CHRISTMAS ALWAYS USED TO BE BETTER
The best Christmas lives only in your memory.
All the nonsense is forgotten, if you're lucky. All you remember is the nice tickling of your senses and your heart.
Despite the hassles and family nattering, it's still the nicest time of the year, the only holiday that still means something to me in our frantic commercialism of the calendar.
If you want to see a Christmas when I was a boy in Chesley, a modest town of 1,800 near Owen Sound, look at those cards with paintings of old: Snow flakes floating down on horse-drawn sleighs, skating on the river, snowmen (never a snowperson) on lawns, Christmas trees glowing softly in parlour windows as if they were dressed in jewels.
No house bedecked with outdoor Christmas lights and trappings behind the snow banks. Hydro was too costly for that, especially in Chesley.
Back in the 1940s, a sturdy team steaming in the cold each hour pulled a sleigh full of sawdust past our house from the sawmill to the big furniture factory to feed the boiler. In 2012, the sawmill is just a scar beside the Saugeen that powered it. It burned decades ago. The sprawling factory was demolished along with all those jobs. The factory whistles, which marked the work day, keep time again only in my nostalgia.
Yet Christmas was a joy in our lives, even if most presents were clothes, which is never the way to a boy's heart, and there was never anything fashionable for Joyce and Joanne.
The plump golden turkey appeared in ads but not on our table. We had a skinny Leghorn that was at the bottom of the pecking order from the backyard pen.. Yet it tasted like a butterball delight, and for once I got seconds.
There were carols for the final school week at the start of each day that were broadcast all the way from the Big Smoke. We lined up in halls that were always too hot from the radiators and sang along with the early shoppers and sales clerks at Simpsons. It was a great department store, now vanished, which is a shame because it was a great place to shop.
Just imagine! Carols in schools and no mention of Hanukkah or that contrived Kwanzaa. PC jerks and activists with nothing better to do say carols and Christmas concerts in school are the devil's spawn. They should look in the mirror if they want to see anal evil because ours was a tolerant society that really believed in peace on earth and goodwill to anyone who wasn't busy murdering our traditions. Multiculturalism hadn't been invented yet, and immigrants were expected to integrate.
Newsweek says that the war in favour of authorities, card companies and stores not being afraid to actually use the word Christmas has been won. It points to the decline in media stories of silly folk banning creches, carol sings etc. I hope the magazine is right (too bad its print edition is about to vanish.) But it sure hasn't sunk in yet with everyone, particularly with Toronto schools who are so busy being correct, they probably feel the devil should get equal billing, and that since some feel that there never really was a divine Christ, let's not mention His name until he reappears.
There are those who will say that they know all about my Christmas romanticism after too many years of reading my sentiment and my hatred for all who don't recognize that a Christian Christmas is a fundamental part of the elusive Canadian identify that welcomes everyone as long as they don't truck in their fights and garbage.
Friends and family will claim that my annual tales of frozen ears and pantomimes and treasured bananas are something I repeat in loving detail if a tree ornament even threatens to drop.
But this year I have a new story, one I had never discovered in the constant mining of my memory when I listen to the happy and solemn music of the season, like the Queen of Carols. And I swear that if I am ever near a singer who jazzes up the simple majesty of Silent Night, I will crush their chords.
I have fond memories of the kids I left behind when I returned to Toronto for most of high school. Chums who kept me going when times were tough and my spirit melted like an icicle in spring. I remember fondly every girl in my class because they were kindly and even sisterly to the thin geek in spectacles who wore hand-me-downs from antiquity.
We were all supposed to have sweethearts. After all, there was Becky in Tom Sawyer. So I told everyone that my sweetheart was Nancy from just up the street, although I never held her hand or kissed her or even exchanged a confidence. Then there was laughing Sheila with the red cheeks, who I still see to exchange school tales. But I did have a yen - if that's what you call it just before the hormones really kick in - for a tiny girl named Mary who lived just around the corner.
She descended on me decades later at a reunion. She had married a medical specialist and moved to the States and he had died and she returned some of the year to a cottage. She began by talking about the years she was madly in love with me.
But you never let on, I said. I couldn't recall any secret moment, no trying out of my wings as I grew older, just one party where some of our class had skied, and some had ridden sleds that they had outgrown, and I had just stomped around trying to limit the frost bite to my feet in the tight rubber boots. Then we were back in the pleasant living room of her house at one of those kid warm cocoa evenings that you wished would last forever because any petty jealousies were subdued.
Mary told me that she had confessed to me in the old public school a few weeks before it burned down, to our delight, that her family wasn't going to have a Christmas tree. I extracted the reasons: there wasn't much money, her father, a professional, was a bit different (he drank,) but the final blow was he didn't believe in Christmas or in Christmas trees.
I was horrified. My grandparents bought nothing beyond the bare necessities but even we had a tree. And there were gifts, even if too many contained socks. We had Christmas stockings, even if they were filled mainly with oranges and hard candy stuck together.
But Mary told me all these years later about how I had come to her rescue. I had an interesting relationship with my teachers since I was one of the better students even if I specialized in getting the strap. (I set a record of 85 times in Grade 3, but I suspect I made the record up myself.) So I would get 100 in an exam just before I was exiled to the gloomy cloakroom and the aroma from the winter armour mounded there in great ripe masses of galoshes and boots and mittens and wet coats and scarfs.
I confronted the principal, according to Mary, and pointed out that this was Dec. 24 and we were going home early after playing some silly games and that meant the school Christmas tree would have no more use because when we came back in the new year, all the needles would have fallen. I didn't tell him why I wanted the tree.
He didn't want to give it to me. Perhaps he worried I was asking for a favour. In that school and in that town, he was God and favours were few. Apparently I offered to buy it, although I doubt I had more than some quarters hidden at home. This apparently made him mad, but I hung in there, figuring that it couldn't get any worse. It was already going to be hell for me in January. Finally he gave me the tree IF I removed the ornaments. I lugged it several blocks to Mary's home, slipping in the snow, and then had to talk the tree into the house. Mary borrowed ornaments somewhere but I don't think she could get one of those strings of lights where none work when one is burned out.
And that was the end of her story.
Now I sound like a Huck Finn in shining armour, a paltry Sir Galahad. Yet it's hard to preen as a good guy when you don't remember one titch of the story.
After Mary told me how wonderful she thought I was then, and how she had put me on a pedestal, all I could lament was that she hadn't told me how much she loved me back in those nervous pimply days when it took half the night at a school dance for me to screw up enough courage to ask one wallflower to stumble around the floor with me.
Fifty years too late! It might have changed my life!