.

On The Day Itself, she would appear like Santa Claus with a black bin liner over her shoulder. Inside, along with the Petite toy typewriter or talking alarm clock I’d chosen, there was always a surprise or three – the Tiny Tears doll reluctantly eliminated from the final selection, a laser gun with volume set to optimise parental irritation levels, a skateboard she’d immediately insist on trying out herself on an icy garden path, in her elegant tweed skirt and high heels, as my dad poured himself a stiff whiskey and tried not to watch. They say that materialism takes away from the true magic of Christmas, that love doesn’t come requiring the one size of battery you forgot to buy, that memories aren’t measured in huge, heaving bin liners stuffed with plastic tat. Frankly, they haven’t a clue.

Ivana Bacik, TD and Labour Party leader

My most memorable Christmas gift ever was presented to me by my parents in 1982, when I was 14, having outgrown Santa – very regretfully. After months of dropping heavy hints, I became the proud owner of a Sony Walkman (remember those?!). The first cassette tape (remember those?!) that I played on it was the new album from ABC, The Look of Love, another gift which I played over and over.

I have strong memories of dancing around the house to the delightful sound of Martin Fry’s crooning, wearing headphones neatly clipped into the device itself, which in a really innovative development could be clipped on to one’s belt. I thought I was the bee’s knees. Most of my friends had already got their own Walkmans – it was so brilliant to be like them all.

I haven’t seen a Sony Walkman in real life in years. In an era of iPhones, Bluetooth and wireless technology no doubt the Walkman would look very quaint and low-tech now, but at the time it seemed the height of sophistication. No other gift since then has carried quite the same thrill or brought as much enjoyment. The Sony Walkman lasted for years – until cassette tapes became as obsolete as the records they had replaced. Time for a comeback.

Julie Jay, comedian

I’ve had a lot of bad presents in my time. There was the sliotar pendant from a boyfriend – but darling, you’re the one who likes hurling? And the time a guy got me a second-hand iPod shuffle with only one button broken for my 21st. The broken button was the On button.

When it came to special presents, though, Santy really knocked it out of the park the Christmas of 1989. I was woken that morning by my twin brother, who had insisted he had spotted the Big Man the night before. “Santy had a Kerry accent!” he said, and being the unreliable narrator that he was, my parents and I humoured him, safe in the knowledge that these were the ramblings of a lunatic in Bosco pyjamas.

Peeling back the brown paper, I held my breath, and sure enough there she was: smiling at me from behind the plastic, her blonde ringlets tied up in a purple scrunchy and her big eyes sparkling – my Cricket doll.

I was a painfully shy little girl, and Cricket would become my best friend. What made Cricket special though, was that she could talk, thanks to the cassette in her back. I loved her more than I ever loved any toy before or since.

I still don’t know how Santy got Cricket all the way from the States to the bottom of my bed, but such is the magic of him. Christmas is such a special time because no matter what goes awry, Santy will always find a way.

Victoria Smurfit, actor

I blame Dorothy. No, not the church warden who encourages you to help yourself at the orange squash table on a Sunday. The Dorothy who travelled from Kansas to the Emerald City. You can keep the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the cowardly Lion; I wanted her shoes.

Five or maybe seven letters, scrawled vaguely illegibly by six-year-old me to Santa later, I was hopeful. Two had been posted to the North Pole, one was attached to our dog’s collar with a command to “go get that to Santy” and the rest were burned in the living room fire. I nailed all forms of communication available in 1970s Dublin.

“Dear Santi, please may I have a pair of red shoes and less freckles? Thank you. Vicky.”

In our house, Christmas Day meant I’d have to wear my itchiest jumper and corduroy skirt. I prayed for fabulous shoes. Still dark, I crept down to the living room, where the Christmas tree twinkled with the bulbs that still worked and the mountain of tinsel, and searched for a box with my name on it. Mum, knowing what I am like, had tucked it right around the back. Part cat burglar, six-year-old me flattened to the floor and slithered under the lowest branches. Not without a stab or two, but so worth it. There it was, a shoe-box-sized present! Scooping it in the crook of my arm I shimmied back under the tree.


