St Nicholas’ day

For the Mhinisteir’s wife

Today is the sixth of December. For me the real beginning of the Christmas season.

This was the day when good children were given a little present and naughty children a birch rod.

One year my mother gave me a rod. It was very small and gilded. Very pretty. But a rid nevertheless. I was not pleased. I think she thought it was funny, as she’d bought it somewhere abroad.

I don’t remember if I got something nice as well that year. I expect so.

She certainly made up for it in years to come. I was at boarding school from the age of eleven and then she would send me little parcels of chocolate. That was much appreciated. Then I went to university and the parcels got bigger and better. Lots of useful and playful things as well as chocolate. For my year abroad in Salamanca the box was huge. It was so exciting. A lot of my friends stood roundabout as I opened it. Trouble was she had packed it carefully so that nothing would break. No polystyrene balls or bubble wrap in those days. Just soft items of personal hygiene. Oh, the embarrassment! Still she wasn’t to know!

I anticipated these presents till I had children of my own.

The picture is of a little set of decorations she brought back from Vienna when I was about ten. They are some of my most treasured possessions.

But Christmas is not about presents, or food, or nice clothes- though all are important, but about family and friends.

My best Christmas was the year my eldest daughter was born. My parents were seriously estranged until then – they had made efforts at my twenty first and my wedding, but a baby at Christmas has enormous healing powers.

She was six months old, Martial Law had just been declared in Poland, we had friends staying who couldn’t risk going back and the atmosphere was tense generally. I was exhausted, and yet… and yet… it was wonderful.

My parents came, my aunt, my mother’s second husband. And all gazed into baby’s enormous brown eyes. There was peace at last.

I think this is why the nativity story so resonates with anyone who has ever met a baby. Their vulnerability and joy have an impelling effect on sometimes the most heartless people. And that Christmas was a real turning point in my life. I don’t think my parents ever quite realised, but the love they had for my daughter and later the other children seemed to benefit their own sometimes fraught relationship.

Christmas therefore has its own power, I believe. And in my family we keep the tree up to February 2. To remind us of its spirit.

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