I FOUND the spirit of Christmas in a log cabin in Ireland. If truth be told, it hadn’t actually been lost but the embers had needed rekindling.
That started at Derry Airport when we called at the Avis desk to collect a hire car on a dark, wet night.
I have been renting motors from Martin, the chap in charge, for three or four years and his grin is as welcoming as a pint of Guinness. To be sure, to be sure, as he said to me, handing me the keys and wishing me the season’s best.
Then on the car radio came the tones of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl with the Pogues singing A Fairy Tale of New York, not exactly your traditional festive song, but one that has more heart and fire than most.
We skirted the festive traffic in Derry and were then driving through black countryside with no moon and no road lights for 40 minutes to the farmhouse on the other side of Raphoe where my daughter lives.
Three grandchildren, a log fire, a 12ft Christmas tree, lights and noise and an undercurrent of excitement.
The contrast between the black night outside and the glowing interior could have been scripted by Spielberg.
My son-in-law Ronan and I drove to Strabane to collect a curry and had a pint of Guinness in Dixie’s Bar while we waited and, at eight o’clock, a party of ladies on a seasonal night out were already hand jiving in a booth.
The next day, we sneaked out of the house to do the necessary gift buying, with mum hoping to find a pair of wings for Ruairi’s role as Gabriel in the nativity play and wondering how to dress Lorcan who was the giant in Jack and the Baked Bean Stalk. We were caught in the madness of the festive whirl.
That night we all went to Christmas Wonderland in Castlefin, a series of interconnected tents, lit bright enough to be seen from space, that was attracting families from all over Donegal.
A glass of hot applejuice as we entered and an indoor Christmas market. Face painters plied their trade and elves demonstrated Gangnam dancing in the children’s disco. I complimented one on the authenticity of his padding only to be told he wasn’t wearing any.
We took a side turn to the nativity scene.
Alongside were penned reindeer and donkeys, and five-year-old Ruairi told us Mary had died when she fell off her donkey on the way back from Bethlehem. When his mum said she would ask his teacher about this new version of the story he blushed and said he’d made that bit up.
Mrs Claus sat in a huge bed, with a girl elf playing carols at a keyboard, ready to tell children a story. She had no takers. The children took one look, saw no sack of toys, and hurried on for the real deal.
“Ah, it’s a man’s world, so it is,” said Ronan.
We queued with other families and waited to take the walk to the cabin in a clearing. At last our turn came. The path was illuminated beneath the stars and a stout attendant in red and green opened the door and ushered us inside. The two boys stopped joking and their eyes became saucers.
Santa sat in a big chair and he filled it. But his voice was soft and his eyes really did twinkle.
He asked what they wanted him to bring and seven-year-old Lorcan recited his list by heart but Ruairi stuttered out only two items and dried up. I leaned in and prompted him with a whisper. Six-month-old Sorcha was dressed in red herself and looked like an infant elf as she sat on Santa’s knee.
We were with the Great Man for three or four magical minutes. And during them, those embers caught fire in the eyes of my grandchildren and I found, once more, the spirit of Christmas.