Prominent Victorians share their Christmas memories

The front page of Tuesday’s Times Colonist features a Christmas card landscape by renowned artist Robert Bateman, who lives on Saltspring Island.

We asked Bateman and several other prominent area residents to share their thoughts on why Christmas is special to them — whether it’s rooted in a magical memory or timeless family traditions.

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ROBERT BATEMAN, WILDLIFE ARTIST, NATURALIST

“The holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown …” so the carol goes. It’s a sprightly song, echoing the valiant attempts of our European ancestors to bring a little joy to the long, dark nights of winter.

Unfortunately in our part of the world both holly and ivy are invasive species. Ivy climbs our mighty Douglas firs and can eventually choke a tree to death by competing for sunlight. Holly springs up helter skelter in our forests and seems to be less of an issue for our native species. However I must admit that esthetically I enjoy them both with their glossy, evergreen foliage.

Our forefathers and mothers must have felt the need to bring green nature into their living space as the dead of winter crept over them. O, Tannenbaum, the Christmas tree, lifted the spirits not only because of the greenery but because of the captivating aroma. This is truly aroma therapy. Recent neuroscience research is showing that simply going for a walk in the woods brings immediate health benefits to body, mind and maybe soul. There is a practice in Japan called Forest Therapy or Forest Bathing. Uptight office workers are taken for a walk in the woods for about one hour. There are plenty of forests, even in Tokyo, in the gardens, shrines and temples. The workers’ blood pressure and cortisol levels fall, their acuity rises and they go back into the offices much better workers.

Nature is magic. The trees and other plants are giving off aromatics with which our cells evolved. Our cells must rejoice. Inhaling the aroma of essential plant oils triggers production of more natural killer cells that boost your immunity to bacteria, viruses and tumours. We have all taken a deep breath in the woods. Think of the smell of pines or of fall leaves. Even the thought brings a smile. That explains a part of nature’s magic … it is also science.

Our family tradition on Christmas Day is to have a brunch after the presents are opened. Christmas brunch is usually heavy in the calorie department and the dinner will be even heavier. We get the turkey in the oven and all go outside for a hike in nature. This is a tradition and a ritual, rain or shine or snow, and is not optional. Electronic devices stay at home and happy conversations happen. Moving through a bit of nature in the winter air will cause your cells to rejoice and make your Christmas even merrier.

TANIA MILLER, MUSIC DIRECTOR, VICTORIA SYMPHONY

Christmas has always been a time that has been deeply special and magical to me.

My memories of Christmas were from a farmstead in the countryside of Saskatchewan. From the window of our house you would look out to an endless yard of sparkling snow twinkling in the light of the yard lights, and at night an intricate blanket of clear sparkling stars always seemed to communicate to me overhead.

The piles of snow were often big enough to cover small buildings and to climb halfway up the grain bins and made impressive slides for my brothers, sister and me. My father would create big snow mountains for us with his tractor, and he would often pull us on skis with a rope attached to his snowmobile, taking us over miles of flat and empty land.

Christmas Eve was always my favourite part of Christmas. Our family would put our Christmas gifts out early and those poor presents would often be shaken and prodded for days ahead. As a little girl, in our crazed household of six children, I remember the personal tradition of waking up early each morning and sitting underneath the Christmas tree in the dark with the Christmas tree lights on. The magic of those still and quiet moments were important to me and brought me close to the spirit of Christmas.

My mother always put on incredible feasts, baked family favourites, and made sure that we had many special traditions.

Music, of course, was a big part of our tradition. As the town’s church organist, I played many Christmas services, the most beautiful on Christmas Eve itself. Never would a Christmas Eve at our home go by without my father pulling out his accordion, and I would play duets with him on the organ or the piano. Family was all around us, and as grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins all came to visit, the music continued as we sang Christmas carols together.

I wish everyone a special and Merry Christmas.

GEOFF, RUSS, BRUCE COURTNALL, HOCKEY, PHILANTHROPY

It should come as no surprise that Christmas is all about family for us. We have been through a lot together and we have many reasons to celebrate. It becomes particularly important that we find ways to connect over the holidays as our kids get older and begin to build their own independent lives. It is getting hard and harder to gather everyone in the same place each year.

