Since I started blogging in 2014 I have set aside a blog for Christmas. It’s a break from my normal fare, but isn’t Christmas a break from routine too! At least for those of us lucky enough to have a job that doesn’t involve pulling a shift over it. So for this year I wanted to reflect back on an advert from my youth and the sentiments it evoked
There was a popular Christmas advert on TV growing up which unlike many ads on RTE at the time, contained a powerful story line. It featured a dad (I presumed) collecting his son from the train at Christmas, whilst the ad cut between what the son saw as they drove to his brightly lit home, where his mother (again a presumption) prepared for his arrival by turning on every conceivable electrical device imaginable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, It was for the Electricity Supply Board and featured a song by Dusty Springfield called Going Back.
I’ve no doubt but the popularity of the advert is that if Christmas evokes anything it’s an equal measure of nostalgia for things of the past and a yearning for family, to have them close and part of our lives.
The advert stuck a chord at home because we were reared with stories of emigration and separation. My mother often spoke of the journey back from London at Christmas on the boat train, the meeting of friends and neighbours on the long, tiring journey and the excitement of spotting Cheekpoint for the first time in six months from the train, as it came across the Barrow Bridge. Although it was a short visit, with not a lot by way of extravagance, every moment of it was squeezed for enjoyment and celebration before the hard slog of the return loomed within a week.
She often recounted the visit of 1963 when the forecast was so bleak they were not even sure if the ship, St David, (or it could have been the St Andrew) would sail from Fishguard to Rosslare. But it did, and on making it home on Christmas eve, the snow started to fall. It snowed for much of the Christmas, but it was the return that would prove the most difficult. Firstly the snow was so bad on the ground that cars couldn’t travel, and on reaching Rosslare a NW gale was blowing so hard, the ferry needed anchors to claw her way out of port. After a horrible passage, they boarded an unheated train only to get trapped for the night in a snowdrift somewhere on the line. The bright lights of London lost their appeal after that.
My father had other memories, ones we only heard of much later. Having left home to go to sea from the age of 19 many of his Christmas’ were spent in the company of fellow seafarers in distant ports, or on the ocean wave, where the only difference between that day and all the others was that the duties were reduced to the essentials and the stewards and cook made sure there was ample food for all.
One yarn that we heard much later on was of an apparent Christmas in Spain where after the crew went on the batter ashore, they ended up in jail. Next morning they appeared before the judge and when my fathers name was called the judge asked if it was an Irish surname. “It is your honour” my father replied. “What part of the country are you from” asked the judge. “Waterford yer honour sir” he replied. “You’re not one of the Doherty’s from Cheekpoint are you Bob?” “The very same yer honour” “Case dismissed” cried the judge, continuing “Hope you will stand me a round the next time I visit the Suir Inn”
Given the role of emigration in the country at the time, I’m certain that the ESB advert struck a chord with most Irish homes, and that’s probably the reason it became so popular. It was aired for many years and it is still talked about on radio and TV shows to this day, particularly at Christmas time.
Over the years that advert has come to represent something deeper for me however; loss. Those that are no longer with us, the distance between the memories and the present, where people like my grandmother who was so central to everything in our lives is no longer present, a once central element to the ritual that was Christmas.
My earliest memory of this was walking down the Russianside lane with our new toys in hand, eagerly waiting to show them off. The smell of the fry from her kitchen, the warmth from the fire in the living room and the excitement of unwrapping her gifts to us. Its telling, I suppose, that I remember nothing of the gifts we recieved, only her presence and her home.
Nanny never had a Christmas tree (until much later when we as teenagers insisted on getting it for her), her decorations were more traditional and centered around holly and ivy which was placed on the mantle and the glass case, and mixed with the faded blessed palm behind the pictures on the wall. Her crib was a plastic drawing that she sellotaped to the wallpaper underneath the sacred heart lamp. A red candle stood on her window sill and would be lit each night of the Christmas.
There was one particular feature of the house that seemed to mean more than anything else to her however, Christmas cards. These came from all over the world, and stood on the glass case, the mantle and on a string set under the mantle that sometimes went over and back twice or three times to accommodate the number, and ensure each could be seen. As she got older the cards diminished as those who could send them were no longer living, but the ritual of opening, reading and displaying never diminished for her, nor did the sharing of the information that they contained. And although at times it became a chore to me as she reread a message for the umpteenth time, it never lost the magic for her.
As we grew from children to teenagers and into adulthood and we ourselves had children, the tradition could not be broken, and each year until her last, the house expanded to absorb the growing families of each of my siblings, and of course mine.
When she finally left us in 2002 it was as if a chain had been shattered and we were set adrift. But families are resilient, and new traditions are born or adapted and so the gathering fell on the open door of my parents. And although my father is no longer part of the ritual either, it’s well to remember that the gatherings on Christmas morning are creating the memories and the rituals that our children will carry into their adult lives. When I asked my daughter Ellen what was the best part of Christmas day this year, she didn’t hesitate or have to think twice, it was joining her cousins in Nanny Mary’s on Christmas morning.
It probably won’t be Dusty Springfield or an advert for the ESB, but there will be some present happening that will create the nostalgia of the future for the present generation. The world may change and trends will come and go, but I firmly believe the central element of family will remain at the core. And family is not just about those that are present, it’s about those that are miles away, or indeed no longer living. For me, that’s what that ESB ad evoked, in the imagery but most particularly in the lyrics and the haunting sound of Dusty Springfields voice:
I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth
I think I’m returning to
Those days when I was young enough to know the truth
Now there are no games
To only pass the time
No more coloring books
No Christmas bells to chime
But thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win
I can recall a time,
When I wasn’t ashamed to reach out to a friend
And now I think I’ve got
A lot more than a skipping rope to lift
Now there’s more to do
Than watch my sailboat glide
And everyday can be my magic carpet ride
And I can play hide and seek with my fears
And live my days instead of counting my years
Let everyone debate the true reality,
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be
A little bit of freedom’s all we’re lack
So catch me if you can
I’m goin’ back
Songwriters: Carole King / Gerry Goffin
Goin’ Back lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Songtrust Ave