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Thursday 24 December 2009

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

That's not a very cheerful start to a Christmas story of any description. It would hardly put you in the mood for carol singing, gift wrapping, or hanging decorations on a freshly cut tree. But then, the reality of Christmas is often far removed from the fairy tale version put out by advertisers pimping their wares.

I wonder how many homes live up to the Hollywood image of the festive season. I have had so many ghastly Christmases that I often think I can't bear to live through another one: I've been sick, poverty stricken, terribly lonely, bored senseless, force-fed festive cheer till I wanted to vomit, and often away from home and family.

In 2004 I went to Brussels to spend Christmas week with my sister. We were both invited to spend the day with her friends (who I had never met): a man whose wife had just died in tragic circumstances, whose adult son was mentally challenged but behaved well enough, and with another friend who was dying of some obscure illness and her husband who smoked like a factory chimney throughout the meal. But I loved it! The food was great, there were no emotional attachments (apart from the love I have for my sister), no gifts, hilarious conversation, and mine host walked us home through the snow to a waiting cup of tea and a meowing cat. The downside came the following morning as my sister spent the entire day nursing a migraine with the blanket pulled up over her head leaving me to my own devices in a city that was shrouded in a thick grey blanket of fog. I couldn’t speak French (still can't), and a weird system of locks prevented me leaving the apartment block in case I never got back in again so sightseeing was a non started. So, I read, ate leftovers, brewed tea, and exercised briskly by running on the spot in my room to prevent madness setting in.

Then there was the memorable Christmas when my teenage self cooked the entire meal from start to finish. As I proudly carved at the table, my brother berated me for being over-generous with the turkey and I could feel the tears welling up as I presented what now felt like miserable fare to him and my father. The three of us made for very dreary company.

I still giggle when I think of the time I got up early, before everyone else, and borrowed my sister's present – a red and blue scooter – and used it to zoom down to early morning mass in Monkstown Church and back home again before she even noticed. What on earth possessed me? I was all of six or seven years old with a determined wild streak but also canny, in that while everyone else was trudging off to the obligatory church ritual, I was home and dry and busy playing with my own presents.

But I'm over all that now. I've grown older and wiser and I know how to protect myself from the ravages of enforced enjoyment. This year, what started out as a cosy threesome to celebrate the festive season has turned into a party of five and quite possibly a sixth if we're lucky. We will cook and bake and stuff ourselves silly with nary a turkey in sight. I've been asked for a nut roast without nuts, a pecan pie with no eggs, and meat for a lad who thinks that vegetables should only be used as a side dish.

My own order is already in for homemade Sticky Toffee Puddings, a vegan recipe worked to perfection that has me drooling at the prospect.

We don't do presents (Basil can't wrap) cause we have everything we could possibly want. At some stage during the morning we'll all go for a walk and maybe end up at Sandycove where hundreds of swimmers brave the winter chills by diving into the Forty Foot. The atmosphere is absolutely fantastic. Most of the crowd are running around half naked; the rest dressed as if for a Siberian winter. It would almost make you want to strip off and get into the choppy water yourself, but I'm not that crazy! Just being there makes us all realise that we are glad to be alive and living in the moment.

Eventually, we'll head for home, buoyed up by the excitement, where Basil will be waiting for his lunch. The fire will be set so all I'll have to do is strike a match to create instant atmosphere (something no mere radiator can aspire to), light a few candles, and fill the house with music. We'll Skype the prodigal son who couldn't make it home this year; maybe we'll get a turkey to celebrate when we see him next, whatever the time of year.

And wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I wish you comfort and cheer and the joy of a good book on this single overrated, highly pressurised advertiser's dream day of the year.

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