A Christmas Like No Other – By Alan Finn

At the stroke of midnight people across the country quietly rang in the New Year. There would be no embracing loved ones, no toasts to the new year with friends, no strains of Auld Lang Syne drifting out of crowded pubs and restaurants. The population of Ireland had endured one of the hardest and strangest years in living memory. The ‘normal’ way of life had come to a standstill with many people working from home, socialising and entertainment a mere memory and words such as pandemic, lockdown and social distancing becoming part of a person’s everyday vocabulary. When looking back over the past months one will realise how people’s daily activities has changed dramatically, but out of this change also came perseverance. Twelve months ago when the world was saying goodbye to 2019 and welcoming 2020, people across the world had hope and plans for the future. Throughout the holiday season traditions such as Carol Services, school Christmas concerts, hunting the wren, the Poc Fada (Long Puck), road bowling and Nollaig na mBan were upheld. Indeed the months of January and February 2020 were very busy months for many people including musicians and artists who were often at the nucleus of these celebrations. Considering we began this New Year in a lockdown many positive events took place throughout the holiday season and also throughout the previous year. Technology, always being part of our lives now became a vital life support not only for businesses and work purposes but also for family members who were unable to physically meet loved ones but could chat daily face to face thanks to various technological mediums. Christmas is always a magical time of year. The excitement leading to the Christmas break is enjoyed by everyone, especially by children. It is a child’s excitement that generates the magic of Christmas. Thankfully Santa Claus was able to make his special journey on Christmas Eve, with the big man himself receiving the Covid vaccine before taking flight across the world. Schools also play an important part in the build up of Christmas. Teachers tirelessly prepare children for Christmas plays and carol singing. These plays and carol singing are not only enjoyed by parents but also siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and guardians. This year the traditional plays and carol singing were unfortunately suspended. When I myself spoke to principals and teachers from various schools it made me fully aware that even a global pandemic would not dampen the enthusiasm and creativity of the many teachers and staff in schools. Classroom nativity plays were organised, children recorded Christmas messages to loved ones who they would not see over the holidays. Many children standing two metres apart, braved cold and rain to play and sing Christmas carols outside their school. All these activities were recorded by dedicated members of school staff to send to the parents of each child. These recordings not only created and captured a happy moment for the many people involved but also lifted the spirits of parents, grandparents and the many relations watching these videos who unfortunately would not be able to enjoy the festive season in the company of family and friends. The Christmas spirit was not only confined to school activities but many community groups took the initiative to provide entertainment for their local residents. As mentioned previously many communities enjoy carol services and instead of people travelling to a carol service, the carol service travelled to their front doors instead. The Amhrani Gospel Choir, or as once described, Buttevant’s answer to ABBA performed social distanced entertainment at various locations throughout the town on Saturday 19th of December. Led by Theresa Hynes, the choir comprising of Mary Guiney, Sheila Curtin, Elaine Lehane, Ellie Beatrice Lehane, Suzanne Hynes, Louise Hynes, Doleres Cronin and Tina Ring performed many Christmas favourites beginning outside St. Mary’s Church in Buttevant. Travelling to Abbey View and onwards to Highfield Drive the choir entertained delighted locals with their upbeat renditions of Christmas hymns and modern Christmas favourites. The choir concluded their tour of the town in St. Coleman’s Place. Their efforts were not only appreciated by the many residents who stood at their front doorstep to enjoy the performance but especially by many elderly people who unfortunately would be spending the holiday season alone. Through their musical talent the choir not only raised the spirits of the locality but also succeeded in highlighting the great work of St. Vincent de Paul. The night before the Amhrani choir entertained the residents of Buttevant another concert took place in the beautiful surroundings of the chapel in Kanturk hospital. This special performance was billed as a fundraising concert for the hospital which is a remarkable resource for the community of Kanturk and surrounding areas. The performance was a Facebook live concert by well known Freemount native Elle Marie O’Dywer. Elle Marie needs no introduction as she is one of the most recognised traditional singers of her generation. In addition to winning many All Ireland titles in Fleadh Cheoil and Scór competitions, she has toured internationally with Comhaltas, performed in Áras an Uachtarán and sang the National Anthem in Croke Park. To add to this already impressive list, she has to date released three critically acclaimed albums: “Where the Allow Waters Flow”, “A Roving Heart” and “On Day Like This”. Elle Marie is no stranger to entertaining people on Facebook. She has performed many live concerts from her home in Freemount since the beginning of lockdown in March. While her online Facebook concerts have been a massive success, Elle Marie went above and beyond to make this concert a special experience. I myself was