Family, above all
Christmas was special in our household due to any number of reasons — our roots were on the Prairies so holidays were an important distraction; with five kids in the family it’s tough to downplay such an event; I was born on Christmas Day, so I suppose it had to be a little special.
Both my parents were graduates of art college, and my father employed as one, so our Christmas décor was largely homemade with no shortage of coloured pencils and pens and heavy paper and scissors and paint and tape and any art supply you could possibly name. We eschewed large-scale outdoor decorations, opting for just a smattering of lights instead. Inside was the main attraction.
And it was easy to see why. We lived in a spacious split-level that my father designed and the upstairs living room was large and bright with a large bank of tall south-facing windows. Most impressive was the steeply angled roof with an apex some 20 feet from the floor and an open ceiling revealing six long thick heavy wooden beams. This enormous space simply begged for decoration.
It began, of course, with a Christmas tree worthy of the space, so a 12-footer was often the norm. From there everything would radiate outward. The usual things: Bulbs and lights and popcorn strings, nuts and fruit baskets and chocolate, wreaths and garlands and Christmas stockings and on and on with all manner of the common and uncommon.
My mother, as was her artistic nature, was always devising new visual delights. One year, she suspended Christmas tree bulbs in front of the tall glass windows, each glass globe at a different height, each attached by sewing thread above. The effect was rather like it was raining bulbs, very evocative.
But mom’s crowning achievement was yet to come. That was the winter she brainstormed hanging snowflakes from the wooden beams. First we folded paper and cut out a plethora of large flakes. Then, we cut varying lengths of white thread for suspension. Then all that remained was for us to place them on the beams. Uh-huh … Beams: Over 10 feet up. Ladder: Not even close. Quit: Not a chance.
No, the solution was quite simple. I, as the oldest, and being a male child, would take up my inherent obligation – even if I was only 10 years old. And so somehow, using a short ladder, I was made to scrabble up and onto one of the beams and there perch. The concept from there followed that I would crawl across the beam and at intervals my mother would pass me up a snowflake from her place on the ladder. I would tape it in place. After one beam was done, I would go onto the next.
Now, 10 feet to a 10-year-old looks pretty high. But the worst of it was trying to negotiate the beam itself. This was a rough hewn log with slivers the size of vampire stakes, not to mention it was dusty as heck, and crawling along this wretched pathway with no handrails nor safety rope was downright unnerving. In fact, I recall forcing myself not to think of these lurking tragedies, but just kept my nose down and eyes focused. Plaintive sighs to my mother were useless; this was the 1960s.
I’m not certain this exposure to such danger was ever fully appreciated by the family. But it doesn’t matter because I can now see the true value of it all: Family above all. It’s true.
That beautiful ‘Gotcha Smile’
It was late afternoon on Christmas day, 1991, and the day that was supposed to be the most joyous of the year.
Inside the house, the stove was robustly roasting the turkey and the fridge was chilling the trifle to perfection. The table was all set in a festive manner and hats and crackers sat by every plate, ready to welcome each guest. Meanwhile, I was out in the Brussels sprout patch, gathering the last bit of dinner.
A cold wind rattled through the dried corn stalks in the garden and my heart felt as heavy as the mud on my boots. For that was the rub. There weren't going to be any guests. They had phoned earlier in the day and mysteriously canceled, giving some vague excuses. The past year had been a hard one for us, what with health issues and financial challenges. Consequently, there was no possibility of us going to visit my folks on the Mainland for Christmas as in past years — and now this.
My heart felt as heavy as the mud on my boots.
Back indoors, I put extra potatoes in the pot anyway, and decided to set out all the portions of things I had planned to serve. We’d just have to make do with each other’s company and try to be extra festive. We’d be a tableful, at any rate. By now my feelings of deep disappointment and self-pity were so strong that the rest of my family were tactfully keeping out of my way. Except for our Brittany Spaniel, Dusty. He became so restless and such a nuisance underfoot that I pushed him out the back door. Let him tear around the yard until I was ready to feed him, I thought, and went back to rattling pots and slamming cupboard doors.
