Most years, there were only the three of us for Christmas Eve, mum, dad and me.
All day long an electric tickle crackled in the atmosphere, starting in the morning, straight after I got out of bed. A quietly subdued sense of anticipation made me feel like I was holding my breath and stepping more lightly than on any other day of the year.
Breakfast over, dad and I went to the market to collect the tree we had chosen the day before; we carried it home, me holding on to the thin, top end and dad holding the trunk. Getting the tree to fit into the holder was always a complicated job; the trunk never quite fit and had to be sawn off a bit, planed a bit, cut some more, filed a bit, until dad was satisfied. By now the trunk had lost some of its length, dad was not the most handy of men.
Neither was he very patient, in spite of the festiveness a mild curse or two accompanied his labours.
If mum was finished ‘doing’ the little Christmas room we were allowed to carry the tree into its place, the same place as every year, in the corner by the window.
By now it was time for lunch, which was a hasty meal; there was much left to do before the magic hour of six o’clock when our family celebrations would begin. By three in the afternoon things calmed down, jobs were done and it was time for a bath. Christmas Eve was the only day in the year when we had a bath in the middle of the afternoon; mum decreed it and dad and I obeyed.
The winter’s day’s early dusk fell and it was time to dress the tree. This was a job for mum and me, while dad sat smoking his pipe and giving advice:
“There’s a hole here, a red bauble would fit in over there, this branch needs gold, that one needs silver, that candle is too close to the branch above”. Finally, lametta thrown over the tree haphazardly, “naturally”, to cling where it would, all three of us declared ourselves satisfied.
“A beautiful tree, it’ll be spectacular when we light the candles”.
All the while the radio played festive music, a request programme for the more discerning taste; I can’t remember any discordant jingles, although I may be wrong.
Six o’clock and the magic hour had arrived.
Mum had prepared supper earlier; when we were on our own, the meal was simple, yet festive, the traditional potato salad, a green salad, smoked fish, smoked meats, black bread; I was allowed a small glass of wine, probably watered down, although I didn’t know it then.
In large families, after the meal, one person would go into the Christmas room and light the candles, before the rest of the family was called in, but in our house all three of us went in together and dad and I watched mum carefully light the candles. We had already brought our presents from where they had been hidden and put them under the tree after dressing it.
“Ah, Oh, it is the most beautiful tree we’ve ever had, don’t you agree?”
It was time to unwrap the presents; this never took very long, there were never very many in those days, mine were most often books I had asked for; presents were certainly important but there was so much else to Christmas Eve that they were simply a small part of the ritual.
Dad was waiting for his treat. “Will you sing for me? Please, do sing now”.
The radio had fallen silent at six o’clock.
Mum had a lovely mezzo voice. When I had become confident enough to let my childish treble ring out she began to harmonise and we sang all dad’s favourite songs.
I too had a request for mum. She had a wonderful way with a harmonica; she owned several of these simple, folksy instruments and she could make them break into such hauntingly soulful, yearning melancholy that the hairs on my arms stood on end. She always ended her repertoire with Silent Night, Holy Night, with dad and me singing full out.
This usually finished dad off; there’d be tears in his eyes, and to get him (and ourselves too) back on an even keel, Mum or I fetched dad’s mandolin. It didn’t take much pleading before dad plucked a few chords, mum took up her harmonica and I sang along, happier, jollier songs now.
Wine, even my watered down cup, music, many “do you remember” reminiscences, a table laden with my books, dad’s cigars and mum’s small trinkets, plates of delicacies to nibble, the warmth and glow of the candles and a genuine feeling of contentment and goodwill all served to make Christmas Eve truly memorable.
For several years mum and I went to Midnight Mass. We’d bundle ourselves up, often wearing new scarves, gloves and hats and go to the largest of the churches in the town, the deep bells from all churches ringing us on our way. I seem to remember that we always sank into deep snow. The church was packed with worshippers and others like us, who had come for the music. We slipped in at the back; a thousand candles lit up every stone, and the sound of the massive organ filled the vast edifice.
In common with every one there we lifted our voices and sang our hearts out.
Going home, mum and I stayed silent. There was nothing left to say.