And So This Is Christmas …

christmas 1

There are a million and six ways to celebrate Christmas — everything from Aunt Betty’s fruitcake (“Isn’t that the same one from last year?”) to the latest overpriced iPhone (“Holy crap!  They’re proud of their plastic!)  And we all keep Christmas in our own way.  However, there are certain things that everyone experiences at Christmas.  And these are the things that make the season special.

Christmas is about music — For God’s sake!  Could you give “Jingle Bells” a rest?  You’ve been playing that damn thing constantly since the 12th of November.  And, while we’re at it, one more “Little Drummer Boy” and I’m going to jump up and punch somebody – seriously – I’m going to punch somebody.

Christmas is about good cheer – To the guy who stole your parking space, the woman who elbowed into line and insisted she was next, the teenagers who were singing “Straight Outta Compton” in the Lego Store, the delivery person who dropped your package and kicked it to the door and the co-workers who secretly ate all your cookies – Merry Christmas, ya bunch of assholes!

Christmas is about giving — You’ve known each other since grade school; you’ve been friends since university.  So this year you’ve spent the last three months searching every garage sale, dusty charity shop and back alley record store within 100 km. looking for a copy of her totally favourite vinyl record, The Velvet Underground & Nico.  You found it!  You wrap it in special paper with a handmade tag.  You give it to her.  And she hands you a scented candle and a Starbucks’ Gift Card.

Christmas is about family – Your mother hasn’t spoken to Uncle Thomas in 12 years.  Your brother borrowed money from you last April, and now he doesn’t answer his phone.  Your niece is a vegan and her girlfriend is an atheist.  Grandpa can’t eat salt, sugar, soy or starch and Grandma has trouble with fibre.  Cousin Benny and his wife drink – a lot.  And your own kids have decided to spend Christmas in Hawaii with their father.  Surprise!  It’s your year to host the good old-fashioned family Christmas dinner.  Oh, and your sister’s kids want to bring the dog.

But the one thing that we all have in common at Christmas is:

Christmas is about kids – I don’t care if you’re the world’s most committed social worker, one good deed away from the Nobel Peace Prize or a badass biker, one neck tattoo away from a felony conviction — when a child sees Santa Claus for the first time – screw the 6 O’clock News — there is no wickedness in the world!

Child’s Christmas In Saskatchewan (2016)

Christmas never came slowly to the old house on Avenue E.   It didn’t come sneaking in on a prairie breeze 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 (they were all men, back then) 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, not me — 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 Department Store escalator, filling Men’s Wear 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” 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; who told us we’d grown and remembered us when.  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 remember their own 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


Christmas Baking

xmas baking.jpgI was looking for Christmas cookies the other day — you know — something to put on a plate when the neighbours drop by, over the holidays, looking for a free coffee?  OMG, what a total lack of imagination!  They’re all boring sugar cookies with green tree icing or candy cane stripes or something that vaguely resembles a reindeer — except it’s really a rodent with blobby ears and a red sprinkle nose.  What did they do?  Just scrape the pumpkins off the leftover Hallowe’en cookies and start again with Santa?

Old man nostalgia in 3…2…1.

Back in the day, we had all kinda baked goodies at Christmas.  Stuff that was exclusive to the holiday.  Stuff that was handmade and squashed with a fork.  Stuff that was saved in Tupperware — for months.  Stuff that was trotted out for guests and late night movies.  Stuff that still smells like Christmas whenever I run into it all these years later.  Whatever happened to that stuff?  Well, I found it!  I’d like to say I spend months in old bookstores, library archives and university basements looking for old cookbooks and Good Housekeeping from 1931.  I’d like to say I travelled to the villages of Great Britain, carefully recording the reminiscences of their oldest residents.  Nah! All I did was phone my sister and brother-in-law.

Over the years, all my sisters baked at Christmas (in fact, I think they were once collectively sued by the Keebler Elves) but these days, Bonnie and Jim Vandale are the keepers of the Fyfe Christmas flame.  So here are three recipes from the archives and one more that I didn’t even know they had.

UNBAKED CHOCOLATE OATMEAL COOKIES (we had a ruder name for them)

2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup butter

Bring to a boil. Boil one minute, then add

3 1/2 cups oatmeal
5 tbsp cocoa
1 tsp vanilla
Pinch of salt

Mix well. Drop by teaspoon onto wax paper. Let them stand until they harden. You can use 1 cup of coconut in place of one cup of oatmeal if you want. (My family doesn’t like coconut, so I just use the oatmeal.)


1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 or 2/3 cup raisins
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
2 eggs ( 1 if syrupy filling desired)

Melt butter, add all ingredients except eggs. Mix thoroughly, let mixture cool and add eggs. Beat just enough to combine yolk and whites. Pour into pastry-lined tart tins.Bake on lower rack for 15 – 20 minutes at 400 degrees F.

SAUCE FOR CAKE  (This can be used over any cake you want. I use it with Plum Pudding or Ginger cake.)

1 cup brown sugar
1 large tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla
About 2 cups water
1 tbsp cornstarch

Combine sugar, butter, vanilla and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and thicken with 1 tbsp cornstarch.


And finally, my mother’s shortbread sucked, so my sister’s skipped a generation on the recipe — although I thought this had long since been lost.


Cream together well:

1 lb. butter
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
1 cup cornstarch

Gradually add:

3 cups sifted flour

Mix thoroughly. Chill dough. Knead the dough until it is soft and smooth.  Roll into small balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press the ball of dough down with a fork (put some flour on the fork so it won’t stick.)

Bake at 300 F for 20 – 25 minutes. If the bottom of the cookie is golden brown, your shortbread is done.


Merry Christmas!