No sooner was the dog outside, it seemed, then there came his usual furious scratching at the door. “Already you want in?! You wretched beast,” I hissed as I yanked the door open.
But what was this?
Instead of a cowering dog on the porch, there stood my dad and mom and others behind him in the shadows. He wore a glowing “gotcha” smile, the one he always had when he caught us off-guard. And he had caught me. Again!
They were all in on the joke, those rascals standing there, eyes alight with the knowledge of the joy they had brought.
It was dad’s idea to come over to the Island the day before and lay low, they told us later over a dinner that was to pass into family legend. And his idea to have all the guests cancel their invitations, too. The lot of them had spent the day at my brother’s house, plotting, priming each other with Christmas cheer, and playing cards to pass the time.
The next day, mom and dad travelled back home to the Mainland. Dad hadn’t been feeling well of late and he wanted to get back. He abhorred driving any distances in the winter, but he just had to come for this Christmas. Back on the porch, his eyes behind his smile had told me that. “Hello. I must be going,” they said.
Early in the new year, the doctors found a name for his condition. Cancer, they called it, and gave him a few months at the most. Two weeks after their verdict, he was scratching at heaven’s door, waiting to flash St. Peter the mother-of-all “gotcha” smiles.
A gift to remember
It was December, 1951, and my sister Margie, 7, brother Lawrie, 5, and myself, 9, were excited about Christmas, especially the visit of Santa Claus. Time was running out and we had shopping to do.
My dad loved Christmas – the part that included family, friends, music and the turkey dinner. However, he hated the commercialism of Christmas! He lectured us on how to buy presents – buy things that people need like socks, handkerchiefs, soap, perfume; everyone likes chocolates — especially maraschino cherries and peppermint patties (his favourites); don't waste money buying expensive shaving cream when a bottle of bay rum would do the trick. Be careful, watch your money. We listened to him. We had to!
Christmas morning came. Our presents were under the tree. We were anxious to open the gifts. We had to wait. First we had to get washed, dressed and eat breakfast.
I never ate a bowl of porridge (which I hated) faster than I did that morning.
Years later, the gifts that I remember were the potato peeler we gave my grandmother (she laughed until she cried). My mother received a hat pin (she didn’t wear hats) and also a spool of turquoise crocheting thread (she didn’t crochet). She also got a big bottle of perfume “Apple Blossom” — her favourite?
A round present was placed under the tree. My sister and I were sure that my brother had bought dad a ball. We snickered just waiting. But we were wrong.
My brother had bought him an orange, an orange that was as big as a grapefruit! This was a real treat!
We rarely had oranges except for the mandarin oranges at Christmas. My dad was exhilarated. He had us stand in a circle and we passed the orange around. It was the heaviest orange we had ever lifted. Then the orange was peeled and shared. It was the sweetest orange we had ever tasted. My dad declared that Lawrie was the best shopper in the family. He had bought a gift that was nutritious, and tasty! No waste as the peel would be composted. To this day, I can still see my brother, with his sparkly blue eyes, smiling from ear to ear.
The Christmas play
Anyone who has ever attended a one-room country school will have a story to tell about the Christmas concerts. For all of us, they were the highlight of our school year.
The memorable one for me was in 1936. I was 10 and a pupil at Wolf Willow School, six miles from Alsask, Saskatchewan.
Our new teacher had been hired by mail and since the application gave only initials, our school board assumed that the applicant was male. This was their preference, their reason being that a man would more easily cope with the rigours of a small teacherage situated in an isolated school yard.
It was a shock, therefore, when the teacher turned out to be a very substantial female with an equally stout 12-year- old son, plus three enormous trunks. After dinner in our home, our father, who was chairman of the school board, delivered them to their modest accommadation with their luggage.
School opened in mid-August and the pupils, 10 of us in total, met our new teacher and her son. They were a jolly pair, so we were impressed rather than intimidated. Within a few days it became apparent that Mrs. B. was an avid musician and thespian and was much more enthusiastic about teaching us fine arts than the three Rs.
