Trying to reclaim the Christmas Spirit
October 11, 2015
Ever since Santy stopped emptying his sack at the end of my bed once a year, I’ve lost that Christmas feeling. Stockings dangling from the fireplace now signal loose sexual mores, twinkling lights a killer hangover, while the last greenery I saw indoors was in my student days, where our neighbour grew plants that attracted the attention of the Gardai.
With that in mind, the Irish Examiner challenged me to try a Christmas redux, to throw myself into the spirit of the season in the hopes of recapturing the warm, fuzzy sentiment of a holiday coke ad – minus all the negative health implications.
Like a twelve step programme to help Christmas cynic’s get their hearts back in it, I was to mirror the attitude of Ebenezer Goode and not Ebenezer Scrooge, to do everything in my power to get high off the seasonal buzz of the city.
We got off to an inauspicious start. I turned up at the official switching on of the Christmas Lights dressed in my first ever Geansai Nollaig. Purchased in Pennys, you could turn me on by flicking a switch inside, making my bulbs twinkle.
It would appear others were turned on in nastier ways. A fiver would also buy you a Santakini or a menacing black leather G-string, bedecked in white fluff.
Nothing seemed to turn the crowds gathered on O’Connell Street on, though. Setting the world record for the number of Christmas Jumpers in one pace, the food provided by a local pizza chain and a creepy Mr. Tayto lurking about the place like the ghost of Christmas Corporate, did nothing to arouse a festive feeling and, with no seasonal grub or gargle offered, it felt more like a flash mob than an attempt to kick-start festive frolics.
The Dublin at Christmas Market at least had the aesthetic down. A series of log huts, draped in fake snow and twinkling lights-with Bing Crosby playing on the tannoy, people were jammed in tight, glazed in the waft from a multitude of food stalls. There were chilly, crepes, hog roast and candy, but precious little sugarplums, Yule Logs or Minced Pies.
Gluhwein in hand, I took a stroll. Feeling Ding! Dong! Merrily and High, I was hoping to find something to deck my halls with, but I came up empty handed. Expected to generate €20 million for Dublin traders, and creating 150 seasonal jobs, the markets nice to look at, but has little, if anything, you could hang off- or put under, a tree.
Walking down an angelically lit Grafton Street the bustle off shoppers still gives a passive kick to those of us with holes in our pockets, but I’m still struck by a pang whenever I pass what was once the Switzers window. Where once mechanical teddies sang, now the windows of Brown Thomas resembles a red light zone, oddly sexual mannequins posing provocatively while hogging wares.
The New York Times said walking in Dublin was ‘like walking into a Christmas card’ and it’s not hard to be stirred by the Georgian and Victorian architecture- the turrets, conical roofs and architecturally diverse buildings emblazoned with olden signs.
The Medieval Christ Church Cathedral is the focal point, where Dubliner’s are drawn by the bells chiming in the new year, or gather together to sing in unison. I go along to two musical events, Carols by Candlelight and Irish Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, which was first performed in Smock Alley, next door. “Christchurch has never changed,” Dean Dermot Dunne tells me. “And there’s something about that permanence. No matter how much Dublin changes, people gather around this place of hope and stability.”
The Victorian’s came up with most of the carols. A romantic lot, their structure stimulates hope, of bleakness and darkness turning to warmth and light. Modern entries in the cannon provoke the reverse response. You’d have to go back to the mid 90s, to The Spice Girls and East 17, to find a Christmas No 1 that even seemed seasonal , while The Darkness are the only band in my record buying lifetime who’ve written and recorded a classic Christmas song.
At an exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland, about the mark left by Medieval times on Christmas, I discover that cooking was believed to be ‘a woman’s magic’ and headed home to the mother, for help with cooking of my 11lb goose.
My auld lad, considering himself an expert on gamey birds, also chimed in and with three chefs- using seven different recipes, some truly foul language was exchanged, the Keane’s putting their own spin on that Medieval tradition of chanting and praying around food a particular number of times as a way of timing when its done.
Over eggnog we decorated the tree and discussed what Christmas was like when they were growing up on the Aran Islands. There was no tree then, rather a large red candle, balanced in sand and decorated in ivy and berries, and another candle was put in the window as a means of lighting the way for the holy family. The rollicking parties and reunions that took in the pubs below deck would ease the pain of the rough ferry ride over on the Naomh Eanna, and we paused, reflecting on how the party season is once again being infused with the sadness and urgency of those long distance reunions.
One place not to go after your 12 Pubs of Christmas is Winter Funderland. The combination of last night’s fear- and the terror of having my fingers sliced off by an errant skate, left me a chattering, bow legged, state, clinging to the side of the rink, while pre-pubescent childers flew by in perfect formation. Later I tried the waltzer, the adrenalin-filled shrieks and exploding, popping lights reanimating the previous evenings corked wine.
“It’s an interactive experience for friends and family,” says Don Bird, whose family have run Funderland for over 50 years. “it’s not virtual. It leaves you shaking, dizzy, like you’ve personally experienced something.”
The addition of Fossets circus has done wonders opening the event up to all ages. “Circus is non narrative, so it appeals to those too young to talk and those so old they don’t want to,” says Charles O Brien, their Marketing Manager.
The RDS isn’t just home to fun and games this season though. It’s also home to the 90th annual Christmas Day Dinner, hosted by The Knights of Saint Columbanus. Two yeas ago they fed 1,200 people, last year the figure doubled, and they expect in excess of 2,500 people this December 25th. They’ve no available slots for volunteers to prepare food or the goody bags filled with hygiene products, as the 350 spaces were filled by early November.
When I was younger my parents couldn’t afford to buy a Christmas tree, so we decorated a branch of Ivy. Things have gotten much worse for Dublin families of late. Helen Walsh was left destroyed by the poverty she has witnessed during her 15-years delivering hampers at Christmas to families below the breadline. “We bring them enough food to last them a week or ten days. I’ve had people rip them apart before me, they are so hungry. I was left with marks from another woman who was hugging me so hard. She opened her fridge and all she had was an orange and a pint of milk.”
While she can no longer subject herself to seeing the poverty first hand, Walsh has been cheered by the generosity of everyday Dubliners. “Last year, after Christmas, people identified that there was still a need, and kept on giving. I was inundated, and made the promise that if people continued, I would find a home for it. That’s why I have the #passiton campaign on my website, so people can see what’s needed and get in touch.