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The Christmas I spent with only Ol' Blue Eyes for companionship

By Eddie McIlwaine

I'm telling you a sad story today about the Christmas that Santa Claus let me down and left me with a disaster of a season of goodwill. It happened on Christmas Eve 1948, when I was 12 years old. And the old guy in red with a white beard decided I was just a wee bit too grown up to require his attention.

But before I relate how Santa put me in my place that time long ago, let me explain how that 1948 Christmas was just one of three Yule occasions that have gone haywire in my lifetime so far. Which, when I think about it, isn't too bad for an old lad like me.

Now, getting back to Christmas Eve 1948, when I hung up my stocking as usual over the fireplace in the McIlwaine homestead in Carnmoney village, just as my sisters, Mattie (8) and Sally (4), were doing, refusing to take note of a discussion my mum and dad, Martha and John, were having, in which I overheard my name being mentioned.

I know now that they were about to tell Santa that, at 12, I was far too old to be still taking part in the loveliest of Christmas traditions.

And, next morning, as December 25 dawned, I discovered that my stocking was filled with cinders. Not a present in sight. I was glad when Boxing Day came round.

Which brings me to Christmas 1967, exactly 50 years ago, when the second disaster struck.

I was having Christmas dinner with friends Doreen and Bobby in Lisburn and it was a happy occasion - until, that is, we sat down at the lavishly decorated table and Doreen served up the turkey: the bird was off.

Our Christmas dinner consisted of stuffing, vegetables and spuds.

Finally, let me tell you why Frank Sinatra singing I'll Be Home for Christmas brings a tear to my eye. You see, the ballad reminds me of Christmas 1970, when I didn't make it home for Christmas at all.

I was in Manchester, working on a story for the Daily Mirror, and missed the last flight home. I spent Christmas Day in my hotel, sad and lonely, talking to family on the phone. And listening to Ol' Blue Eyes chunnering on about going home for Christmas. That song nearly drove me mad. What made it worse was the fact that the disaster was all down to my own carelessness; my story was not urgent and could have waited.

I did get back home on Boxing Day, but it wasn't the same.

A fiver says Gemma will win Strictly

Gemma Atkinson will get a kick out of being in the final of Strictly Come Dancing tonight.

The 33-year-old has been, without doubt, the most impressive contestant in the marathon series, if not technically the best dancer (in my opinion).

Her chances of winning the glitter ball trophy are slim. Still, you never know. Fans everywhere will be studying her moves on the ballroom floor, hoping for the best.

Gemma, a keen kickboxer, has Aljaz Skorjanec as her Strictly partner, and she loves the way he has been guiding her around in the waltz, the quickstep, the foxtrot and all those other complicated dances - to the delight of the judges.

Despite the odds piled up against her, there will be quite a few bets on her for the final at a mighty long price - including my fiver.

December 24 is the real cracker

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house/Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

In other words, to quote that poem by Clement Clarke Moore, I’m referring again to Christmas Eve.

Which, for me, is the most joyous day of the Yule season, leading to the early hourswhen Santa comes down the chimney to fill the stockings — a tradition which started way back in the early 19th century.

I never forget the religious content of Christmas, but, just the same, I am nearly always happiest on December 24, filled with anticipation for a heavenly occasion which is about to dawn.

It’s on the eve of the great day that the presents and the cards arrive and we start tucking into the mince pies (which were banned by Oliver Cromwell in 1647, when he abolished Christmas for too many years). Here’s another reason why I liked Christmas Eve as a teenager: I was a part-time postman for the GPO and delivering cards and presents around welcoming houses meant I received a gift or two in return and was asked to pull many a cracker.

Hardy annuals were my festive treat

The lingering smell of freshly applied paint always reminds me of the season of goodwill, especially if it's blue.

One Christmas, you see, my mum was lucky enough to pick up the dolls my two younger sisters wanted from Santa, but nowhere could she find a shop selling the little cots in which to put them to sleep.

So, my father retired to his workshop and knocked up a couple of cots from scrap wood (with not a lot of help from me).

He then painted them blue, which was the only gloss paint he had on the shelf.

That aroma has stayed with me for ever. Even a touch of gloss on my nostril on a hot summer's day takes me floating back to that Christmas chore.

I always got a Beano or a Dandy annual for Christmas. As I got a little bit older, they were replaced by the annuals of comics like the Hotspur, the Rover and the Wizard.

I remember how, in the Champion comic, Rockfist Rogan, the hero pilot of the RAF, was captured by the Germans in the Second World War, but managed to escape and got home in time to spend Christmas Day with his family around him.

Holiday season wouldn't be the same without Jingle Bells

Gentleman Jim Reeves is about to liven up my Christmas once again. I know that Jim died in 1964, but his Yuletide hit Jingle Bells is special for me every year.

James Pierpont (1822-1893) actually wrote Jingle Bells in 1857 to celebrate Thanksgiving in America. I don't mind - this simple ditty suits my idea of how the festive atmosphere should be, right from my childhood days at Carnmoney Primary when teacher Mrs Hagan spread a white sheet on the classroom floor just before the Christmas break and had us scrambling for the dolly mixtures she scattered while we sang Jingle Bells at the top of our voices.

I've loved Jingle Bells ever since and even more so when Jim recorded it just before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1964.

He is going to cheer me up yet again with this little bit of Christmas past.

Why there's still something very special about Londonderry Air

Alexander Armstrong, a baritone as well as host of TV gameshow Pointless, has said that one of his favourite songs is Londonderry Air.

Many believe that the tune came from a Miss Jane Ross, who in 1851 wrote it down after hearing it played by a fiddler near her house in Limavady market.

It is also said to have gotten its name from Katherine Tynan Hinkson setting her An Irish Love Song to it. Londonderry Air goes like this:

Would God I were the tender apple blossom,

That floats and falls from off the twisted bough,

To lie and faint within your silken bosom,

Within your silken bosom as that does now.

Or would I were a little burnish'd apple

For you to pluck me, gliding by so cold,

While sun and shade your robe of lawn will dapple,

Your robe of lawn and your hair of spun gold.

Never mind the folk legends, I still like humble spud boiled

I've never tried using a common spud as a good luck charm, but I've been hearing a folksy tale from a friend of mine called Esther who insists that when a potato in the pocket turns as hard as old wood it will be just that.

In fact, I learn from her that this vegetable, which most of us eat in boiled or roasted form, is a cure for rheumatism in its blackened state. Some folksy remedies suggest that drinking raw potato juice can help arthritis.

Of course, doctors would dismiss such ideas and encourage people to stick to tried, tested and well researched medicine.

There is another curious story about the potato, which claims that if you go out to plant them in a field you have to go to church first or the seed will not grow.

Anyway, good luck charm or not, I'm still partial to a nicely-boiled fresh potato laced with real butter and washed down by a glass of milk.

Belfast Telegraph

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