delighted to be a special guest for this concert and was honoured to once again share the stage with the amazing talent that is Elle Marie O’Dywer. Elle Marie has often performed vocals with the Shandrum Céilí Band on many an occasion and I have also joined Elle Marie on stage at many of her concerts. In June of this year, Elle Marie and I joined forces to perform for the patients of Kanturk community hospital for a special out- door concert for the patients and staff. To return to perform together in the chapel was a huge honour and created great excitement in the hospital and among Elle Marie’s huge fan base. Elle Marie enlisted the help of professional and masterful camera man Peter O’Callaghan of ‘On Track Films’ who created an amazing viewing experience for the many people who tuned into the concert. To add to the line up were brother and sister duo Conor and Jayme Linehan from Millstreet, accompanying both myself and Elle Marie on piano and guitar respectfully. The talented siblings were part of Elle Marie’s concert band before lockdown and were delighted to be given the opportunity to provide musical backing for this very special concert. While the concert was recorded and broadcast live on Facebook from the chapel at Kanturk community hospital the patients of the hospital had a live feed of the concert broadcast directly to their bedrooms. The concert proved to be a resounding success, gaining more than 30,000 views on Facebook thus far while also raising €1220 that will be donated in full to Kanturk Hospital. As gatherings of any sort are now prohibited because of the covid virus, thankfully the religious services were able to continue over the Christmas season. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Mass are always well attended but even these two important masses did not fully avoid restrictions. Curtailed numbers meant many parishes added extra Masses to cope with demand. The 11am Christmas Day mass in St Mary’s Church, Buttevant was not only a mass but a celebration. Normally the Folk Group led by Jane Fitzgerald would provide music and singing, augmented by many past members who would re-join the ranks for this special mass. Fr Eugene Baker, being very aware of how music was such an important factor at the yearly Christmas Day Mass decided to organise music for the three masses in the Buttevant and Lisgriffin parish on Christmas Day, therefore continuing a tradition that started many years ago. Susan O’Keeffe and Jane Fitzgerald provided their music and singing talents for both Buttevant Masses presided over by Fr. Eugene Baker. As Father Baker had two Masses in Buttevant church, Fr. Donal Coakley presided over mass in Lisgriffin church with Mairéad Fitzgibbon providing the singing. The congregation at each mass gave a huge round of applause for the musicians and singers at each respective Mass, not only in appreciation for making the mass special but also for bringing some normality to the mass in what otherwise can be described as a strange time. During normal times many musicians, singers and groups would hold concerts, sessions and various other activities not only during the Summer months but all year round. We all have been made aware of the dangers the public face when tackling the virus but the elderly people and especially residents, of nursing homes are especially at risk. When speaking about musicians and singers many groups such as the Ballyhoura Ramblers would often travel to nursing homes to provide entertainment to the residents especially during the festive season. When groups like this came to visit, it would be a time when the families of the residents came together to celebrate the festivities. This along with many other events had to be completely negated this year. Long held traditions that once upon a time were celebrated either had to be cancelled and adapted. Poc fada (long puck) competitions and road bowling competitions, both of which are often held on New Year’s Day, were cancelled. Other traditions such as hunting the wren were adapted and still celebrated. Just like many musicians and singers entertaining the masses through Facebook, many pockets of Ireland where hunting the wren is a huge tradition was also moved online. Many families who would normally be part of the wren boys celebrated the tradition either by going ‘live’ on Facebook within the confines of their own home or else recording a video and posting it afterwards. This kind of spirit not only gives entertainment to many people watching online from the comfort of their own homes but also keeps a long held tradition alive until once again they can celebrate like the old days. It is considered unlucky in Ireland to take down the Christmas tree and decorations before the twelfth day of Christmas (January 6th) a custom which is still recognised and practised by many. The twelfth day of Christmas, or January 6th is known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan, Women’s Christmas or little Christmas. Women’s Christmas was well known in some areas, such as in Cork and Kerry with some regions professing to have never heard of it. The custom was that women made social calls to the homes of their friends and neighbours and enjoyed the last of the Christmas festivities. With no social gatherings allowed, the tradition of Women’s Christmas may also move to the online platform of Zoom, Skype or other video communications, therefore ensuring another Christmas tradition will not have to be swept aside but adapted and celebrated. As a nation we bid a very fond farewell to the year 2020. A year that started out so promising very quickly became a year of unknowing, sacrifice and frustration. As we began the year 2021 in a lockdown we also began with hope. As the vaccine for the dreaded Corona-virus has been rolled out we can begin the New Year with a feeling of hope and excitement.