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Christmas traditions can be a double-edged sword

My earliest Christmas memory dates from when I was five, or perhaps six. I had graduated from the upstairs room I shared with my three sisters, downstairs to a daybed in the small den. So when I awoke to the dim light of a Vancouver dawn, I was alone.

I had great expectations for the morning because I’d had only one request for Santa that year: a football helmet. Surely I’d find it somewhere near my bed when I awoke and I would open it by myself, along with my stocking of smaller gifts and edible goodies.

I’m not even sure why a helmet was the object of my desire. I didn’t play football. My father didn’t watch it. I wasn’t involved in any organized sports. And clearly, the small gift lying beside my bed could not be a helmet. I was puzzled, and opened it to find an electronic device with a cord and dial. I plugged it in and turned the knob. It hummed softly, but did nothing. Huh?

Then I noticed a second box, longer and fatter. In it were the makings of a model train set. Clearly, Santa was improvising this year, assuming that an electric train was more appropriate for a young boy than, say, the football helmet he’d specifically asked for!

I fell back into my bed in dissapointment and tears. But I was old enough to collect myself before my parents came downstairs, and show appropriate pleasure for the gift Santa had left me. My dad hooked up the transformer and had the train set operating in no time. It wasn’t such a bad gift, and it showed some understanding of my love of mechanics. Maybe Santa wasn’t such a dud after all.

• • • • •

Five years later I was still excited by Christmas morning, even if Santa lists were a thing of the past. My father was a minister, so the delayed gratification that built during the Christmas Eve service at our church was excruciating. It involved a nativity scene, with the various pieces and characters distributed among the kids in the congregation. My dad would read the Christmas story from the gospels and we’d sing traditional hymns like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

As each new character emerged in the story, a child would come forward with their piece – a shepherd, a donkey, a king, and finally, Mary and Jesus – and place it in a crèche at the front of the sanctuary. The church was lit with candles and the mood was further softened by the sounds of children murmuring to their parents.

As preacher’s kids, my sisters and I were rather jaded by the service, which we’d attended for as long as we could remember. We were like, “been there, done that.” (One year, my Dad even dressed us up as the holy family, and sent the snapshot as our Christmas card, my youngest sister, just a newborn, lying in a manger in our living room.)

We knew the story and songs by heart, and just wanted to get home, open the one present we were allowed on Christmas Eve, and then get to bed, so the morning would arrive as soon as possible.

Only this year, Christmas morning was different, unlike any I’d experienced before. As soon as I awoke I could sense something new by the quality of the light coming in through my bedroom window. It was brighter, whiter, utterly unlike the usual greyness of Vancouver in December. To my delight, it had snowed overnight, something that rarely happens when you live next to the Pacific Ocean. And not just a little snow, but a good foot of the stuff – fluffy, white, draping the cedars that surrounded our home.

Gifts and stockings were forgotten as I grabbed my boots and readied our small dog to get outside as fast as possible. She was as excited as I was by the sudden transformation, leaping about in the drifts, and disappearing with each bound. I wandered down our suburban street, spellbound by the muffled quiet, the carless roads, and the dazzling light of a sunny, snowy, Christmas morning.

• • • • •

When I grew up, and had children of my own, I tried to reproduce my memories of Christmas as best as I could. The only problem was, my wife Nichola was trying to do the same, and her traditions were subtly dissimilar. Although we had related cultural backgrounds (hers British, mine Canadian), the God is in the details, as they say, and in these we inevitably differed.

Stockings? They were a Canadian invention, and highly unnecessary, even distracting, she argued. All the presents, even those from relatives and friends, should arrive from Father Christmas, delivered in a sack and left on the bed, to be opened with speedy abandon, as soon as possible after waking.

I attempted to stand my ground: stockings, then breakfast, then after a little pause, presents around the tree, all very orderly, no tearing of paper. We could never agree on the exact procedure, each feeling we had somehow lost the magic we felt as kids. These arguments often arose on Christmas Eve, as we wrapped presents in an exhausted stupor, each angling for our own interpretation of how the next day should unfold.

One year we were in Vancouver at my parent’s home, and it was possibly my wife’s worst Christmas ever, for the simple reason that there were no … potatoes. My mother had decided on turkey with a wild rice pilaf for dinner, plus assorted green and orange veggies (like mashed squash with a melted marshmallow on top).

For an English girl, used to a minimum of two potato dishes on the Christmas table, it came as a rude shock to be eating rice for dinner. She was rescued at the last moment by my older sister, who also felt a potato was sine qua non for the holiday meal; she dashed to the kitchen to microwave two potatoes as my dad carved the turkey at the table.