A favourite memory is dinner for 27 family members in Russ’s garage one Christmas in Victoria. And while Victoria rarely gets snow, the city makes up for it with Christmas lights — Oak Bay Village does itself proud when it lights up for the holidays, and the decorations downtown only seem to get better and better.

This year, while Russ is celebrating the holidays in L.A., and Geoff with family in Hamilton, Bruce will be in Victoria with our mum, stepdad Cliff and our sister Cheryl. We will miss the fact that we are not all together in Victoria, meeting up with friends on Christmas Eve and celebrating with the whole family on Christmas Day.

Hockey is still a big part of our lives, and this New Year’s Eve, Russ is playing in the Maple Leafs and Red Wings Showdown alumni game in Detroit. Go Maple Leafs Go!

Our lives are busier than ever, but we find time throughout the year to see each other and support each of our special projects. In 2013 it was to help Bruce launch Gold Medal Plates in Victoria. In 2014 we will continue to look for projects we can work together on, including supporting the Courtnall Celebrity Classic Society and mental-health initiatives, a cause close to our hearts.

From our family to yours, we wish you a very merry Christmas.

DAVID FOSTER, GRAMMY-WINNING MUSIC PRODUCER

Christmas was always a very important time for our family. One of my favourite memories of Christmas in Victoria is when my parents bought me a tiny red transistor radio, which was an amazing gift. There was only one problem — my dad loved to make home movies and when I opened the radio, he wasn’t filming, so he made me wrap the gift back up and reopen it for the camera. It was my first acting job. I wasn’t the greatest actor at the time, but now, when I see the footage, it cracks me up to know it was all part of a show!

Another Christmas in Victoria, when I was 18, I had just finished playing at the old Forge and, at 2 a.m., I walked outside to see the city covered white with snow. A big snow tractor passed by, picked up me and my fellow band members, and drove us home. We had the streets to ourselves.

Today, we still wear paper hats from our Christmas crackers, and people in Los Angeles think we’re nuts. But, it’s just not Christmas without those hats! And, now I’m sharing this tradition, learned in Victoria, with a house full of close family, children and grandchildren, which is the real thrill at Christmastime.

SILKEN LAUMANN, OLYMPIC MEDAL-WINNING ROWER

The white candle lights of my childhood Christmas tree brilliantly reflected on the silver tinsel that my mother had carefully placed on each branch. The tree was silver and gold and huge, sparkling with magic in my childhood mind. My parents are German, so on Christmas Eve we would get dressed up in our Christmas finery and sing carols with my mom at the piano, all the while bursting with anticipation of the gift opening that followed.

One year I was so excited to receive a Barbie Camper that I leapt up in a jump of joy, accidentally knocking my father over. The tree is a big focus with my own family today. Choosing the tree each year is a debate of tastes and wills, my daughter pitying the less-perfect tree, my son wanting one at least as big as last year’s, our special-needs daughter sniffing every tree for an assurance of Christmas and toys still to come.

I look forward to that one gift that will elicit the “Barbie Camper” response from my family — I don’t have to look far. Last year, my daughter Kate entered the house on Christmas Day, leapt over the couch, threw her arms around me and shouted, ”I love Christmas!”

ROBERT J. WIERSEMA, VICTORIA AUTHOR

The world was so much bigger then.

There was always snow for Christmas, it seemed, and when there wasn’t, the ponds in my grandparents’ fields would freeze over, and my cousins and I would slide in our sneakers and dinner clothes until our faces were red and puffy from the wind, our bodies bruised from toppling into the ice.

The Christmas tree would tower over me, stretching up to touch the distant ceiling, the lights blinking seasonal red and green, tinsel dangling, dripping onto the floor. I would squint up, up, up, until the tree filled the universe, until there was nothing else but that sweet sharp pine smell and those glowing lights.

We would eat at the kids’ table: there was an actual table that my grandmother kept in the basement, sending one of the bigger cousins down to bring it up when it was almost time for dinner. The dining table was so full that some of the adults — my younger aunts and uncles, their spouses — would have to sit in the living room, but for us, it was always the kids’ table in the corner of the kitchen, close enough to hear the laugher and conversations from the grown-ups’ table, years away from understanding most of it.

But that was a long time ago.

