I love Christmas Eve, the daytime, full of visits and last minutes chores, the evening narrowing towards quiet solitude. I feel content being alone on Christmas Eve, lighting candles, being quiet. I might switch on the radio, let the silence swaddles me like soft cotton blankets settling a baby for sleep. Silence brings thoughts, ideas, memories, all of which, given time, move beyond being sad to being sustaining. All those Christmas Eves from the past rush in, a montage of years with people who have died or moved away until everything changed – changed utterly. But many old traditions are kept alive and the seeds of new traditions are sown. Long gone are the years I used to drive up north from Dublin on Christmas Eve, stopping in Belfast to see my granddad. When am I likely to see another blanket of snow on Christmas Eve like we did in 2010 when I tramped along the middle of a car-less road leaving virgin footprints on the snow on my way to visit Tina? Never again will I have that moment of walking through York late on Christmas Eve and happening upon a Salvation Army brass band outside the Mansion House. Or the mild Christmas Eve afternoon in Bushmills with my dad, the two of us out for a drive because everything was in hand. And there have been other Christmas Eves when tasks have most definitely not been in hand; days of frantic shopping and wrapping and cooking and stressing. Eventually, though, every Christmas Eve ends in stillness, even if it’s a nip of Bailey’s after midnight mass.
This morning, I went to Dunbar and admired the earthy carrots my nephew greeted me with at the door. He is two years old and not sure what to make of this time of year, but he could feel the excitement. He showed me his Christmas tree – quite clear which branches he had decorated: the lowers ones with a genius Jackson Pollock mess of tangled tinsel, stringed baubles, and a cord of bells. A mesmerising decorating disaster, I loved it! I had a few people in mind whom I wished were still around to meet him and his muck-clad carrot and unselfconscious approach to tree-dressing. But they are gone, and won’t ever meet him, but when he is old enough, I will tell him about them. Like James Joyce says in The Dead: “…in gatherings such as this, we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.”
Tonight, I can almost hear voices through the silence: a particular laugh from one, a certain unmistakable expression from another, a sigh, a song, a line of poetry. How alive they all seem to me for not being here. A bizarre thing to admit to; a place in one’s head it takes a while to reach. Of course, they are not here, I do know that. But I don’t know quite where they are, that’s the eternal mystery. One mystical answer comes from the seventeenth century poet, Henry Vaughn who says:
“They are all gone into the world of light! / And I alone sit ling’ring here; / Their very memory is fair and bright, / And my sad thoughts doth clear.”
My mum will light a candle tonight. She will pull back the curtain of the front room and place the candle in the window to shine out into the street, a lighted star of Bethlehem to lead the holy family to safety. It could also be a message flickering through darkness of Christmas Eve to those who have all gone into the world of light.
Christmas Eve in York, Eimear Bush
Could anywhere in the world feel more like Christmas Than the old Viking city of York? Walls intact, Shambles, snickles, garths, chocolate-box Tudor buildings Slumped upon each other, vennels front to back, Hidden corners lit by old-style lamps, cobbled lanes, Peal of Minister bells, Petergate and onto Gillygate. Nothing in my memory complains Of our years there. That final Christmas Eve, Ouse in spate, Fossgate pizza, kissed the waiters– Buon Natale! We walked up Coney Street, Salvation Army brass played Silent Night. We clapped and sang in carol-rippled air, one Precious, fleeting moment, full hearts feeling light. St. Wilfred’s bells rang out. Your hand in mine, held tight.