So busted. It was mum in her dressing gown and curlers. Sitting straight up, guilty as hell and peppered with pine needles, I breathed a sigh of relief as ma rolled out a chuckle at the cheek of her child.

“Go on then, open it. Pesky divil.” It practically unwrapped itself, knowing my haste, and there, lit by the flickering tree, were RED SHOES. They had a round toe, a rubber sole and buckle in gold.

Best of all, they were pockmarked with holes which gave my new Clarks shoes an air of glitter. Jamming my feet in, I was Dorothy. Today, I’d give anything to click my heels three times and have my ma in her gown laughing at me just one more time.

John Boyne, author

When I was 12 years old, I asked my parents for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for Christmas. They looked at me as if this was the beginning of a joke, and I remember feeling a little embarrassed by the pretentiousness of a pre-pubescent boy asking for such a gift, but I insisted that it was what I wanted and, on the morning itself, a beautiful hardback edition showed up beneath the tree.

I noticed my mum’s sceptical expression when I unwrapped it and felt a definite relief that a copy of the new Duran Duran album was also waiting for me. But I didn’t just read that book, I treasured it. I was ready to abandon children’s literature and, like the swimming teacher at school who would pick me up by the ankles and, despite my hysterical screams, toss me into the pool, it seemed I might as well throw myself in the deep end and see what happened.

I started with King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known dramas, simply because we shared a name. Over the years, I’ve probably only read half of the plays, but I liked opening the book at random pages and trying to decipher the Elizabethan text, like a puzzle that needed solving. It was a beautiful edition and I regret no longer having it in my possession, although I do own an elegant set of individual hardbacks that I return to regularly. Not a bad writer, that Shakespeare lad.

All The Broken Places by John Boyne is out now.

Róisín Ingle, Irish Times journalist

My childhood Christmases were full of memorable presents. There was the huge doll that could talk when you pulled a string in her back, and the slinky I spent hours sending slinkily down our staircase. Memorable for another reason were the coat hooks I was given one Christmas early into my relationship with my now partner of 22 years. When I expressed dismay upon opening the gift – coat hooks? COAT HOOKS? – he pointed out that I had once mentioned the flat we were living in at the time needed more coat hooks.

Thoughtfully squirrelling this piece of information away, he lovingly purchased a set of four coat hooks set into a slim rectangular piece of wood and then wrapped up said coat hooks in sparkly wrapping paper and put them under our tree. I suppose it could have been worse. His first girlfriend once mentioned that she was unhappy with her thighs, and underneath her Christmas tree that year she found a Thigh Master, an exercise product designed to reduce the size of one’s thigh area. His girlfriend broke it off shortly afterwards. He still insists he doesn’t understand why.

My Perfect Place in Ireland by Roisin Ingle is out now.

Roddy Collins, former professional football player and manager

We spent so much time outdoors that most Christmas presents we got were sports equipment like a ball or football boots or boxing gloves. And there was always a stocking full of chocolate sweets. One of our Christmas traditions was ma and da bringing us into town to see Santa and then to Hector Greys on Liffey Street, where we got a few plastic soldiers to play with and my sisters would get a little doll as a treat. From there, we went to Woolworths for chips and a Knickerbocker Glory ice cream. We would talk about what surprises we were dying to receive, and then hope against hope Santa would come good.

One year, when cowboys and Indians were all the rage, I remember wishing I could get an Indian outfit from Santa. When I woke on Christmas morning, there it was at the end of my bed, the complete outfit – a full-feathered war bonnet, a tomahawk, bow and arrow and a belt with a plastic knife. I dressed up and off I went out on to the mean streets of Cabra to rid the place of all the John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods and Billy the Kids before my Christmas dinner. I was Geronimo, one of the Apache chiefs, the happiest little Indian warrior on a road full of cowboys.

The Rodfather by Paul Howard and Roddy Collins is out now.

