The day after tomorrow is Christmas Day. For most of us, when we think of Christmas, lots of familiar images flood our minds: the crunch of boots on snow, festooned Christmas trees, a roaring fire in the hearth, the scent of pine drifting through the house, dancing lights strung around windows, the tangy scent of cinnamon and cloves, the sweet scent of buttered popcorn, colourful ornaments glinting on the tree, the smell of turkey roasting in the oven, Christmas songs playing in every shop you enter. The list could go on and on.
Many of the images I mentioned have traditions associated with them: some families cut down their own Christmas tree, decorations are often hung on a certain date, children string popcorn onto threads to create garlands to decorate the tree, turkey is served for Christmas lunch. Some traditions are part of the celebrations of whole communities and countries, and others are ones that have become tradition to a family because they have done it like that for years.
The images we hold in our minds of a traditional Christmas are often linked to memories of our own Christmases past. And memories are an important part of the holiday season.
When I first arrived in Britain almost thirty years ago and encountered the apple cider that is served in pubs, it sparked my memories of the non-alcoholic version of the drink that I enjoyed during my teenage winters and Christmases in Canada. A few years ago I wrote about these memories for Foreign Flavours, an anthology of writings by ex-pat writers around the world, and I shared the piece with listeners at Woolly Winter Tales, an evening in Enniskillen Castle Museum last week.
As my contribution to the warm glow of Christmas, I’d like to share the memory with you today:
“Cider, with a dash of blackcurrent, has been an intrinsic part of many evenings I’ve spent at folk clubs and Irish music sessions since I first came to Ireland almost thirty years ago. It’s always been one of my favourite drinks. Sometimes the next morning, a pounding head makes me rue indulging, but I still wouldn’t refuse a glass of cider as I sit in a pub, tapping my foot to the music.
When I first arrived in Ireland I was surprised to find cider on tap in the pub. I had only encountered the unfermented, non-alcoholic variety as I was growing up in Canada. Its taste might make your lips pucker but it doesn’t make your head buzz after a few glasses.
During my teens, a winter tradition for our youth group was Hayride Saturday in Ontario’s farmland. When we arrived at the farm, less than an hour’s drive outside Toronto, we city kids thought we were miles from civilisation. Wrapped up in coats, hats and mittens we bundled onto a large, flatbed wagon piled high with hay. We wriggled into the hay for warmth, the girls covertly trying to edge in beside the boys we fancied. The wagon would lurch off down the country road, pulled by a pair of shaggy draught horses, as we squealed and clutched the edges of the creaking vehicle. Invariably the boys would roughhouse, pushing and shoving each other, until at least one of them tumbled off. We’d shout encouragement as the man overboard ran to catch up with the wagon. The horses lumbered along the frosty road at an easy pace so there was never any danger that he would be left behind.
By the time we arrived back at the farmyard, we were hoarse from shouting and laughing, and shivering with cold, our noses glowing like Rudolph’s. Laughing, we’d hop off the wagon and troop into the barn where refreshments were laid out on a long wooden table. A hotdog stopped my stomach rumbling, but a cup of steaming apple cider was the real treat. I would wrap my chilled hands around the cup and inhale the scents of cinnamon, orange rinds and cloves before I took my first sip. Nothing could beat its sweet, tangy taste. Armed with my liquid hand warmer, I’d wander outside to huddle at the bonfire that was lit as darkness fell. Sitting on a bale of hay with sparks from the fire popping and floating past me, blowing wood smoke through my hair, I thought that this was country life. Nowadays I’m more familiar with real country life. I pitch in when we make hay on our farm each summer, gathering the bales together to be lifted and brought into the byre, and feed cattle in winter, lifting sections of hay and throwing them into the feeder while dodging the animals’ swinging heads.
But let’s get back to the apple cider. Hot apple cider was an integral part of winter and Christmas for me. There was always cider at skating parties, sleigh rides, and Christmas festivities. During my youth as the cold weather set in, wherever there were family, friends and fun, there was also hot apple cider.
On a visit home several years ago, I was delighted to discover that the drink is now on the menu at Tim Horton Donut Shops. It was the middle of a muggy Toronto summer and daytime temperatures hovered around 30 degrees celcius but that didn’t deter me. Either early in the morning or in the evening as the sun was dipping toward the horizon, I would stroll to the local donut shop and order a hot cider. I savoured these treats as I knew I’d miss them when I returned to Ireland.
Then a few days before that holiday ended, I got a pleasant surprise when I discovered that you can now buy cartons of apple cider. All you need to add to the mixture is hot water. It isn’t quite the same as fresh cider but it’s the next best thing. So, before I left Toronto, I trooped off to the supermarket to buy a carton and packed as many of the individual sachets as I could into my backpack. Fortunately I wasn’t searched at the airport. If I had been, would they have believed that the white powdered substance I was carrying was nothing more sinister than cider mixtures?
Ever since that summer, each Christmas friends and family send me ‘care packages’ of cider sachets. I could survive without my fix of cider but I enjoy it. So, for a few weeks each winter, until the stash of sachets runs out, I sit with my husband in our living room in front of a roaring fire savouring my steaming brew and making new Christmas memories.”
So that’s a glimpse into my memories of Christmases past and present. I hope you also have fond memories of your Christmases past to cherish, and I wish you new, wonderful memories this holiday season.
Enjoy the holidays! Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!