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|Illustration by Cathy Bartholomew|
It was cold last weekend in rural Holland. I was visiting the warm-hearted family of the Dutch Nation in the eastern Gelderland region up against the German border.
There are dozens of picturesque little villages here. They are all crowned by a windmill which does not work any more but hallmarks the geography.
To combat the cold I wore an extra vest and donned a thick red hoodie when I wandered abroad through the streets. And it happened again and again.
Santa Claus or St. Nicholas comes to Holland long before he comes to Ireland. He was arriving with his ebony troop of elves in one of the villages which we visited to meet the Dutch Nation's godmother.
I'm a little bit confused exactly how it works, but this Claus comes from Spain with his elves, is warmly welcomed by all the villagers and their brass bands, and it is a major occasion.
It is also true that he does not distribute his gifts to the small citizens until the fifth of December and that December 25 is a relatively low key day in Holland. But that is by the way.
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The important thing is that it happened again and again during my stay that the small ones looked at me with rounded eyes on the village streets and palpably wondered if I was connected to Santa Claus.
Especially when clad in a red hoodie, there is today more than a passing resemblance. It is a pleasant and heartwarming experience.
I've told ye about this before. It has happened with increasing frequency over the past decade of my silvering and aging.
In Ireland, where there is no language barrier, I normally inform the children that no, I'm not Santa, but rather his younger brother, and I will pass on to him any messages they have.
I used to hunker down and take some of them on my knee as they whispered their wishes but, sadly, you cannot put even the tip of a little finger on the head of a strange small child in Ireland any more because of the bitter legacy of the pedophiliacs, so I now keep a safe distance away from the small trusting hands. Is that not so sad?
In Holland I simply put my fingers to my lips in a plea for secrecy and that did the trick well enough.
It is no problem to be mistaken for a member of the Claus family. I can recall a tailor called Gilleece at home in my forties childhood.
He was a neat, small, quick man, a very decent fellow, but I never knew his proper Christian name because he had a black pencil moustache and he was always called Hitler because he was the living image of Adolf! I don't know if they said that to his face but certainly it was the only name I knew him by as a boy.
Santa is much easier to carry for the few weeks between the beginning of November and Christmas. I will not suffer at all.
Back home on the Tuesday evening after the long Dutch weekend, it was slightly depressing to have to pick up the car from the long term at Cork Airport for the two hour drive home to the cottage.
That's because we only live eight minutes away from Shannon Airport, but there is no service between Shannon and Amsterdam any more, even though the Aer Lingus flights from Cork were packed in both directions. And so were the planes we used be able to catch from Shannon to Dusseldorf.
There is some sort of bureaucratic dark hand hanging over Shannon for sure. It goes downhill every year.
There's a lot of supportive talk but no real action so far. So now you close your mouth and drive to either Cork or Kerry for the flight.
I was barely back home before it was time to head for Listowel where brother Mickey the songwriter was launching his latest CD in the hallowed surrounds of John B. Keane's pub.
The former great footballer Jimmy Deenihan, now the arts minister, was present and vocal, but the launch was conducted by Mary Keane, widow of the playwright, a mighty woman and a great friend of my brother.
The entire clan assembled for the occasion, and there was no recession at all in sight for the next 48 hours. In eras like this you need lively nights and days like that. It was great craic.
Brother Sean was there and in good voice. He told us that he is retiring from The Irish Times before the end of the year, and that is forewarning of another good weekend before the year is over!
When I eventually got back home to Maisie's Cottage I got a call from a colleague to invite me to a retirement lunch, again before the end of the month, for the great RTE western correspondent Jim Fahy of Galway who is also closing down his mike before the New Year. Jim, an old friend, has consistently emphasized the special qualities of the west of Ireland on the national airwaves for decades as well as covering all the hard news stories.
I reflected ruefully before beginning this piece that I'm older than both of the retirees by several years, and is the writing finally on the wall?
No, I decided, neither of them have the pleasure of being mistaken for Santa Claus, and there's too much craic writing about things like that, and life generally, to stop for a while yet.