Ireland at Christmas is a magical place. It is a time for family and friends; of kith and kin. Yes, it is much more commercial today than it was when I came here half a lifetime ago. But some of the traditions remain untouched. On Christmas Eve, we still light a candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. Wives – and yes, these people are usually housewives – still mix the Christmas Pudding in an immense bowl, kneading the suet, breadcrumbs, mixed fruit and Guinness together until it’s just right. Then boiling in a pot for hours on end until the house smells like a baker’s. And finally pouring the Irish whiskey over it until it has just the right potency.
Christmas in Ireland is a time for children, which means that it’s a time for everyone because almost all of its populace are children at heart. And on Christmas Eve, the entire town of Navan still marches down to Mass, and within the draughty church that’s as old as the history of the town listens to the priest retell the story of a child born to a woman, and of His message of hope that was a precursor to his later dying.
On that almost Christmas night eight years ago, Ann chose to have herself laid out in a simple wooden box and placed in her parent’s front room. That house was tiny by American standards, and the crowd that came to celebrate Ann’s life could not possibly fit within its four walls. Instead, we gathered outside in the frosty narrow laneway and waited our turn to file past Ann. Inside, her family gathered at her head; a priest in attendance. And when it was my turn, I did what everyone else did: I entered the house to say goodbye. I picked up the fragment of fir tree, touching its silky needles into the bowl of holy water, brushing the droplets gently onto Ann’s forehead. Then, like the others, I walked outside to wait.
As I waited I looked up. On that almost Christmas Eve, the stars glittered overhead. A small mist gathered gently above the row of terraced houses, as if a ghostly wreath. In neighbours’ windows, candles were lit, only this time to say goodbye to a friend that they knew held no wrong. And then as I waited, the bells of the local church began to sing. And their song was Silent Night, Holy Night, and for a moment I thought of Ann and the friendship that she had for this Yank who was so far from home, and I knew that I would remember that night and that Christmas for as long as I lived.
Christmas in Ireland offers the simplicity of giving, love and laughter that many other cultures have misplaced beneath piles of torn Christmas wrappings. But it offers more: it offers a people whose hearts are filled with giving. Just like my tiny friend, Ann McGoona
Happy Christmas, Ann, wherever you are. And if I’m moaning about the rain again, let me hear you one more time: “Ah, for feck’s sake Tom, and give over. You could be dead.”