Santa’s younger brother finally speaks out

If ye want to know why I enjoy the Christmas season so much more during the past decade, then glance upwards at my image on this page and you will agree, I think, that at least to the rounded eyes of a child, I do nowadays bear a certain similarity to Santa Claus his own self.

That photo is some years old now and I am somewhat more silvery and a little plumper of cheek nowadays. So the small ones dangling at the end of their mothers' shopping arms do tend to stop in their tracks when they see me on the town streets or in the shopping centers.

I have a red body warmer of the proper Clausian hue that I would wear anyway in the bitterly cold weather in Ireland recently. It doubtless reinforces the illusion.

From the middle of November onwards I am now well used to the eyes of the small ones, rounding with surprise and delight at the sight of Cormac. They radiate the unspoken message, "Omigod, there IS a Santa Claus and I'm looking at him!!"

That is pleasantly serene. In my forties, for example, black of hair and beard, there was a time when I was the spitting image of the most unsavory and feared villain in Galway.

It was not the small ones that registered my presence back then. It was normally large men whose hard eyes narrowed with suspicion. Those were not easy years at all.

There is one poignant element in being mistaken for a Santa Claus by small ones in Ireland at this time of year. Even into the nineties you could stop and hunker down beside the small boy or girl and talk to them for a while.

Sometimes I might even take a child on my knee, say in a cafe or bar, the mother delighted, and I had a routine as well. I would inform them that I was not Santa Claus but his younger brother. I would be talking to him on the Snowphone later in the evening and would pass on any greetings or requests with the greatest of pleasure.

Occasionally I even wrote down the requests for dolls and games and suchlike, and the name of the child. And would ask the mothers if Shane or Paurig or Eoin had been good all year so that I could pass it on.
Not any more can you do that, even if you are Santa's younger brother. No way at all.

A sad but inevitable consequence of the child abuse scandals which have riven the country is the (very proper) suspicion of Irish mothers towards all strange men, Santa look-alikes or not. It is sad but true.
You cannot now take a strange child on your knee! You cannot even touch a child on the top of his or her curls. You keep your distance.

You do not hunker down beside them. You do not even shake their little hands reaching out to Santa Claus. You make sure to keep your distance, standing up tall in an adult world, not at their level at all, and you actually reverse if they come up too close to you.

It has to be that way but it is still sad. One remembers what the poet said about shades of the prison house closing around the growing child. Something like that.

But it is still serenely pleasant to be associated at all with one of the most beautiful and enduring magics of Christmas; of the innocence and hope and joy of children knowing that Santa will come down their chimney on Christmas Eve night, that he will drink the bottle of stout Daddy left out for him, that he will leave gifts behind. And not just any old gift either, but at least one of those specifically requested.

In my conversations this year I have been telling the Small Ones that things are a little bit difficult for me this year. I'm essentially a bad man behind the white beard, and I have been wronging the elves since November 25.

I've been saying that they joined a trade union and threatened to go on strike unless I doubled their wages. I had to do that, and so they might not get everything on their list. You can see the mothers are happy to hear that, so I don't feel too bad about it really.

Generally, for those of you abroad, the resilience of the Irish is showing through this Christmas despite the freezing weather, the blackly iced roads, the political and economic uncertainty. As I said here before, we deal with such matters very well because we have centuries of experience of harder times.

The tills are ringing merrily, the pubs are lively at night, there is the holiday buzz about the place, the fairy lights and candles are glittering as brightly as ever.

And it seems to me that the rounded eyes of the small ones are brighter than ever when they meet Santa's younger brother and reinforce their belief in the Christmas magic. Which it is.

On a personal level, can I send my highest hopes of peace and tranquility to all of you for this Christmas. Especially to the many of you that I know from down the years, and those who have been in touch for the first time this year.

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