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Christmas Memories

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Brigid O'Connor & Monica Walsh

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A Childhood Christmas Memory – Brigid O’Connor

I wrote a letter on blue writing paper and sent it on it’s way to the North Pole, my pencil chewed in anticipation. My girlish writing looked excited on the envelope:

‘Mr Santa Claus, The North Pole, The Universe’.

I asked for roller skates, the old metal ones with real wheels, the ones my mother hated and saw like a premonition the scabs forming on my knees as I fell in a future moment, the ‘told you so’ held in reserve in her mind, just awaiting the moment I would fall. I put the letter in the post box. So many other wishes were trapped inside that post box by other excited children all promising they had been good that year, their fingers crossed behind their backs.

‘Isn’t it wonderful the host of angels I have in my class in the magic month of December?’ Sister Joan said, sarcasm mixed with the relief of not having any crowd control issues for a few weeks anyway.

I rose at dawn.  ‘Oh God, they’re all up’, my parents groaned as a herd of children descended the stairs, someone always tripping on that bit of carpet that was on my father’s ever growing list of things to fix.  The injured sibling would be just another hurdle to jump over in our haste to find our presents.  Some evil child would bring up a bad deed you had done in February just to add some stress to the occasion.

And finally, we reached the room with the presents and I opened my present from Santa Claus, The North Pole, The Universe.  And there it was with its wheels and metal shiny loveliness, my one roller skate, yes, singular.

My sister got the other one.

‘Sure, we can take it in turns’, we promised each other.

Is a wish considered granted, even if it is halved?.

Only Mr. Claus, The North Pole, The Universe, can answer that one.

Christmas in Umbria – Monica Walsh

Snow is silently blanketing the red-tiled rooftops of Ponte San Giovanni on this Christmas Eve in Umbria, the “Green Heart of Italy”, as I lean out the window for a moment before closing the wooden shutters, breathing in the frosty air and sighing with pleasure at the sight of the stars twinkling like diamonds on a navy-blue velvet canopy hanging high above the hills.

Gathered around our table are friends from many countries, all far from home and joining together for the festivities.  There is Ingrid from Germany and Nadia from Yugoslavia, former college friends of mine in Perugia who have travelled back to spend Christmas with us.  There is Robert from Lebanon, an architecture student in Padova who, like my medical student partner, cannot safely make the journey home because of the civil war. There is his Swiss girlfriend Michelle who, like me, has become a long-term resident in Italy.  There is Nadine from Belgium and her partner Claudio, from nearby Spoleto.  There are Franco and Silvia, our Italian neighbours in Ponte San Giovanni, who have called in for a “digestivo” after their own Christmas dinner – for in Italy the principal meal is on Christmas Eve.  Between us all we speak six languages – not counting the lesser-known ones like Flemish, Romanish and Irish – and at various times four of them are being spoken at once!  Our common language is of course that of our host country.

I look around the table at the faces glowing in the candlelight, feeling warmed inside by the lively buzz of conversation and affectionate joking, and I think that this is possibly the happiest and most carefree Christmas Eve of my life.  How different were the roads we had all travelled before converging here.

From the cedar forests of Mount Lebanon to the fields of Flanders, from the Swiss Alps to the plains of Lombardy, from Munich to Montecassino, from Dubrovnik to Dublin, we came to find things – and to leave things behind, to find ourselves – and to start anew.  We came with open minds and open hearts, to learn, to live and to love.

Someone checks his watch.  “Hey, shouldn’t we getting ready?”   We scurry to clear the table and prepare to leave.  We are going somewhere really special.  As religiously diverse as we are multilingual, we are all going together to Midnight Mass at the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.

On any day the approach to Assisi and the church of St. Francis is impressive, but on this snowy starlit night it is utterly magical.   The magnificently-illuminated Basilica is radiating golden light from the hilltop and seems to float between the white landscape and the midnight-blue star-studded sky.   We are quiet in the car as we draw closer, spellbound by the beauty of the scene.

Assisi for me has always been a place where peace is palpable.   Each time I have visited I have been filled with an extraordinary sense of inner peace, finding Yeats’ words murmuring in my head:  “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping like the veils of morning to where the cricket sings…”   I feel my heart fill up with it.

Within the Basilica, joined together through the Mass, prayer and song, we experience the bitter-sweet heartache of sadness mixed with joy – fighting back tears as our thoughts travel to loved ones far away and what they may be doing at this moment, while feeling deep gratitude for the friendships and affection that have brought us all together in this special place and allowed us to be an alternative family for each other at this emotionally-sensitive and potentially lonely time.

Back at the cars we have parked down the hillside, heading “home” to an Italian village in the valley below the Etruscan-walled town of Perugia, we look back at the footprints we have left in the snow and agree that while they will melt away in days and our paths will diverge again with the passage of time, memories of this magical Christmas Eve will live in our hearts forever.

 

About the author

(c) Brigid O’Connor, December 2011.

Brigid O’Connor writes poetry and short stories. She has recently completed a film screenplay.

She has been shortlisted for the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition and her poem ‘Boy-Man’ was featured in the Irish Independent New Irish Writing Page in April of this year. Brigid’s work has also featured on Lyric Fm, in anthologies and in the DRB Flash Fiction page, where she was runner up in 2010.

(c) Monica Walsh, December 2011

Monica Walsh is a translator, writer, poet and occasional columnist as well as a natural healer with a practice in Wicklow.  She has lived and worked in Paris and Rome and Perugia, and travelled for the UN to many African countries.  In Ireland she also spent many years with RTE on the production of TV programmes such as “Hall’s Pictorial Weekly” and “Today Tonight” as well as documentaries, arts and drama.  She is currently working towards completion of her first book based on her twenty years’ experience as a healer, during which her work was featured on “Kenny Live” and many other TV programmes.

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