My 15 year old son never feels Christmassy until he first hears “Fairy Tale of New York”. It’s my favourite Christmas song too, and I am not on my own. Why is it so popular? I am sure there are full essays written on that. For me it is personal. That Christmas in 1987 my dad was working in New York.

We, oddly, never called my dad anything except Ben.

There was no work at home so Ben had gone out to try his luck. He didn’t have a visa – but then no one did. He got a start driving the horse drawn carriages around Central Park and Madison Avenue. He loved horses (though usually the type found in Leopardstown) and he enjoyed it over there. There was plenty of craic. It was all Irish fellahs working, sleeping in digs together, sending money home, spending too much money there. But he did send money home. And in 1980’s Dublin it was very welcome.

So when I, aged 16, first heard the song I was hit straight in the chest. Little did I know that was exactly how Ben felt over in a bar in New York when he heard it. He said years after, “It was like getting a dig”.

Ben sent me a Christmas card from New York. It was a big deal. It is the single solitary card I ever got from him. The card had a big Christmas wreath on it, with gold writing and a red envelope. He was never a big reader or writer – unless it was to read the form and fill in a betting slip. He wrote “From Ben”. Admittedly hardly Patrick Kavanagh, but from him that was serious sentimentality and cherished by me.

The first Christmas after he died was painful, but there was simultaneous joy and fun of Christmas with a loving husband and a young family. Every year it is Ben’s glass I miss filling.

This year my family will mark our first Christmas without my father-in-law. His loss is inestimable. He truly was loving and loved. My husband’s mother, who had just returned from American streets when he swept her off her feet, will especially miss him.

Christmas is a time when most of us want to cherish our families, and gather them near to us. There are many reasons why that doesn’t or can’t happen in many homes.  The truth is there is no perfect Christmas. We miss people we love who are away, or have passed on. We miss the relationships we wish we had, but which have broken down. But something about Christmas also tells us that there is hope of better times. Something tells those of us who are strong enough, to support those less lucky.
Maybe that is indeed a fairytale – but that is the one we all sing along to when we hear Mr MacGowan tell us that, despite the harsh realities that surround us, we can see better times when all our dreams will come true. Nollaig Shona

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