Monday, December 16, 2013

A Cottage Christmas

'Tis the Season, etc etc etc. If I was still living in the United States I'd invariably be doing what any full-blooded American consumer would be doing at this time of year: shopping. Preparations for this Yuletide brand of hand-to-hand combat began, of course, months ago and I too would be drawn into it like a fly to honey.

I would plan the itinerary like Patton, mapping my route to Malls in hopes of gaining a strategic advantage on fellow shoppers to grab those bargains at the first light of dawn. I would charge into battle armed only with trusty plastic, with little regard for my own safety. I would storm the Name Brand Bastions, capturing my prizes with glee, knowing that my scarce resources were being diminished by the second but paying no heed because It's the Season to be Crippled by Debt.

And I would make my way back home through the maddening hordes, on the one hand pleased with my small victories but also feeling a headache coming on because I'd know that I'd have to do it all over again next year - assuming I could pay for this year's extravagance.

But I don't live near a Mall. Not anymore. The only traffic I might fight on the narrow roads of the Beara Peninsula is the occasional tractor pulling fodder to a nearby field, or a flock of sheep that has escaped through torn fencing and wanders stupidly across potholed roads without worrying that they might be mown down by a mad American intent on getting to where he is going. Yes, I still shop for Christmas but now I wander through the quiet fishing port of Castletownbere only 4 miles distant from my home in Eyeries. I'll poke my nose into Wiseman's and sort through the small selection of two year old fashion to see if I can find something for him and her, and then walk down the street to Harrington's hardware to pick up a tool or a fishing boat model handcrafted from wood for Dad. I'll stroll over to the square and chat with the locals minding the outdoor stalls that pop up during the holiday season, bursting with brightly colored local flowers still in bloom or perhaps selling hand-crafted Christmas cards, or offering assorted fat chocolates individually wrapped in sparkling papers to better conceal the sweet stuff within.

As the days march toward Christmas, and perhaps needing a better selection, I'll journey the few miles up the road to Kenmare and visit its fine woolen shops filled with hand-knitted jumpers and rugs, and wonder why I don't buy one for myself while I'm at it? Or drive further to Killarney and walk down the festive main street made joyful with holiday shoppers rushing to purchase fresh turkeys from the poulterers or fish from the fish mongers or cheeses and wines from the shops nestled neatly along the town's narrow roads.

But Christmas in Eyeries isn't only about the shopping. On the 8th of December or so, I'll visit the stand of wild holly bushes that grow only down the road, harvesting a selection of dark boughs strewn with red berries there for the picking. These adorn the lamps that hang from the walls of my living room, and the deep recesses of the front-of-house window wells. Within the dark forest of holly, I'll place bright candles and Christmas toys to tease the children who look in with wonder upon those simple scenes.

Next, I'll buy a tree grown just over the hills in County Kerry. Not a tall tree, not anymore. My cottage's ceilings are barely 7 foot, so a low tree will do nicely. I'll buy it from the fellow at Harringtons, in town, and throw it into the back of the pickup and place it outside to be washed by the winter rains for a few days. Then I'll drag it through the back door and past the picture window that frames Coulagh Bay a-surge with whitewater from wintry storms, and up the two small steps into the living room. There it is bedecked in ornaments that go back to my parent's very first Christmas, almost 60 years ago now, and given to me as a present when my mother passed away. These are mixed with those from my Irish Christmases and remind me of children and grandchildren who are now such a large part of my life. The lit tree glows through the small cottage windows, warming passers-by with its beauty.

Then as the day falls toward darkness, I'll haul in a bucket of coal and a few wood blocks and make up the fire in the tall cylindrical Swedish stove that graces the living room. A bunch of paper at the bottom. A few sticks of kindling with a mix of solid fuel fire lighters. Next the bucket of coal and a block or two. And when I light it, the living room grows snug as the flames turn the cast iron stove red hot.

If it's a cold night, I'll treat myself to a hot Irish whiskey: a jigger of Irish best poured into a tall glass followed with a belt of boiling water that's been simmering in the kettle. Then 2 teaspoons of sugar, and add a lemon slice made fragrant with clove thistles and stir briskly.

And I'll sit warm and cozy in the living room that has now become a Christmas Den and watch the tree lights reflect off the old family ornaments to stir memories of Christmases long past, in another country, and with friends and relatives that really are still there, at least in my mind's eye.

I'll sip my Irish whiskey in the snug cottage, embraced by the simplicity of the Irish Christmas and the blessing of love that I have been allowed to share with so many throughout my life.

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  1. Should've responded when I read it the day you posted it.

    Wanted you to know that this post in particular struck a deep chord in me. I could so clearly imagine the peace and contentment that I hope you feel by your tree, and for a moment, I was able to share in it at a time that I needed it desperately.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this, John, and your other reply too. Christmas here - particularly in Eyeries - is just lovely (if you can ignore the gales). Very peaceful, very tranquil. Makes up for the rest of the madness going on here and around the world. I'm sorry I've been gone for so long. It's taken quite awhile to get settled. Have a Merry Christmas... and peace wherever you are. Tom