From the voluminous trunks she produced a variety of musical instruments — ukelele, banjo, mouth organ, drum, castenets, and even an accordian.
She announced that each of us would learn to play an instrument and would perform at the Christmas concert. Instruments were distributed among us and the musical program was well under way. There was little emphasis placed on the curriculm or discipline, however. We were one instrument short, so I brought my sister’s guitar from home and proceeded to learn my selection, Aloha 0.
The din was unbelievable as we all enthusiastically, if not skillfully, applied ourselves to our musical education. It was great fun, so I believe none of us enlightened our parents that we were receiving very little in the way of formal instruction. Apart from our individual musical pursuits, we were busily rehearsing plays, choruses, recitations. Most of every day was spent in rehearsal.
December arrived and the date of the concert was set.
Oddly enough we had never rehearsed the complete program, so consequently when the big night came there was complete chaos.
Numbers were performed willy nilly. As Mrs. B. frantically readied us in costumes for a play, several recitations and vocals were jammed together as fill-ins.
Most of the so-called musicians performed as a group and the results were far from melodic. I was in the unlucky position of being the only solo performer, so whenever there was a lull, of which there were many, I would be shoved out in front of the curtain to play my guitar. This became somewhat of a trial to everyone since I only knew one number!
The audience seated on backless, hard benches, consisted of not only parents, but also a crew from a local salt mine.
They had attended not for the concert, but for the lunch and dance to follow. After four hours of so-called entertainment, these guys were becoming more than a little restive.
My father, whose back was giving him considerable discomfort, was embarrased to see hls daughter appear for about the fourth time. He reported hearing one man say bitterly: “If that damned kid comes out one more time and plays Aloha 0, I’ll bust her guitar over her head.”
Eventually, the disastrous evening was ove. The arrival of Santa and the gift giving is a blur in my memory.
I do recall that colourful Mrs. B. only taught us that one term.
Alone in the Yukon — or so I thought
I was 19 and so grown up.
I was working more than 2,000 kilometres from home. My roommate had flown home for the holidays and I was going to be alone, without friends and family on this special day, for the first time in my life.
A young trainee had just started at work. She was learning the intricasies of Yukon’s antiquated, corded long-distance board and sat by me to observe the process. A long-distance call could only be completed through our office for the entire territory.
She was a chatty little thing and asked what my plans were for Christmas eve and Christmas day. I told her I had traded shifts so a co-worker could spend those hours with her young children.
The chatty little trainee was sad I would be all alone.
So was I.
On Christmas eve, I went straight home after my shift.
Home was a two room, 200-square-foot cozy hovel with no indoor plumbing. I opened the door and walked in, puzzled, the room was not in total darkness. It was then I noticed a small silver Christmas tree on the counter. It was shining with lights and sparkly ornaments.
I still find delight in my memory of the spontaneous thought that lit my heart and mind.
Santa was here!
Then I heard the giggles behind the bedroom door.
It was my chatty little trainee and her boyfriend.
She had gone home from work and told her sisters and parents about me. They all pitched in and helped her and her boyfriend prepare this lovely surprise of presents and tree.
These wonderful strangers have remained in my life and my chatty little trainee continues to be one of my most enduring and cherished of friends for almost 50 years.
Thank you Santa. Best Christmas Ever!
Precious memories together
Our family of seven — five kids and my mom and dad — enjoyed the most magical Canadian Christmases.
It was the stuff of holiday classics — plenty of love, togetherness, wish-list gifts picked out from the Sears catalogue under the tree and, of course, delicious food, lovingly prepared by mom, simmering tantalizingly throughout Christmas day.
The day of playing with toys or favoured new electronics, wearing new clothes or jewellery and watching Christmas specials and movies together, was all crowned when we sat down to eat holiday supper together. There was turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, veggies, cranberry sauce and homemade fruitcake, with dimes, nickels and quarters wrapped in tinfoil baked inside. The meal started with a prayer and was eaten with thanks, laughter and well-indulged tummies.