Martin Beanz Warde, comedian and photographer

I remember when I was about 11 or 12, clambering down the stairs with my brother, both of us squealing with excitement. The dying embers of the sitting room fire were still warm from the night before, leaving a turfy perfume in the air. It was a different smell from that morning that was the most memorable, however. To this day it is still fresh in my mind: the smell of new rubber from the wheels of my first mountain bike.

Within seconds of seeing the two bikes, the brotherly arguments began. In my parents’ infinite wisdom, they decided it was better to get our mountain bikes in different colours. I was given the blue one and my brother a lovely red one. The problem was that my favourite colour was red. In hindsight, the colour was totally insignificant, but on that Christmas morning, for me, a blue bike was hardly worth getting out of bed for.

When my father came down the stairs expecting to see his two boys laughing and in a festive spirit, he was instead greeted by the two of us pucking the heads off each other. I was an ungrateful child that morning.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have just been happy with what I got. It emerged years later that my father had taken on extra work to pay for those bikes, work which meant manual labour out in the Irish wintry elements. The real gift that year was one of gratitude and the importance of acknowledging our privileges. Many other boys from our estate woke up with much less that Christmas morning.

Deirdre Falvey, Irish Times journalist

My most memorable Christmas present was not my own. I crept downstairs one Christmas “morning” in the middle of the night, alone in the calm, dark stillness. In the sitting room were neat piles of gifts from the red fella, one for each child. My eyes lit on the small guitar perched on top. It was immediately seductive and I loved it. It was probably ukulele-sized, more of a toy guitar than a proper instrument. I think I was about seven.

Hours later, possibly, I’m still sitting on the floor, happily and badly strumming and fiddling with my new guitar from Santa, when the rest of the family arrive, all noise and excitement. I recall my mother muttering something like “Are you sure Santa left that guitar for you? Was it not in Eamon’s presents, maybe? Ah well.”

Santa had indeed intended the guitar for my brother Eamon, a year and a half younger, and even then a gentle, easy-going child who wasn’t bothered by his sister unintentionally commandeering his Christmas present.

For many years, that unsophisticated guitar featured in play and performance by all of us. It’s my Christmas recollection of a dear brother, who probably had then about 20 years left in the world.

Some time following that guitar Christmas – I hope it was years later, for the sake of the magic – Santa thought to put a note with the recipient’s name on presents to prevent such mix-ups. Santa, however, was not aware that a father’s handwriting, even printed in large letters, can be instantly recognisable to his child. And so it was, on that later Christmas morning, having crept down again early and alone, my name on a note was also a harbinger of a truth about Christmas.

Keith Barry, magician

My most nostalgic Christmas present ever was definitely my Big Trak tank, a toy ahead of its time with regard to its programming features. On the top there is a grid of buttons used to enter a sequence of commands (up to 16 at any one time) including go, stop, turn, fire and the rest.

Once programmed, Big Trak then repeated the actions in the order commanded. This fascinated me as a kid, and I had hours and hours of fun with it. I still have it today and I’m delighted to see my son, a budding young coder, loves it too.

Other favourites would be the Rubix cube, which is also something I now use regularly during performances. Such a simple yet amazing toy with an astounding 43 quintillion variations. It’s great to see that some of these wonderful, fun and educational toys are still being enjoyed.

Keith Barry’s new show, Mind Games, plays in The Gaiety Theatre on February 25th.

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, rugby legend

I remember one year, Honor told me that she had a present for me, which I obviously thought was some kind of wind-up? My daughter had never bought me anything in her life. I looked around and I was like, “Where is it?” and she went, “Well, it’s not actually a physical present?” and I was thinking, here we go again. Because one year, her gift to me was a promise not to be horrible to me for 48 hours of Christmas – although she later explained that the hours could be spread over the 12 days leading up to the 6th of January and could include the time when she was asleep. So I was dreading to think what this is going to be.

Then she went, “Do you know all those, like, video cassettes that your dad has of all your schools rugby matches?” and I was like, “Yeah, no, what about them?” She handed me the laptop. “Well,” she went, “I got them all converted into digital files – so you can watch them on the laptop any time you want.” It was – as we used to say back in the olden days – totes emosh.