This is Jimmy’s story, not mine. Now an octogenarian, he told me this sad story from his early childhood in rural Ireland at a time before the arrival of the electric light to the district where he lived. It relates to Christmas 1949 when he was nine years old. Jimmy tells the story in his own words:
We lived in a small farmhouse at the end of a laneway that led from the public road. I was nine years old at the time and I was looking forward to Christmas and the arrival of Santa Claus. It was the last week of November 1949 on a cold dark evening and the wind was rattling the windows.
I was sitting at the kitchen table upon which stood a tall paraffin oil lamp and my father was sitting beside the fire. As was his usual routine, after his workday on the farm, he was reading a newspaper held in his left hand while holding a candle in his right hand. I had finished my homework and I had set myself the task of writing to Santa to let him know what I would like for Christmas.
I began to carefully compose my letter and occasionally asked my father to spell some of the more difficult words. After a while, my father put aside his newspaper and turned his head in my direction. ” What are you doing son?” he asked. “I am writing to Santa to let him know what I would like for Christmas,” said I. “And what are you asking him for?” asked my father. “Well Da”, I replied, “I am asking for a bicycle, a football, and a surprise”. “Is that right?” said Da as he picked up his newspaper and resumed reading.
Christmas Eve arrived and I was full of excitement as I awaited sunset. At that time of day, we lit a candle in every window in our house as was the custom, then and now. On Christmas Eve night Santa would arrive to deliver his presents so it was always an exciting day full of childhood expectations.
In those times, like most of the farming community in Ireland, we ate our dinner at about one o clock in the early afternoon. After dinner on that Christmas Eve, Da announced that we were going on a journey. “Where are we going Da?” I asked. “It will be your surprise” Da replied, “we are going to visit Santa”.
Da went out to the yard and yoked the brown pony to the trap. We both climbed on board and off we went down the lane at full trot. I was excited at the prospect of meeting Santa and I was amazed that Da knew where he lived. We travelled along the road for some miles until we arrived at Kilranelagh Graveyard, which I knew to be the second oldest graveyard in Ireland.
“Why are we here Da?” I asked. “Come along, it’s a surprise” he replied as he tied the pony to the gate. We walked to the other side of the graveyard over old tombs and burial sites until we arrived at a newer grave. “What’s this Da?” I asked. “It’s Santa grave and this is your surprise” Da replied. I was horrified. “What happened to him Da?” I asked tearfully. Da pointed to a house some fields away on the side of a hill. ” Do you see that house? Well, Santa was up on the roof with his bag of presents when he slipped, fell to the ground, and was killed. The people who live in that house carried Santa across the fields and buried him here. We are standing at Santa’s grave” he said.
I was devastated and my childhood dreams were shattered. My excitement at the prospect of Santa visiting our house with his bag of presents had turned to a mixture of sadness and deep disappointment. There was little or no talk on the way home as our minds were preoccupied with our own particular thoughts.
My memories of Christmas Day 1949 are not happy ones. It was now a day like every other day except for the turkey at Christmas dinner. Da did give me some small presents which I was thankful for, as I knew he had little money.. When I met other children over that Christmas I saw they had received presents from Santa. Da explained that Santa had delivered those presents before he died. Our house, he told me, was one of the last on his list and he didn’t get to it before his fatal accident.
Times were tough in Ireland at that time and money was scarce. I never spoke to Da about why he shattered my belief in Santa Claus at an early age and in such a cruel way. He probably had his reasons and I dare say that he needed his son to grow up fast.
That was the day I left my childhood dreams behind to face the sad realities of a tough life that awaited me. To this day I carry the pain of what I experienced that Christmas Eve, seventy-two years ago on the windy slopes of Kilranelagh Graveyard.
This sad Christmas tale does not have the usual happy ending. Jimmy’s story from 1949 might encourage us to be more mindful of all those unfortunate children who never experience the magical Christmas we may have experienced ourselves and expect for our children. Christmas is a time for giving, not just to those we love but to the many who are unloved. It’s about having an attitude of gratitude.
Happy, happy Christmas that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his fireside and his quiet home-Charles Dickens.
May you be fortunate enough to experience the joy and happiness of Christmas. Happy Christmas all.