Looking back at old photos of these times, I’m stunned to see just how much bounty we had; all of us collected together, shiny, smiling faces, health and well-being, even the dog right there with us, adoring us and adoring any offered treats. While we were living it, of course, we just didn't register how much bounty we had. I guess that’s the hallmark of happiness; you don’t even question or imagine otherwise.
Then came the day my father passed away. Then a number of us moved with our families across North America, the family dispersed and we celebrated our love at Christmas with phone calls, cards and shipped gifts. Finally, mom relocated to Victoria to live near her eldest daughter and then eventually moved into a care facility. I lived in Edmonton and went to see her as much as time off from work and funds would permit.
Mom was mobile for a very long time in the facility, and then she became bedridden for a long time. She soldiered on valiantly, staying alive, I know in my heart, to be there for us, her children, whom she never once stopped watching over with the ever-present force of her love and protection.
In the year before she passed away, I went to be with her in Victoria over Christmas. I was grateful that I would spend Christmas with her and I anticipated how we would make this holiday special, even though everything was so different from earlier times.
Over my adult years, I had always had a recurring dream: I wake up on Christmas day, my parents and brothers and sisters are all gathered together again, and we are arranged excitedly around our glittering, magically decorated Christmas tree. We are in our old family living room, filled with books and comfortable furniture, and all the old knick-knacks that would really only have special meaning to us. My psyche had embodied my golden years of childhood in that dream — the beautiful ritual of our family gathered at Christmas-time.
So when I arrived in Victoria the day before Christmas, it took some courage not to be discouraged. When I showed up at mom’s care home, I was told at the front door, through the intercom, that I wasn’t permitted inside because of an outbreak of Norwalk virus.
I called my mom’s room immediately. It turned out, mercifully, that mom was fine and didn’t have Norwalk. Phew. But the staff told me that despite this, mom was not allowed to leave the facility and nor were visitors allowed in for fearing of the virus spreading.
If I agreed to stringent hygiene conditions, I would be allowed to visit my mom on Christmas day. I must agree, however, to be covered head to toe in protective sanitary gear.
So, dressed in sanitary hospital coverings over my head, my clothes and my feet and with gloved hands and a mask over my face, I greeted my mom in her room with a “Ho ho ho and Merry Christmas!” It was stifling hot inside and I was sweating away as I bent over her bed and gathered my mother in my arms, hugging her tenderly. I kissed her cheek through the face mask and patted her arm with my gloved hands.
With Norwalk, Santa’s unanticipated Christmas guest, we nevertheless made merry. I put a small, lighted Christmas tree on Mom's bedtable and presents were arranged around it. I turned the TV and Christmas movies played on as mom and I gabbed together while I hung garland on the walls amidst the many photos of her kids.
Mom opened up her presents, sent by her kids and grandkids from around Canada and the U.S., while I perched in a chair beside her bed, bagging up the wrapping and also placing the gifts around her room. Mom always loved goofy little stuffed animals and she smiled at a rotund little bumblebee she had received. She gut-laughed over a gag gift I had given her: ridiculously over-sized white underpants from a joke shop. We unfolded them to see they were as big as a bedsheet. To this day it lifts my heart to picture mom spontaneously laughing, her eyes twinkling. When the nursing staff came in to attend to mom, we showed them the enormous underwear and then we all laughed together. I treasure this memory.
Christmas cheer was still underway as I handed mom the phone beside her bed. All of her kids’ and other family members’ phone numbers were on speed dial. We called every one of them and shared happy holiday greetings.
Some family liked using Skype and so, with me scrunched in close to my mom’s bed, we dialed them up and shared our love. Mom was propped up, bedsheets tucked around her, and I was completely decked out in sanitary coverings: all you could see was my eyes, as we waved and blew air kisses.
Christmas dinner came on trays delivered by the staff. Mom’s was placed on a table that went over her bed and mine was held in my lap. There were all the favourites, from turkey to cranberry sauce to mashed potatoes and gravy. We topped it off sipping tea and eating cake slices for dessert.
