I’m not one to get into the festive spirit until after December 15 (my birthday), but such is the nature of deadlines that every year I have to sit down and write a Christmas column before we’ve even celebrated Thanksgiving. It’s never easy, but this year I’m finding it near impossible.
I’ve lived on this planet for almost sixty years, and I can’t remember a more anxious Christmas. As I write, the world is still shaking from the Paris bombings and my home town of Brussels is in lock-down. It’s hard to look forward to the tinsel and turkey in such uncertain times. We have plans for much of the family to be together for Christmas. It makes me apprehensive to know that almost all my most dear will be travelling through half a dozen airports to and from Ireland over the holidays. It makes me feel blessed that we can be together when so many refugee families are torn apart. It makes me grateful that I live in the safety of West Cork and afraid for those who live in places that are not safe.
I was in Dublin with my sister (who lives in Brussels and works in Lille) when we heard about the attacks in Paris. As usual, I went into an overload of news. After twelve hours of Sky, BBC, RTE, UTV and C4 news, twitter feeds and facebook posts, all pouring the same conflicting information; interrupted only by fitful sleep filled with restless dreams of Paris burning, I changed the channel. RTE One was just starting its early Saturday afternoon film: Disney’s ‘The Happy Millionaire’. The nine-year-old in me woke up and clapped her hands with glee as the screen filled up with cheerful graphics and jaunty tunes. Fred McMurrey! Tommy Steele! In a Technicolor musical! For a brief moment I am nine-years-old again. And then my heart breaks. It’s as if the fifty years that separate that little girl who loved musicals and this woman in a hotel room in Dublin dissolve. I see her world and she sees mine and we both burst into tears.
I was a cosmopolitan child. I spoke three languages by the time I was eight. The people in my life were Spanish, Filipino, American, Indonesian, French, Swiss, Belgian, British, Irish (nuns!), Egyptian, Syrian, and Saudi. My best friend was Jewish. The world was full of people of different cultures, clothes, food, religious beliefs and we were all going to dinner together.
I was nine in 1965. Mini-skirts were all the rage. I was in love with Davey Jones from the Monkees. I wanted to be Julie Andrews, or Marie Curie – or a combination of both. WWII had ended only twenty years before. Every adult in my childhood had a story about the war. There were still tanks left to rust on the side of the road in the Ardennes. I had met people with numbers tattooed on their forearms. My father showed me holes in buildings in Madrid, or Paris, or Brussels and told me they were made by bullets. I’d stick my finger in them and wonder if the bullet had killed someone before hitting the wall.
Every adult had a story. I remember a handyman called Marcel. I used to hang around when he was fixing something to hear his stories of his time in the Resistance. In secondary school, my French Literature teacher told me of how she was put on a train to Paris from Brussels on her own when she was ten-years-old. The train was bombed and she walked alone in the crowd of refugees fleeing Belgium, for three weeks to get to her uncle in Paris. They later fled to England before Paris fell. Every adult had a story, but they all ended the same way. It was a just war and the good guys had won, ensuring that such madness would never visit our lives again…and so it has been for my entire lifetime, as well as my children’s lifetimes.
I worry that this time of ‘peace on Earth and good will to all men’, will be anything but. I hope that the powers that govern us take the right decisions, not ones that will make the situation worse. I feel uplifted by the many people who have come together with messages of support and love, fund-raised for conflict zones, collected socks for refugees, or (like Clonakilty’s own Cathy Sharma) went directly onto the beaches to help refugees fleeing their country.
Most of all I hope and wish that we will all have a happy and peaceful Christmas, with friends and family, turkey and brandy, trees, tinsel and fairy lights. Because that’s the way it should be. A very Merry Christmas to you and yours, from the bottom of my heart.