A Child’s Christmas in Saskatchewan: Part 2

xmas cold4When 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!

A Child’s Christmas in Saskatchewan

kid1Christmas never came slowly to the old house on Avenue E.   It didn’t come sneaking on a Christmas card morning, when the night-fresh snow shone sparkling silver in the early sun.  It didn’t whisper Christmas carol cold on the prairie wind.  It didn’t Santa Claus and reindeer jingle with merry little 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 black holsters and two guns … that matched.  Crybaby dolls for sisters (who hogged) while the drums of a thousand little plastic Indians attacked Fort Apache (some assembly required.)  But all that was for later — dreamed and re-dreamed as the long/short winter days glaciered away.

First, Christmas was music; foot-pumped piano tunes practiced like Pavarotti,kid 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: 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, with worry, and never sang again that season (or any other I can ever 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 Elvis — 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 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 could hear it in German.

And Christmas was decorations and cards.  We coloured Santa Clauses and hand-drawn sleighs 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, kid3painted with Christmases we’d never seen before.  Lovely cottages trapped in the woods with bright lights and deep soft snow that was so white it was blue.  Old-fashioned carolers with long scarves and top hats sang Christmas under streetlamps into someone else’s warm windows.  Jolly flying Santa Clauses with (not enough) reindeer filled plump stockings hung by the chimney with crazy huge nails.   Stacks of square presents with ribbons and bows tucked under perfect triangle trees.  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.  The tall sisters pinned the cards high on the curtains so we’d have room for the rest.  There were always too many, and the leftovers stood crowding the tables like refugees waiting to get in.  They would fall over at the slightest inconvenience, until finally they were folded and stacked.  Every year, some cards would come late and lay orphaned in their envelopes ‘cause there was 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….

Friday: A Child’s Christmas in Saskatchewan Part 2