After this, Mom laid back and I settled in the chair beside her, holding her hand. I will forever remember the sight of her hand in mine, albeit this time with me wearing gloves.
We talked about old times and mom asked me to get out the photo album. I reached into a box beside her bed and picked up what had come to represent her life: a huge, hefty album which she could no longer lift on her own, bursting with photos that were black and white in the first many pages and then with colour photos toward the end.
Mom’s eyes lit up. This photo album was now a testament to who she was: it showed, it affirmed that, yes, she had a long, beautiful, happy, radiant life, despite present circumstances.
It was my great joy to share this with mom, turning the pages with my gloved hands as she reminisced.
“That was in our house in Montreal.”
“There you kids are in Ottawa.”
We were a military family who had lived all over the world. Mom recalled all the details as her eyes shone, her body even straightening and coming more alive with the strength of the memories.
We rounded out this precious Christmas by watching It's a Wonderful Life. As she watched, unbeknownst to mom, tears slipped down my face, and I surreptitiously brushed them onto my sanitary gown-covered sleeve. I just knew I wasn’t going to have many more Christmases with mom. And I knew that nobody really pictures Christmas in a nursing-care home, fully covered in a face mask and other hospital wear.
But now, looking back at the pictures that were taken that day, pictures that are now in the photo album of mom’s life (which I now hold in my possession since mom passed away before Christmas the next year) what I didn’t know is that treasured Christmas memories can be made even in the most unexpected, far-less than ideal circumstances.
That Christmas, what I discovered was that, as long as we were together, regardless of circumstances, we could still make precious memories together.
A different, but not-so-different Christmas
We anticipated that our 1971 Christmas would be quite different from the traditional Christmases we and our families had celebrated during our lives. These included the shopping expeditions, sitting on Santa’s knee at Woodwards, decorating trees and hanging lights while listening to seasonal music. On the big day, we enjoyed the reactions of our childen as gifts were opened, gorging ourselves with turkey and reflecting on the meaning of Christmas, to us and all those close to us.
In Vancouver, a Christmas bonus was always a fresh fall of snow to create a pristine backdrop to the day.
In 1971, Joan and I with our children Diane 10, Cheryl 8 and Michael 6, tried to keep Christmas as traditional as possible, but there were some notable exceptions. Our tree was a plastic pine, Santa Claus was “Father Christmas” at Highgate Hill, the British School they attended, and he was a taller, leaner more austere figure than jolly old Saint Nick. The turkey was purchased frozen from the cold-storage shop, but we were pleasantly surprised it was imported from a farm in Surrey, B.C. There wasn’t a chance we would have a “white” Christmas. Rather, we hoped for some cooler weather brought in on the northeast monsoon that would reduce the temperature to the low 80’s or high 70’s by dinnertime.
The local residents, primarily Muslims and Bhuddists wished us a “Salamat Hari Natal,” translated roughly as “Blessings on the Day of the Birth.”
Our Christmas in Kuala Lumpur was not so different after all.
It would be two more Christmases in Kuala Lumpur and one in Singapore before we returned to Vancouver and could once again wish for a White Christmas.
The NEW family, currently located in Port Alberni and Ottawa.
A Christmas Memory
Mom, dad, myself and brothers, John and Fred, grew up on a rural property on Delmonte Avenue overlooking Cordova Bay. There was a forest all around us.
Every year, John, Fred and would go looking for a Christmas tree to cut. Sometimes it didn’t go so good when they brought it in the house and put it up. It wasn’t a perfect shape, but that didn’t matter as it looked pretty when all the decorations were on. We always used dad’s work socks for stockings for Santa. I used to try and stay awake to see Santa, but I always fell asleep before he came. In our stockings we got a mandarin orange, Callard and Bowers toffee, figs in a small wood box and Terry’s mints and a small puzzle.
We also grew strawberries and loganberries. One year, a customer brought a bottle of wine made with our loganberries. Dad was a strict teetotaler and didn’t allow liquor in he house.
