Dec. 25, 2020 is going to be a very different Christmas and it looks as if the holiday gathering will consist of Walter and me. In the 50+ years we have been together I think there was only one year that our Christmas included only the two of us. That was Christmas 1972 and we were stranded in Fez, Morocco. We arrived at the campsite on the 24th with just enough gas to get us to our campsite. We had run out of cash and all the banks were closed. I did have food for a nice Christmas dinner but when I tried to turn on our stove, I realized we had run out of propane. We had peanut butter sandwiches for supper and Walter had enough money to buy me a chocolate bar as my present. I can remeber lying in our hammock listening to people in a campsite down the way singing Christmas carols and all I could think was, “Bah, humbug.”
What I’m really going to miss this Christmas season is my crew of decoators. Since the arrival of grandchildren it has become a traditon at our house that they decorate the Christmas tree and put on display all the holiday items we hve gathered over the years. Decorating for anything is definitely not my forte so not having the kids to do it for us this year is a big disappointment; for them, as well, I think. That afternoon, which set off the holiday season in the best way, was always so much fun. Once everything was finished to their satisfaction we would take a break to sample the Chrismas baking I had done and Walter would serve everyone hot chocolate with a marshmallow.
I was listening to Jann Arden’s podcast the other night when she was interviewing people about their remberances of Christmases past and I was flooded with all sorts of memories from my childhood Christmases and those of my current family. When I was young we had several traditions that my parents, my brother and I had established. My grandmother who lived in Salmon Arm would always send us a big parcel which we were not allowed to open until Christmas Eve when we could finally rip off the brown paper and put the enclosed gifts under the Christmas tree.
Christmas morning had its own traditions–my brother and I were able to open our stockings in the morning but no earlier than 7 a.m. The most difficult thing to contend with was that we were not allowed to open our gifts until my grandparents, who lived in the same town, arrived. You’d think that shouldn’t be a problem but my grandmother always had to go to church on Christmas Day and it was always a long service and once she finally got to our place, she couldn’t do a thing until she’d had a cup of tea. The wait seemed untenable. To make things easier for my brother and me my mum left one present for each of us unwrapped under the tree (mine was always a book so I managed okay) and she allowed us each to choose one and only one present to open before Grandma and Grandpa arrived. Choosing that one present was always a huge decision. I remember once my brother decided he’d open one that seemed extremely interesting, it was circular and bumpy on top. My mum tried really hard to talk him out of that choice but he was insistent. Finally, she gave up and said, “Go ahead but I think you’ll be disappointed.” He opened it to find it was a really boring belt and, no matter how hard he begged, she wouldn’t let him open another one.
Jann asked her interviewees about “Christmas disasters” which reminded me of a few in my past. The most memorable was the time I burned up my brother’s main gift from my parents. They had bought him a beautiful red down jacket, probably one of the first of its kind. After we had opened everything I cleared up all the boxes and paper and set them alight in the burning barrel, feeling very smug about how noble I was to clean stuff up without being asked. Then Ross started to look for his new jacket which was nowhere to be found. What we did find, though, was a discoloured metal zipper at the bottom of the burning barrel. I guess he’d put his jacket back in the box and it was so light I didn’t notice there was anything in the box. To this day he reminds me of the Christmas I said to myself, “Oh, here’s Ross’s special present. I think I’ll burn it.”
There were some really noteworthy gifts. My mother lost the diamond from her engagement ring very early in their marriage and one Christmas my dad bought her a new engagement ring. He let Ross and me in on the surprise and we had so much fun wrapping that little ring box in many different and bigger boxes until the final box was at least 2′ X 2′ X 2′. What was the best, though, was watching Mum carefully open box after box after box until she finally got to the mother lode and to see her utter delight with the gift.
Once Walter and I had our own family we establised our own traditions, although we did adhere to some from my childhood. We didn’t open the box the gifts came in from “Gramma-who-lives-Ontario” until Christmas Eve and we didn’t allow the kids to get up to get their stockings until 7 am. I do so remember the whispers and giggles from about 5:30 on as they tried to sneak upstairs to peek at their stockings and the Christmas tree. And, we didn’t open our gifts until my mum and dad arrived but at least they didn’t go to church every Christmas Day so we didn’t have to wait until after lunch. Our household was a little unique in that my husband is a vet and hanging over our heads on Christmas Day was always the possibility that Walter would be called out on an emergency call which often did happen. If and when it did, all activity would cease with moans and complaints and we would wait, usually impatiently, for him to return. As he left the house at least one of the kids would say, “Dad, please don’t talk for a long time.”
For years every Christmas Eve we went to our friends’ annual Christmas Eve party. Ann is the best cook and baker and the table was always laden with delicious goodies. It was so special to meet with the same friends every year and exchange seasonal greetings and lift glasses of cheer. Most years, after leaving the party, another friend and I would attend the annual Christmas Eve service at our little United Church. We would always end that by having a holiday eggnog at her place before I headed home. Another special Christmas tradition that I miss.
We did have some notable Christmas disasters. I remember the first year we were in our new place and my parents and brother and sister-in-law were staying with us. In the middle of the night, Christmas Eve, we were awakened by smoke and we all had to vacate the house. It turned out that Walter had loaded the airtight wood stove in the basement with green poplar. The amount of smoke throughout the house was amazing. That same Christmas the new stove wouldn’t work and we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to cook the turkey; but the three men of the household were finally able to identify and fix the problem. Then there was the Christmas I spilled the gravey from the turkey pan all over my right thigh. I have never in my life removed a pair of pants as quickly as I did that day. I spent the rest of Christmas Day in Emergency at our local hospital. One year Jill had mumps and, even though my brother and his family had travelled from Ontario to share the holidays with us, they had to spend the day at our parents’ house and not with us. One year when Susie was 8 all she wanted was a gerbil which I bought for her a few days before Christmas. We set the animal up at the clinic to await his new home and owner but, unfortunately for him (or her), the clinic cat recognized the gerbil as a special feast. I had to make a mad dash into Prince George on Christmas Eve to replace that Christmas present.
Every year when the four kids were young, Walter constructed something weird and wonderful for them. One year he made hanging chairs out of rope and plywood and hung them in their rooms as a surprise for Christmas morning.When they were very young he made each of them a sort of primitive skateboard and put the number of wheels on each board to correspond with their ages. Jill was 3 that year and her board was very difficult to balance on. One very unique gift he made was what the kids called “the round table”; it was exactly that but it had three upright pieces of wood between the top section and the bottom section with speaces between the wood. The kids were able to put the table on edge, get inside it and roll all over the house. Another year he made them each a cedar chest. The construction I remember the most, though, was the playground equipment he made for the family room. Everything was constructed out of wood and included a teeter-totter, a slide, and, the piece de resistance, a swing on a tripod. This was not an ordinary swing; it took up the entire room and the seat was a piece of plywood that was 2′ X 3′. What was really horrible was that when a kid went swinging that damn seat always ended up hitting me in the knees. I complained about it to no avail until I came home one evening to find the tripod swing disassembled. When I asked Walter why he said, indignantly, “Well, you know when a kid swings on that thing, it ends up hitting me in the knees and that really hurts.” I just gave him a that look.
Every single Christmas that I can remember, when we go to bed exhausted from the day, Walter has said to me, “I think this has been the best Christmas ever.” I wonder what he’ll say this Christmas.