My mum embodied the Spirit of Christmas. She loved everything about the holiday, and she made every one of my childhood Christmas’ as merry and bright as she could.
She’d grown up in the depression – she knew Christmas wasn’t about money. When times were tough, she’d tell us it would be a “Hoodoo McFiggin” year – that meant the only presents would be things she had to buy us anyway, just to keep us clothed and fed – underwear, socks, boots. Presents were lovely, but some years, presents could wait. Christmas was about gathering with family, and sharing what we did have, and what we had to spare was love.
She just had so damn much joy and childlike belief in the season that it all came naturally through her to us … the breathless lead up that began months before, when she’d start asking my sister and I what we were going to ask to receive from Santa, and the admonition that we must be very sure of what we’d tell the Big Man when the day came … this was serious business! We were to name only one important item we really, really wanted. If there were other gifts, they would be of Santa’s choosing. We’d spend hours arguing over what toys were best, what we really wanted, and we’d change our minds a zillion times before our visit to Santa’s Kingdom.
Nor were the needs of others to be forgotten. We’d be given a small amount of money, and a list of those we needed to delight with thoughtful gifts. It’s extraordinary how far $5.00 could go back in the sixties. We would have been mortified to not have a gift to give to any of the family who had brought a gift for us. Some years would find us digging through our own stash of precious things, in order to find something we could wrap quickly and present to an unexpected guest.
In the run up to the Day itself, we’d drag out the boxes of carefully packaged ornaments that Mum had collected through the years. She’d linger over the battered aluminum stars made from pie plates, reminding me that she and I had made those together, one year when I was very young, and recovering from the mumps. She’d carefully unwrap the fragile glass ornaments she’d had since she and dad first married, each colourful globe a warm memory. And she’d always linger over a set of orbs, some round, some tear-shaped, so transparent they reflected rainbows, so precious and delicate, “they’re like soap bubbles , Roxanne! Aren’t they beautiful?!”
We had to have a real tree. She felt there was no point in having a tree if it didn’t come with that delicious smell, and the scratchy feel of pine needles under foot. The tree would find a place of honour in the dining room, and strict instructions about its care and watering were delivered. After the tree was set into the metal holder, she’d draw a bright red and sparkly cloth gently around the base, and then add puffs of ‘angel hair’ to make the tree look like it was floating on a cloud.
She’d drape the tree’s branches with long strands of tiny glass beads, the beads a little more worn every year, but shining nonetheless. The box of tinsel was precious too; after Christmas we’d gather as many of the used strands as we could and save them for the following year. We had two special toppers for the tree – one, a paper plate collage of an angel adorned with cotton batting that I’d made in first grade, the other , a plastic doll dressed as an angel, it’s halo tipped jauntily to the left, a scratch of pen ink faintly visible on it’s cheek.
Christmas songs would be playing on the little record player, and we’d all sing along as we decorated. Jodi and I liked to make up new and naughty words to some of the classics, just to make mum laugh, before she’d chide us to “Behave! Santa hears and sees everything you do!”
Once the tree was up and decorated, we went into a two week hiatus, where the other 50 weeks of naughtiness were replaced by determined niceness. We’d wait breathlessly for the Christmas specials to appear on the TV; without video or DVD, you had to be home to see “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or one of the other animated delights, most of which seemed to be Rankin Bass productions.
As my sister and I got older, we began to appreciate more adult offerings; Jodi loved “It’s A Wonderful Life.” My favorite was “Holiday Inn,” with the moment I waited for being when the heroine posed in silhouette against a giant red paper heart, before dancing through it … and breaking poor old Bing Crosby’s heart.
And of course no Christmas was complete without the scary, but ultimately uplifting, black and white classic … Alastair Sim in “A Christmas Carol.” God bless us, everyone!
There was also one special box that contained nothing but photos, recipes, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and a few very treasured books. Our favourite to read and to have read to us was Erwin L. Hess’ “Christmas and Snowbound in the Treasured Past,” a large full coloured collection of holiday poems, stories, artwork and photos, from 1961.
“We remember our best Christmas. A flashback appears and this favourite Christmas plays on a very special screen in a picture of color, and we see the scenes we remember so well. Immediately our story we’ll begin to tell…It snowed early that year. In those days the holiday spirit was in the air with the first fall of snow. Sleigh bells jingled and that meant Christmas was near!”
We loved that book; it epitomized an ideal Christmas, one that we’d never had, nor likely ever would. But it held a promise, so much so that the phrase, “Christmas and snowbound in the treasured past” became our family code for how we imagined paradise to be.
Were winters colder then? Not always … one memorable Montreal Christmas Eve, the family toddled off to church in summer dresses and sandals, only to emerge into a starlit night made brighter by soft, fat flakes of snow gently falling onto the sidewalks. But that was an aberration; most Christmas Eves were ‘see your breath’ cold, brightened by our new knit hats and mittens that Gram had made to keep us warm.
Cold, colder and coldest was more often the weather on Christmas day. During my teen years, the habit was to gather at one of the uncles’ house to carve the roast beast. The best parties were at Uncle John’s big house in Chambly, as there was plenty of room for the kids to play, and even a special room where we could have our own holiday meal, manners and decorum cast aside, while the adults ate, smoked, clinked glasses and laughed about adult matters. We felt a little sorry for them – they didn’t even get to watch TV while they ate!
No matter where the party was held, in time the celebrations would wind down, and we’d gather our outdoor clothing, say goodbye to the umpteen cousins, and kiss all the ‘grumps,’ (grown ups) before piling into the car for the long ride home, across snowy roads and an ice-laced Pont Cartier, and then along Sherbrooke Street for miles, our bellies full and heads nodding, and inevitably slipping into sleep just before the car drew into the driveway. If we were small enough, we’d even get carried to our beds, where our new pjs and slippers awaited us.
It was a very different time, and, as with every generation that comes along, we were creating our own version of what Christmas should look and feel like. My mother’s memories were precious, but no more precious than the one’s she created for my sister and me.
Times change, and families are usually smaller than they used to be, and often times, a great deal more complicated. The name we give to that wonderful time of year when we get together to eat and sing and laugh and pray may be Christmas, or Hanukkah, Kwanza, Ramadan, or even Festivus. Heck, call it “Christmahanakwanzika“ if you want to.
What we call the holiday doesn’t matter – what matters is that we take the time to find that small, still place in our hearts, where peace and goodwill live. We gather with our families and friends to join our hearts and hands, to share what we have, and to give thanks that we … together … made it through another year, and are ready to enter another year, whatever it may bring … together.
Hoodoo McFiggin’s Christmas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZm0WoTl1wU
(first published Dec, 2015: bobsegarini.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/roxanne-tellier-christmas-and-snowbound-in-the-treasured-past/)