That Christmas morning, mom and dad went over to the neighours for coffee. John and Fred were home from college and when the parents went out the door, they asked: “Helen, where is that bottle of wine?”
I think they drank quite a bit as they were quite lively. So that mom and dad didn’t know, the brothers filled the rest of the bottle with water.
We always had our Christmas dinner at lunch with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sausages, potatoes, vegetables and Christmas pudding with lemon and hard sauce. We had Christmas crackers, which we would pull open with a bang, read our fortune and wear the hats found inside.
We always had mom’s parents and Auntie Peg for lunch. We sang grace at large family gatherings. This year, John came in and announced in a loud voice: “Let’s sing grace.” I think John was feeling the effects of wine.
After lunch Auntie Peg would dress up as Santa Claus. We got one present from each person.
In the evening, dad’s family came for supper. We had leftover turkey, salads and Christmas cake made from my great grandmother’s recipe as well as her yummy shortbreads and mince pies. I still make that cake.
After dinner, we would sing carols and play games. We would always act out charades. We always got a lot of laughs out of that and enjoyed listening to all the uncles’ stories of what they did when they were young. There were usually about 25 there for the dinner at night as dad came from a very large family.
We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of fun. I treasure those times.
Shock, disbelief ... days of travel wedged into African buses, “three-folds-of-the-map-worth” of gruelling travel, for nothing ... no boat. There is no boat. Merry Christmas!
“You are not getting a boat-ride down Lake Tanganyika and that’s that! Apparently, unbeknownst to Monsieur Michelin, the vessel has been in dry dock for a few years. Getting to Jo-burg in time for our flight has just become even more daunting. So now what?
First, shelter. The local nuns are welcoming, but pre-occupied with preparations for their traditional Christmas Eve celebration. A tantalizing festive buzz of activity, but for us, it’s off to the student dormitory. Still, we were strangers and they took us in — just not all the way!
Okay, deal with practicalities: Buy food and laundry soap and find a way out of Kigoma, end of the line for buses and a port with boats going nowhere but fishing.
Shortly thereafter, provisions in hand, our path crosses the owner of the most amazing handlebar mustache I have ever seen. “Where y’all from?” drawls the American Baptist minister. Hand-pumping all around followed by a welcome revelation: There is a train twice a week, And then he’s off, but not before issuing directions and an invitation for tea that afternoon — something to look forward to after laundry.
Tickets in hand for the 7 p.m. Christmas Day train to a connecting point, we are in a celebratory mood though details are sketchy. “Merry Christmas! Y’all come right on in, ” tells us we have found their home (no house numbers in Kigoma). Crossing the threshold, we are transported to an American Christmas in Africa with all the trimmings! I savour the shortbread and the feeling of community, but feel sad as the time approaches to return to “not Christmas for us.”
And then, those magic words ring out, “ Y’all better come back tomorrow for Christmas dinner.”
And that we do! Marvelling at each golden Christmas nugget: Makeshift tree, decorations, sounds of Bing Crosby and the dinner with all the trimmings set before us — surely, not turkey, but wonderful nonetheless.
Mincemeat tarts waiting to be heated. The telephone interrupts this merry scene and makes this Christmas even more memorable.
A hippo is tearing up crops and terrorizing parishioners in a nearby village. Into the oven goes the dinner and into the land-rover go all of us. Off to the rescue, the minister armed with his rifle. Luckily, the hippo has decamped by the time we get there. Hurrah! All the excitement, but no blood! Hugs all around and then back to Christmas dinner.
As darkness gathers, surrounded by our new friends on the train platform that evening, we are delighted when two of the sisters come running up bearing good wishes and a lunch for the trip. And then off we go.
Two hours later, the train clangs to a stop somewhere in the middle of a very dark nowhere. “Your turn!” says my friend and so I find myself asking a complete stranger for help. No hotels, hmmm ... take us to the police station.
And so here we are, bedded down for the night in one of the cells. I am grateful my parents cannot see me now!
Christmas 1973, memorable and inspirational. And I vow there will always be an extra plate set at my table.