The kids’ table is long gone: I had dreamed for years of one day being invited to sit at the grown-ups’ table, but when it was time, the invitation came with the realization that the family dinners had shrunk as I had grown, leaving me a place setting and a wine glass.

It never seems to snow anymore at Christmas, and the cold, when it comes, barely freezes the puddles in the gutter.

But sometimes, when I’m alone, I’ll put on The Chieftains’ Christmas album, dim the lights, and lie on the floor, shimmying back so my head is under the edge of the Christmas tree, my nose almost scraping the lowest boughs. I’ll take a deep breath and squint my eyes.

For a moment, Christmas fills the whole world.

For a moment, the tree stretches toward the ceiling, impossibly far away, and as damp lines my eyes, the green and red lights reflect and refract off the dangling ornaments.

For a moment, I’m small again, and I’m reminded, as I am every year, of just how much I miss it.

PAT MARTIN BATES, ARTIST, 50-YEAR VICTORIA RESIDENT

Snowglass flakes of Christmas dance with the sounds of our singing — we four were in the choir, my mother and I in senior with brother Jimmy and sister Molly in junior. This year we were all together — oh, joy to the world!

The whiteness of everything under the sky — the darkness where the wild Atlantic is “beating on the shore.”

Wartime. Moncton, awash with thousands of airforce boys waiting for trains to Halifax. Bundles for Britain and parcels for our boys had long been sent. Mother would be asking the YMCA five for Christmas dinner; not surprised when seven came up the walk.

White — it began with the White Gift Service the Sunday before. Tinned goods wrapped in white paper. Our gift was always a large can of peaches as mother said, “Peaches perk people up.” Mr. Freeborn tossing his head played mightily “Thanks be to God.” A white envelope containing money was given, too. Knowing that the “widow’s mite” was important in the heavens and knowing our mother’s mantra, “I may be small but I’m mighty,” we had saved for that and buying of presents, selling Liberty magazines and my paintings of birch trees.

In the Nativity play I was the Virgin Mary, a great surprise, my brother The Narrator, sister an Angel.

Such a perfect tree we hauled home on the toboggan!

Jimmy started in throwing the silver foil stuff at the tree as boys are wont to do — the last hung was a peacock. Singing on sleigh rides, sugar cubes for the horses of Polly Govang the Mover.

Christmas Eve, Mom laughing at us doing a take-off of Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien using curtain-rod canes. “You sing, Mama!” The voice of an angel for she had studied opera; softly sweetly we heard, “I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls;” to us she was the Queen. Wouldn’t she be surprised opening her present tomorrow on the Great Day for I had painted a portrait of her hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Oh yes, do you want to know what I received? A pair of Shakespeare bookends I still love.)

Eight came up the walk that day — in their shiny-eyed teen years and I think of them and the black danger of the ocean crossing. But that’s another story and this day is full of happiness and hope for peace.

JANET ROGERS, VICTORIA POET LAUREATE

Like most kids, I visited Santa at his headquarters, in the mall.

“And what do you want for Christmas, my dear?”

Never wanting to sound greedy or ungrateful, I had a short list of two items.

“A colouring book,” I started.

“A colouring book,” Santa repeated. “Is that all?”

He was obviously on to me, this man who sees and knows all.

“A bike.”

The words left my mouth through their own will. A bike is what I wanted most in the whole wide world, but for some reason it seemed wrong to say I wanted it. It was like I had just confessed a crime. I liberated myself from this secret wish and immediately felt the weight of it leave my small body. Could he, would he give me a bike? A bike would give me the status of a “big girl” like my sister who already had a bike. I would ride my bike through my suburban neighbourhood and down to the park, all by myself. I could call on my friends Martha and Donnie so we can ride our bikes together to the store for candy. I would love the bike and take care of it! I would give it a name and learn to do little tricks on it. “Look Ma, no hands!”

When you know someone’s fears and desires, then you know a lot about that person. This brightly dressed hefty man, with stark white facial hair, now knew all there was to know about the six-year-old me. Question was, would he deliver?

On the morning of December 25th, 1969, I woke early and snuck down the creaky stairs where the warm smell of fresh brewed coffee and muffled radio voices rose up from the main floor of the house. I peered from my dark vantage point towards the well-lit kitchen. There, balanced on its kick-stand was a shiny blue and white bike! I had my pony and I would ride!

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