Fr Kevin Hegarty
One of the staples of radio and television schedules, at Christmas time in the past, were the stories of Eamon Kelly, the Kerry seanchaí. He told marvellous tales of Christmas in Kerry during his boyhood. I remember him telling of the Kerry farmer who travelled by pony and trap to shop in Cahirciveen on Christmas Eve. Shopping completed rapidly - the word ‘shopaholic’ was not in his lexicon - he yielded to the temptation of the pub. As he did not want his relatives in the town to know he was on the ‘tear’, he adjourned to the ‘snug’, the small room pubs then provided to accommodate those who wished to drink privately.
After satisfying his thirst (too well), he started on his journey home, into the vastness of south Kerry, stopping first at the Daniel O’Connell Church, for confession.
There was a big crowd awaiting absolution. By the time he entered the confession box he felt drowsy. He fell asleep, as the priest kept the person on the other side of the box for a long time. Startled by the eventual pulling back of the curtain of the grille, he uttered the immortal words: “The same again and turn on the lights in the snug!”
My favourite time of Christmas is late on Christmas Eve, those sacred hours between the end of the flurry of shopping and midnight Mass. Awe is in the air. Our ordinary landscape is touched by the transcendent. It seems as if the spiritual and natural worlds meet in an unusual harmony. Patrick Kavanagh captures it so well in ‘A Christmas Childhood’.
“My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Outside in the cow house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.”
Even non-believers can be affected by the atmosphere. Thomas Hardy, the novelist and poet, lost his belief in Christianity, but on one Christmas Eve, contemplating the nativity, found himself ‘hoping it might be so’.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, especially, joy, generosity and goodwill are in the air. In his autobiography, ‘An Only Child’, Frank O’Connor tells of calling to a convent as a young boy, with his mother, who had once worked there. A young nun brought him to visit the crib. He was distressed to see that the baby Jesus had no toy: “I asked the young nun politely if the Holy Child didn’t like toys and she replied composedly enough, ‘Oh he does but his mother is too poor to afford them’. That settled it. My mother was poor too, but at Christmas she at least managed to buy me something even if it was only a box of crayons. I distinctly remember getting into the crib and putting the engine between his outstretched arms. I probably showed him how to wind it as well, because a small baby like that would not be clever enough to know. I remember too the tearful feeling of reckless generosity with which I left him there in the nightly darkness clutching my toy engine to his chest.”
The great poets of the First World War have ensured that the horror of that conflagration will never be forgotten. In the darkness there was a glimmer of light. Paul McCartney recorded a song, some years ago, on the unofficial ceasefire between British and German troops, on the Western Front, at Christmas 1914. Last October, a letter recalling this extraordinary event came to light. The letter, dated December 25, 1914, from a young private, identified only as ‘Boy’, records his wonder and relief at one of the most remarkable moments in military history. In the five-page letter, he tells of how on Christmas Eve the Germans began placing ‘lights all long the trenches and calling over to us and wishing us Happy Christmas’. He describes exchanges of buttons and balaclavas, haunting renditions of ‘Silent Night’ in German and English, and a football match with men he had been trained to kill.
Distilled in these stories is the true spirit of Christmas. It does not last, of course, sometimes it seems as beautiful and fleeting as a rainbow on a damp autumn evening. How do we make the moment last, as the Barry’s Tea advertisement puts it? Let’s not get into that now. There can be too much preaching and not enough quiet reflection. For now let us just savour the wonder of incarnation.