When I was a kid, the Christmas tree on Avenue E was the biggest thing I’d ever seen. It stood in our living room like the edge of the forest, dark with mythology. It was living green — in a shale-grey world of lost horizons. And then: decorated by sisters, it shone like a towering angel with glass and gold ornaments from a time before a forgotten war. They were paint-flaked old and saved precious from year to year — each one a story told until they were all forgotten. But magic is an eternal tale, whispered by winter to children who were reminded they needed to be very good that year.
Good children got presents, but that was for later. They lay hidden like treasure, in mother’s vast cedar chest, so cleverly concealed that only I and Santa Claus knew they were there. Besides, it was time to read books. Tucked into the pillows, my bed became one elbow adventures, as I leaned over Radisson and Groseilliers, paddling their long canoes loaded with pelts, or followed Hudson and Frobisher through the ice floes and another deadly Canadian winter that howled out loud, just window glass away. And there were jigsaw puzzles with a million pieces that lost interest so quickly some of them never did get turned over — until sisters came to rescue the red dog trapped inside. Colouring, with school crayons (already out of blue) and tracing with paper that got blue ink all over my hands. And gluing, constantly gluing, until the school glue was gone and only the flour and water paste remained. But mostly, we were travellers, following our own Christmas star to the fragrance of the East.
At our house, Christmas was sweet with exotic smells: bubbling chocolate, vanilla and dates that became cakes. There was coconut, shredded into cookies, and raisins boiling into tarts; layers of jam and shortbread and tiny black squares of fudge. We had nuts, piled in bowls, still in their shells: peanuts for children to crack and save in their cheeks, like gophers. Peppermints and Licorice Allsorts and boxes of pre-Christmas chocolates. Sometimes, the sugar smell of whiskey, when adults had friends who laughed and told us we’d grown. But, beyond all the rest, Christmas was Japanese oranges, so rare they came nailed in wooden boxes, like the cargo of Oriental kings. They were — and will always be — Christmas.
And Christmas was people. Friends from the street, who played long afternoon games until nobody won and it was time to go home. Huff-puffing neighbours, who swore and shovelled at angry cars, ornery and cold, that wouldn’t go where they were supposed to. We all helped and pushed when we were told and “got the hell out of the way for Christ sake” when we weren’t. Boyfriends who became brothers-in-law and let me sit with the men; other adults we only saw once a year and never again; and some we wished we never saw at all. And everybody — coming home for Christmas.
When I was a kid, Christmas was our whole family gathered and growing like Topsy, year after year, until no single table could hold us. But we tried for such a long time. Parents became grandparents, sisters became mothers and then nieces became mothers, too. New children have new Christmases. Old children have memories, carefully wrapped and saved precious, like paint-flaked ornaments on a long ago tree. And now we’re all gone from the old house on Avenue E. Finding our own lives like rolling thistles shaken by the prairie wind. And our children will remember their Christmases and their children, too. But once, not that long ago, a giant tree shone holy in the deep grey prairie afternoon.
Merry Christmas, Everybody!