Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Truth, Decency, and 2021

The recent six-weeks Irish National Lockdown designed to stop the gathering spread of Covid-19 was sold to a fatigued public as Save the Christmas.


What a compelling title and it resonated with this emigrant, though it’s been many years since I experienced an Irish Christmas. Still, the memories remain vivid.


Christmas, of course, is a cherished holiday in the US but its Irish equivalent exists on a different plane. 


Perhaps that’s because Thanksgiving occurs in late November over here and there’s no corresponding feast in the Irish autumn. Thus the long, dark Irish evenings seem endless in the chilly, damp weather.


But it’s more than that. In the Wexford of my youth Christmas began around December 20th and lasted until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany or Women’s Christmas.


It always used to stun me when I first arrived in New York City that stores would gaily open for winter sales on Dec. 26th. as I lay hungover and homesick in my East Village bed.


In a way it was a relief. All guilt and grief about failing to make it home could be extinguished in the company of other subdued ex-pats at Malachy McCourt’s Bells of Hell.


Festive lights were already being taken down around the city. Commerce and capitalism were back in full swing.


How different back home! You couldn’t even buy a bottle of milk on December 26th or St. Stephen might have arisen in fury and smote you at this insult to his sacred lockdown.


He might also have thundered that Christmas in Ireland is about home and the desire of all Irish people to celebrate it there.


Thus, from Dec. 20th the streets of Wexford began to fill up with this annual homecoming pilgrimage.


Very few Wexicans ventured to these shores; no, it was all about the UK. Like most communities Wexford had suffered mightily from Éamon de Valera’s deflationary economic policies.


Simply put there were few jobs in our town and most families had someone over in London, Birmingham, or wherever they had roads to repair, buildings to construct, or cars to assemble.


Many fathers came home twice a year – a week in the summer and another week at Christmas.


My own father returned from sea every three or four months and usually managed to stretch his stay over Christmas.


There was an intensity to the Yuletide homecoming, for unlike in summer so many returned at the same time.


The streets would resound with shouts of welcome and recognition, and the pubs were stuffed. 


The music and gaiety within could only be imagined by flirtatious boys and girls traipsing by; is it any wonder we all turned to drinking at the earliest age possible?


The shenanigans would build to a climax on Christmas Eve and after last call hundreds of revelers would head for Midnight Mass at both Catholic and Protestant churches. Hymns and carols were sung with fiery gusto at cathedral and chapel.


Christmas Day was spent strictly at home, as was St. Stephen’s Day, although members of the extended family were welcome to visit.


December 26th was the big dancing night of the year. Ballrooms in the town and countryside were packed, for it was rumored that a romance struck up on St. Stephen’s night could very well lead to marriage.


December 27th was a day for getting out and about. Hundreds walked out to the Norman Castle at Ferrycarrig, others chased packs of Beagles through the fields, while those with means, or access to some manner of a nag, attended the Hunt.


The pubs steadily built to a roaring business that culminated in a farewell debauch on New Year’s Eve.


On New Year’s Day the boat train began to steadily empty the streets and by January 6th wives, mothers, girlfriends, and sisters had a free, if lonesome, day with all the émigrés well on their way to London’s Paddington Station and beyond.


I’m sure things have changed in Wexford; Zoom, FaceTime, and the Internet have diminished distance, if not dislocation.


Whatever, a very happy Irish-American Christmas to all of you and let’s meet safe and sound again in 2021.

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