No matter what kind of discomfort or inconvenience I was experiencing as the result of a cold, damp November in Dublin, I would always remind myself that Christmas was just around the corner. As a 10 year old, I remember trudging to my piano teacher’s house on the South Circular Road for my weekly lesson, buoyed up with the anticipation of colored lights, family gatherings, amazing food, and Christmas carols. Somehow, it just never got old. Despite my father’s thrift during the rest of the year, come Christmas time, he pulled out all the stops. There was always an interesting assortment of presents around the tree and he didn’t spare any expense when it came to the Christmas dinner menu. I remember him making eggnog laced with whiskey one year, and he gave us kids a taste. I couldn’t believe that a mixture containing raw eggs and alcohol could taste so creamily decadent, and I have not had eggnog that compares with it since.
In my early childhood years, we headed over to my paternal grandparents’ house every Christmas Eve. My grandfather, Fred Price, worked as head porter for the Bank of Ireland, College Green, and he and my grandmother, Violet, lived in a cozy cottage set back behind the imposing old Irish Parliament building. As a five year old sitting in the back of my father’s car, I was always impressed by the friendly salute we received from the security guard who waved us through the gate to their house. This small gesture imbued me with a false sense of importance, and I was fully convinced that my grandfather owned the Bank of Ireland.
My mother’s bond with her mother-in-law was a strong one, perhaps because she lost her own mother to breast cancer at the age of 15. To Violet, who was mother to two sons, Ron and Eric, Eileen was the daughter she never had. Together they would set to work in the kitchen creating all kinds of delectable Christmas treats. Of course I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but I now realize what culinary geniuses they both were. I have been known to burst into tears after tasting a rice pudding that almost made my mother materialize in front of me. Like music, food has its own unique type of nostalgia, especially when it connects you to a memory of a beloved parent now gone.
Christmas dinner in the Price household was a gourmet feast. To this day, I try to copy some of my mother’s and grandmother’s creations, but they just don’t live up to the memory. I always make two types of stuffing for the turkey; one with sausage and one without. (The sausage stuffing is my son’s favorite part of the meal). I still make my mother’s classic mashed carrots and parsnips which I prefer over sweet potatoes any day, and at least two kinds of potatoes – usually mashed and roast. So far, I haven’t even attempted to duplicate Granny’s Christmas pudding, with its rich mixture of sultanas, raisins and currants, steeped in Guinness. But just recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about giving it a try. Perhaps next Christmas…
Christmas Eve was magical. We would sometimes attend a carol service at St. Andrews Church of Ireland (a Protestant church) in Suffolk Street, which also happened to be the place of my christening some years earlier. This was just a short walk from Granny’s house. Sadly, St. Andrews is no longer a church, but today it houses the main Tourist Information Office in Dublin. After church, we would congregate in our grandparents’ living room in front of the fire, ready in our pajamas, and waiting for the crucial bed time. Granddad would supervise the setting out of biscuits (cookies) and whiskey for Santa. He convinced us that Father Christmas would appreciate this far more than the usual glass of milk. The whiskey would “warm him up” for the rest of his busy night. He also informed us that Santa didn’t use a sleigh, but totally went with the times, and now made his visits in a helicopter. Not only that, but he wouldn’t be coming down the chimney. After all, there was a blazing fire going. Instead, he would knock on the front door and Granddad would let him in, provided of course that we children were already asleep in our beds. Granddad stressed the importance of this last bit to avoid the catastrophe of Santa skipping our house altogether. This was because Santa is basically a very shy person, who doesn’t like hanging around making small talk – especially on Christmas Eve. It didn’t seem to alarm Granddad that Santa would be flying a helicopter around after downing some of his best Irish whiskey.
After the ritualistic laying out of the cookies and whiskey was complete, we children would be herded up to bed and tucked in beneath our eiderdowns. And this sleepy little girl would drift off with her ears straining to hear, not sleigh bells like normal children, but the sound of helicopter rotors beating the air, as Santa made his approach to land in the courtyard between the Bank of Ireland and Granny’s house.
(An excerpt from Hilary’s memoir on growing up in Ireland)