Sitting here this morning of “Little Christmas” at the beginning of a new year, thinking about the Christmases of my childhood….before I became a “tween”. Sweet memories came flooding back…and with the memories come the tears. I miss the days of innocence, before cynicism crept into my consciousness. The days before I realized that there was anything wrong with my world…before I realized how little we had.
A week or so before Christmas, we would set our shoes on the edge of the hot water tank of our big kitchen stove. That stove was so central to our lives, providing heat for our home, a place to cook the food that sustained our growing bodies, the oven, where my Dad, every winters night, heated large flat beach rocks, that he would wrap in towels and place in our beds a bit before bedtime, to warm them so that we weren’t freezing when we climbed in.
The purpose of our shoes on that stove was to have a place where Santa’s Elves could collect our letters to the jolly old man before Christmas Eve.Oh how I struggled with those letters! I thought long and hard about what to write…it was a fine balance…making sure what I asked for was just enough…never enough to tip the scales to excess…I didn’t want Santa to think me greedy. Of course, being the eldest, I also had to make sure that I mentioned my two younger sisters and all of my cousins too. I also generally enquired after Mrs Claus, the Elves and the reindeer.
I did really well in school, and so, I painstakingly ensured that all of my i’s were dotted and t’s crossed, and that each word was carefully reviewed to make sure my spelling was impeccable.
Our parents were clever…they had ways of getting us to be on our best behaviour all during the holidays.
The shoes went back on the stove on New Years Eve….but in the morning of each new year, there magically appeared three of Dad’s heavy wool work socks hung behind the stove where we dried our mittens. They were filled with another lovely big juicy orange, like we’d had in our Christmas stocking, and a few extra treats that Santa had left over from his ’round the world trip on his way back to the north pole!
As young children growing up on a small island, we had no concept of time and distance, so it made perfect sense that Christmas Eve in Australia was a whole week after our Christmas Eve. Of course, now we all know that Australia’s Christmas Eve is basically the day before ours, but back then, for Santa’s trip to take an entire week went without question.
Our perfect little “Westport” tree, that Dad had usually drilled holes into and added branches, always stayed up until “Little Christmas”, January the 6th.
As my Catholic raised father had taught me, I always knew that January 6th was the Feast of the Epiphany; the day the Magi visited the Christ child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and it was revealed to them that the baby was the Son of God. It is also, in the Christian faith, celebrated as Twelfth Night in some denominations.
In my mother’s Irish heritage, Little Christmas was…and still is…known as “Nollaig na mBan” or “Little Women’s Christmas”. It was the one day a year where the women got the day off from the drudgery of housework and the men were in charge of the household chores and the children. The women gathered together at the local public house…or pub…and had a glass (or SEVERAL) of stout and corned beef sandwiches, leaving all their cares at the door.
On this day, we children were usually given a bag of chips…Scotties, which had stars that I collected and sent in to get books like Treasure Island and The Hardy Boys… and a small treat to celebrate. And then we would pack away all the tree ornaments for another year and Dad would haul the tree outside, where, if it still had any needles on it, he would cut the boughs off to bank our house against the harsh winter winds, along with the ones already there.
Looking back on those early years, I realize now how little we had and how difficult it must have been for our parents….but we never knew. It was never discussed in front of us..how difficult it was to buy those oranges; the scrimping and saving to buy us that special gift . We had chores and responsibilities but worry wasn’t among them. That was for the adults, our parents. We were just allowed to be children. We were oblivious….and happy.