Christmas never came slowly to the old house on Avenue E. It didn’t come sneaking in on a prairie wind Christmas card morning, when the night-fresh snow shone sparkling silver in the early sun. It didn’t whisper or reindeer jingle bell with merry elves laughing like flutes in the faraway air. Christmas came, bold and fully clothed, directly to our door like a medieval merchant, thick with wonder. When the mailman brought the Sears Christmas Catalogue, he delivered unto us the loot of princes, and suddenly it was Christmas.
Heavenly hosts of handymen made Kenner skyscrapers high beyond reaching. Choirs of cowboys sang, Paladin brave, with serious six-guns. Crybaby dolls for sisters (who hogged) while the drums of a thousand little plastic warriors attacked Fort Apache (some assembly required.) But all that was for later — dreamed and re-dreamed as the long December evenings glaciered along.
First, Christmas was music; foot-pumped school piano tunes practiced like Pavarotti, our oval mouths glor-or-or-ying like cherubim. Sweet as angels, we came upon a midnight clear like shepherds watching their flocks near the little town of Bethlehem. But not me— no — I was a king. A bath towel sheik with a dog-hair beard, I carried gold to the Savior so many times, so carefully, that I ripped my throat sick and never sang again that season (or any other I can recall.) So it was the choirs I remember, church holy music that surged down the Eaton’s escalator, filling the Men’s Department full and spilling out into the street. And there were radio carols: Perry Como, Gene Autry, Brenda Lee and the inevitable Tommy Hunter — singing forever and again on CFQC. Or the television Christmases with Our Pet Juliette and Andy Williams and Harry Belafonte, who sang “Mary’s Boy Child” like a stained glass window. The great choirs of Vienna and Westminster glowed television-blue into our living room as we lay on the floor, chin-down on parkas between the oil burner and the dog. Their black and white RCA Victor voices sorrowed and sighed like celestial harps born to us once a year. But it was “Silent Night” that was really Christmas — and in our town, we heard it in German.
And Christmas was decorations and cards. We coloured Santa Clauses and made cross-cut Christmas trees that never stood still. We looped and glued and looped and glued miles of paper chains that hung from the windows and maybe the tree — next year. There were cards from everyone, painted with Christmases we’d never seen before. Snow-heavy cottages trapped in the woods. Carolers with long scarves and top hats sang Christmas under streetlamps. Jolly flying moonlight Santa Clauses with (not enough) reindeer. Plump stockings hung by the chimney with evil looking nails. There were angels with trumpets and Wise Men and Bethlehem mangers too numerous to count. Once, two hands with wine glasses wished us all a Happy New Year, one holiday too soon. There were always too many cards, and the leftovers stood crowding the living room tables like refugees waiting for no room at the inn.
And every year, on the last day of school, mother would find the boxes, from no one knew where, that had the Christmas ornaments — the ones for the tree — because nothing was Christmas before there was a tree….
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.
But before that, 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 snow stranded 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, year after year, until no single table could hold us. But we tried for such a long time. Sisters became mothers and parents became grandparents, and then nieces became mothers and sisters became grandparents 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 loose 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!