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Merry Birthday - John Banville

Blog | By John Banville | Dec 13, 2023

I was one of those misfortunate mites whose birthday fell within spending-distance of Christmas.

So, every year, the glitter of the great day itself was a good way dulled by the fact that I had already received many one-covers-two gifts from aunts, uncles, cousins and even closer kin. The affront was worsened by the gift-givers’ mysterious conviction that I should be as pleased as they were, if not more so, by the happy, for them, near-coincidence of the two dates – and the consequent tidiness of their being able to save themselves the trouble, and the expense, of buying me two presents in one month.

And how could I complain when on my birthday, the eighth of December – Feast of the Immaculate Conception, by the way – I was handed a gift-wrapped book or a pristine shiny toy and informed with a twinkle that ‘It’s for Christmas as well, you know.’

How smugly pleased they were with themselves. I failed to see the logic of it. When Christmas came, I had to watch others delightedly unwrapping their brand-new gifts while my book was already read and my toy as like as not broken. Not fair; not fair at all.

And there was a contaminant effect. It’s true that Santa Claus didn’t visit on my birthday and get to pull the one-for-two trick, but the presents he left on the foot of my bed, no matter how sumptuous, inevitably seemed, by a piece of illogic of my own, to be only half as good as they should be.

Childhood is a fraught passage in our lives; no wonder we grow up into grumps. And why did adults persist in telling each other, with infuriating complacency, that Christmas ‘is just for the children’, since it was they who got to get drunk and tell stupid jokes, sing questionable songs, overeat and spend most of the afternoon of Christmas Day sprawled in sagging armchairs with party hats askew, snoring and dribbling?

And yet. Like the first day of spring, Christmas was always a surprise, as if it had not happened before, or had happened but not in quite the same way. Cross and suspicious though we were after weeks and weeks of advertisers’ razzmatazz, we were still suckers for the glitz when it finally arrived with all bells jingling.

There is, in even the hardest human heart, an unquenchable gleam that springs into flame when fanned by the offer of simply being happy, if only for a day. We know, and knew even as children, how ridiculous Christmas is, how tawdry its promises, how brittle its gaiety and how ashen its aftermath. But we don’t care, not while it lasts.

When we were young, between the ages of five and 11, the pleasure of Christmas was a form of euphoric tiredness. Remember that dazed and half-delirious state of wanting things to go madly on and on until we dropped from the sheer relentlessness of it all? My family were Catholic, my parents devoutly so. On Christmas Eve, we would all, even toddlers, attend Midnight Mass. This meant staying up unimaginably late, and coming home to sausages and fried bread and slices of plum cake – the latter a puzzle in not containing plums – and the ritual lighting of the candles on the Christmas tree. No health and safety regulations then.

How different the world looks and feels to a child when he is still dressed and awake and moving among adults at two o’clock in the morning. At such moments, rare as turkeys’ teeth, we glimpse the thrillingly bright, far domain of being grown-up.

Perhaps this is the most valuable gift Christmas delivers to the young, a quickening sense of the future and its limitless possibilities.

The long day wanes. The candles singe the needles of the Christmas tree and let fall gobs of grease on to the carpet before sputtering out. The toys’ first fine lustre fades and we begin already to tire of them. Adult tempers fray, old sores flare, old scores get settled and are replaced by new ones that will be totted up next year. Life, quotidian life, reasserts its drab and melancholy verities.

We fall asleep, and wake to a new day. And there’s always next Christmas, getting ready to fool us again with its fake but always consoling cheer.