It’s unlikely that I’ll spend another Christmas in Wexford. When I first arrived in America that would have been a doomsday pronouncement but, with time, you come to accept it as the emigrant’s lot. You weave together your own traditions or, as likely as not, adopt and adapt someone else’s.
And yet the memories draw you back. Wexford’s medieval Main Street was a thrilling place for a child. For weeks before the big day the lights would illuminate the many shop windows, flickering, dancing, and heightening the allure of the finery and toys that would soon find their way to lucky homes.
No one had much in the way of money and few got more than one Christmas gift, but it would be something you had requested and anticipated since autumn. Things have changed in Wexford; children get more than one gift, while the shops on the once bustling Main Street must now compete with outlying supermarkets and chain stores.
Wexford was a great place to grow up in. You knew thousands by name or sight, but there were always new people to discover, clubs to join and some festival or event just around the corner. Though it reeked of history and had no little regard for itself, the old town throbbed with an innate sense of excitement.
When I first moved to Dublin, I lived in Rathmines, then the heart of culchie-land. The craic was mighty, the music and the girls the finest; still on many the Friday evening I could be found out near Bray with my thumb in the air, anxious to hitch a lift home before the weekend revelries got into full swing.
Back then I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing a Wexford Yuletide. Basically, the town closed down from Christmas Day until January 2nd while the citizens dedicated themselves to feasting, fraternizing and ripping it up in pubs and dancehalls.
It was a rare family that hadn’t relatives in London, Birmingham, or some other industrial center of the UK. Many returned home in mid-December and the narrow streets would ring with shouts of welcome and recognition. Not many ventured across the Atlantic. I mightn’t have either but for a distaste for British policies in the North of Ireland.
I spent my first two Christmases in New York in a gentle state of inebriation, as did most homesick illegal immigrants. If you risked a visit home, you might not make it back safely through Kennedy. I feel for those currently undocumented – many with children who rarely see grandparents. When I finally got my papers in order I vowed never to miss another Christmas at home. And I didn’t – for many years.
But things change with the passing of parents. It’s not that you don’t care for sisters and brothers but with the house gone, there’s an odd lack of center, and anyway isn’t it easier go back in the summer for the good weather!!
And yet I miss Christmas Eve in Wexford. It would begin in some pub in the early afternoon; there you’d meet friends and friends of friends until the room would be rocking with laughter, joy and music. Still, no matter what the craic, one had to be home for 6 o’clock tea with your mother. She would want to know whom you’d seen, were many out, did you run into this one or that?
Then back to the pub for another marathon. Oddly enough, the evening would be topped off with midnight mass in the Friary. Even to those with less than strident faith there was something magical and reflective about that service.
The hard chaws stood in the back by the holy water font, and there was always room and nodded acceptance amongst them. We didn’t beat our breasts with the pious; like the poet, Patrick Kavanagh, we were transients, present only to be blessed by a “white rose pinned on the Virgin Mary’s blouse.”
For Christmas transforms everyone and in the end, it doesn’t really matter if you celebrate it in Wexford or New York. A very happy Christmas to you and yours!