Fond Memories Bring the Light

By Fr Niall O’Brien

This article was written by the late Fr Niall O’Brien, founding editor of Misyon  for The Visayan Daily Star, a daily newspaper published in Bacolod City, where he had a weekly column. Father Niall died on 27 April 2004.

‘Fond memories bring the light of other days around me.’ So go the words of a 19th century Irish melody by Thomas Moore. That’s the way I feel when I remember Christmas as a child.

In my family there were strictly no presents given throughout the year, except birthdays and Christmas but particularly Christmas. I had many maiden aunts and bachelor uncles and they added their presents to those of Santa Claus so there was quite a pile waiting for us we new awoke at dawn on Christmas morning.

I recall not being able to sleep with the excitement. My parents could hardly go to bed at midnight before we would wake up. They used to leave three wineglasses and a tiny trace of sherry in the bottom of each glass to show that they had had a drink personally with Santa Claus. That third glass was proof that he had been there and it certainly convinced us.

I recall skating on the road outside our house at 2:30 am on my new roller skates on Christmas morning. I wonder what the tired neighbors thought because roller skates in those days were metal and made a terrible noise.

Then there was the Mass at 6:00 am. Now that sounds very normal in the Philippines but in Dublin 6:00 am in mid-winter is ‘black midnight. You see we had no Midnight Mass in Dublin because the Archbishop was afraid of drunken revelers wandering in and causing havoc and his fears were not unfounded. Anyway 6:00 am in December in Ireland is the middle of the night. Pitch dark except for candles lit in the windows of some houses to guide Mary and Joseph on their way. I wonder does that custom still exist?

Anyway, during the night my father put together an ingenious crib with a star lit secretly by a battery from behind. In our family we never anticipated anything. The crib could only be put up the night before the 25th. Even the Christmas tree could not really be decorated till Christmas Eve. We had old decorations going back to sometime before the late 1940s in Dublin. These were precious relics from a mythical time before the War, when things were said to have been wonderful.

Of course in Ireland our Christmas breakfast was porridge and cream – the porridge cooked during the night – and bacon and eggs and black pudding. (Editor’s note: This is similar to dinuguan but in the form of a large sausage that is sliced and then fried or grilled). In our family we had coffee, not tea, on Christmas morning and my mother ground the beans in an old grinder and the aroma wafted through the house. Then ‘all hands on deck’ to help prepare the Christmas midday dinner. That was the meal of the year.

The centerpiece, of course, was the roast turkey with roast potatoes around it. But there were other things. Ham was de rigeur and in our family we used to have creamed celery for some reason or other that I don’t know. The dessert of course was plum pudding, heavy enough to sink a ship. I am not surprised that nowadays when people bring plum pudding at Christmas through airports they set off the alarms because the sensors thinks that the plum pudding is the explosive semtex. They both have the same density! After lunch you had time to lie around and examine your presents and maybe do a jigsaw together with some member of the family who had got it as a present.

The evening meal was when we opened our presents to each other. My father used to exasperate us all because he would insist on opening the knots with his fingers, never cutting them, and folding the Christmas wrapping paper meticulously before he eventually looked at the present and gave a quiet comment. Not so my mother who attacked hers with zest and gave a cry of joy. ‘That was very thoughtful of you. That was just what I wanted!’

After the evening meal we would sit around the open fire. Alas, open fires are mainly a thing of the past now; central heating has taken their place. The fireplace forms such an intimate focus in the family. You could be lost in your new book but you knew the others were right beside you. In our house we finished the night with the family rosary. For me Christmas day would be ruined if there was the slightest tiff or misunderstanding among us brothers and sister to overshadow the day. I always wanted that day to be perfect. To this day my vision of happiness is still that sense of contentment around the fire in the evening in the heart of the family.

Then came the time when my brother and I, under pressure from our peers, began to doubt the reality of Santa Claus. We decided to confront my mother one lunchtime before we sat down to leat. ‘Mum, is there really a Santa Claus?] We waited expectantly. Considering she had no warning of such a momentous question, she didn’t do too badly. ‘Yes,; she said, ‘there is. But God has made your parents to be Santa Claus’.

When I went to the seminary I had to miss the family Christmas for the first time. That was a Rubicon. I suppose we cannot cling to childhood but the memories are stored away somewhere building up our inner spirit. Today I think how right it was that the mystery of God’s bursting into this world should have been such a day of joy.

Christmas really is a festival for children. Our age has not dealt kindly with children. This Christmas there will be many children in Zambia, the Philippines and East Timor alone, parentless, living in the streets. No parents to be Santa Claus to them.

Christ has given that task to us.

Father Niall refers in his article to a line in a song, Oft, in the Stilly Night, by Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852).  The recording by Irish tenor John McCormack (1884 – 1945) is the version that he would have been most familiar with.

Oft, in the stilly night by Thomas Moore

Oft, in the stilly night, 
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain hath bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

When I remember all
The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall,
Like leaves in wintry weather;
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.