The word “Christmas” is more than a mere word. In the world of music, a chord is composed of notes, but it is infinitely richer than any one of those notes. Some words are like that. They are far more than a mere word.
Christmas is such a word. We have only to hear it to feel it probing deeply — first into our hearing, then into our minds, then into memory, and finally into our hearts. Then will come the feelings that always accompany remembering — sadness and regret, joy and appreciation, and laughter or tears.
I share a memory of Christmas with you only so that it may take you into your own remembrances. What has always been for me a magic moment can lead you to what was for you likewise.
Magic moments are really the doorways to magic kingdoms. Most people tend to think that they are, as we say, out of this world. The truth is that magic kingdoms are very close to this everyday world that we ironically call the “real world.” All we have to do is to search for the door that takes us through or the bridge that takes us over.
My own magic kingdom was very much in this world. It had small winding roads, a village, a humpbacked bridge over a small river, meadows of hay, fields of golden corn, horses, a donkey, cows, and a wonderful black and white sheepdog named Billie. At the heart of this magic kingdom was Donaguile, my mother’s childhood home and my grandfather’s farm.
In the summer of 1929, at the tender age of nine months, I was taken, for the first time, on the long journey from Cork to Castlecomer and nearby Donaguile. I’m told we went in my father’s gleaming Morris Cowley automobile, complete with rumble seat. Come to think of it, perhaps this was the magic chariot sent by the gods to take me into my magic kingdom!
My very first memory of Donaguile came three years later when my father took my mother and myself for a Christmas visit. As with all magic moments, it came in the middle of very ordinary ones and was suddenly there to be remembered for the rest of my life.
I am standing with my mother and grandfather at the door beside the horses’ stable. This door leads out to the Barn Field. Later, I would learn that every field has its own name. The fields are white with snow, something not frequently seen in the south of Ireland. My grandfather has mixed a large bucket of feed for the young calves. He opens the door, bangs on the bucket and gives a loud call. Immediately, the calves turn towards us. Then, with that skipping gait of the very young, they run towards the doorway, all jostling for a place, all trying to get their heads into the bucket, at times almost wresting it from my grandfather’s firm grip.
He watches carefully to see that each gets a fair share. For a moment, he lets my mother place my small hand on the head of one of the calves. I feel the matted hair and the hard crown that is already showing the signs of what will one day become horns.
My grandfather scrapes the last of the feed from the bucket and hurls it out into the snow. The calves turn and chase after whatever extra mouthful they can get at. He then closes the door on the cold white vision of the fields and a moment of vivid childhood memory is blotted out, not before it will be retained for a lifetime.
Years later, I would come across a short but lovely poem by an English poet. It speaks of fields far away from where I stood that December morning as a child gazing at the white expanse of the Barn Field, yet for some reason it links me with that moment.
We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our days work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.
The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.
There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night.
Larger than Venus it was,
And bright, so bright.
Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.
And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves
We give to your son.
The poet is Clive Sansom. The title of the poem is The Shepherd’s Carol.
A holy Advent to you, and a joyful Christmas!