As our boys grew, we often spent Christmases with Nic’s brother’s family and their two boys, who were similar in age to ours, and the mornings became an orgy of kids’ presents. The apogee was one year in Stouffville, with four boys were under eight years of age. The adults, including grandparents, arranged packages under the tree on Christmas Eve, a little shocked at the amount of stuff we were heaping on our offspring. The pile of gifts completely dominated the small living room floor. We laughed, but we also wondered, was this right?

• • • • •

Flash forward a decade or so. It hadn’t been a good year for any of us. We weren’t even sure we wanted to celebrate Christmas. The previous spring we’d lost Nichola’s younger sister to a sudden death from a hospital-acquired infection. My own 82-year-old mother’s death from cancer followed just weeks later, and then the passing of the last of my father’s siblings. Combined with the loss of friends’ parents, we attended half a dozen funerals in a four-month stretch ending in June. By the year’s end we were wrung out, unwilling to undergo the enforced jollyness and tiresome preparation that accompanies the holiday season.

Our Christmas card that year was a deep blue, with the words to an un-holiday tune in faint print: “Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby.”

By December Nic’s parents had fled the continent back to the UK in grief over the loss of their daughter. On my side of the family, we hatched a plan to get away from all our respective homes, settling on Quebec City as a neutral destination, far from our Vancouver memories.

We deliberately set the bar as low as possible: no presents, no tree, no turkey, no lights, in fact, none of the things that we’d been holding near and dear for so long. (Except the stockings – we did a small exchange of those. It took barely 10 minutes.)

On Christmas Eve, my wife Nichola and my twin sister dashed out to a nearby mall for a small turkey roll in a box, a can of gravy, and a dollar-store purchase of a tiny plastic Christmas tree covered in blue LED lights. That was it for preparations. Nobody was crying out for tradition.

And a funny thing happened. We enjoyed Christmas as much as ever. We laughed, even if the humour was sometimes dark, we cried, we played games, we skied at a nearby hill (when it wasn’t raining, improbably so for Quebec in winter), and we enjoyed an impromptu afternoon in Old Quebec City on Boxing Day, oblivious to the crowds of shoppers around us.

We even wondered, why couldn’t the holidays always be this easy, with plenty of time for company and connection, and minimal effort spent on things and preparations?

• • • • •

That brings us to this year. We wanted to do Christmas differently, but couldn’t completely forgo the traditions that give the season meaning. What to retain, and what to let go? Christmas traditions: they’re so personal, yet so cultural too – affected by the larger society around us, and also intimately connected to our earliest memories as children.

Traditions are great, but they can be a double-edged sword. They can bind you to time-consuming rituals that mean well, but which lose their meaning in the rush to get everything done.

My youngest son suggested a holiday that would place a higher priority on spontaneity and togetherness, eschewing elaborate gift-giving and even more elaborate food preparation.

So our plan for this year is a simpler Christmas Day, a bit like the one we had in Quebec City. We’re doing a double secret-Santa gift exhange, with a spending limit that suits the budgets of young adults and students. We’re going to drop the mandatory turkey and roast dinner for the first time ever, substituting it with a comfort food dish we can assemble the day before. We’re inviting a cousin who might otherwise be on his own, and a school friend of my son’s who isn’t quite comfortable in her own home this year.

But mostly, we hope to leave ourselves the gift of time, to be together, and to do the things we really yearn for at Christmas, but which often get squeezed out by the bustle: a walk or a ski; our favourite board games; an evening church service, or at least some real carol-singing; a shared movie, or perhaps the solitary enjoyment of a new book.

Who knows. If we’re not all too bored, if the enforced close company doesn’t send us running in all directions, or if the lack of turkey leftovers isn’t too keenly missed, maybe this will be our new Christmas tradition.

This essay was also published Dec. 24, 2014 in the Guelph Mercury.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. burna #

    Thank you so much. This is yet another wonderful piece, Art. Happy Holidays and much happiness in 2015.

    Love and hugs, to you and yours, Burna and Jim

    December 24, 2014
  2. Hey Art, I liked your post. I have been reading through your blog. I admire not only the creativeness and command of the language that you demonstrate but also for that degree of professionalism that I can see in the content of your posts. Obviously you have some training and quite a bit of experience writing. I am also writing as an outlet for my thoughts. I love it, although it takes work, and I am encouraged when people mention that they have read what I wrote. I wish I could meet you for a beer or coffee to chat about writing. I will be reading your stuff both for entertainment and to learn something about writing. Keep writing and congrats on getting Christmas post published.

    December 24, 2014
    • Thanks for your very kind words Josh. I actually don’t have any formal training in writing or journalism – pretty much self-taught from the university paper on forward. Having a blog is a great outlet. You keep writing yours (taking advantage of all your new experiences in Oz), I’ll keep writing mine and we’ll compare notes when you get back!

      December 25, 2014

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