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During the 1960’s and early 1970’s my dad would take out his reel to reel recorder and tape our Christmas parties. Recently, I discovered these tapes and played one at random. At first I was delighted to hear my young self belting out Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer. But I never made it through the song. On the first go, my Uncle Al blew his nose. On the second attempt I had just sang out “You’ll go down in history“ when my mother let go the most intentionally sonorous fart. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including my own.
Damas Cayer roused himself from his stupor. It was Christmas Eve. There was barely enough money to keep himself drunk let alone buy Christmas gifts for his nine daughters. “Viens-ic’ite” He said to the little girls, as he walked onto the front porch. They followed, some at his back and others with noses pressed against the window. The man looked up, a pained expression on his doughy face and shook a first, “Rentrez, maudit enfant-chien! Rentrez!” There was a long, snowy silence and then he looked back at his girls and told them the news: Santa missed the house again.
Santa sat in my front room, beer in hand. I knew I’d been had. Since when did Santa speak French and smoke cigarettes? A closer inspection revealed a crop of black hair hiding under the cheap white wig. Dammit! This wasn’t Santa, the bringer of gifts, the John Frum of the cargo cult that is Christmas. It was my crummy Auntie Annemarie. In Yuletide drag. I would get even. I got out my pencil and dashed off a letter to the North Pole. Once news of this unauthorized impersonation got out, there would be no more Molson Canadians for her.
Tante Geneviève worked away at our Christmas holidays like a tongue on a canker. Her habit of half-closing her eyes when you spoke to her made you feel as if you were either intruding or behaving like a baboon. As children we took a resistance through solidarity approach that manifested itself in several little treasony acts as the penitential visit progressed. For instance, we cousins placed bets on how many times she’d use her favorite crutch phrase during her prandial diatribes, and then, exchanging furtive glances over the tortière, kept a mental tally to determine who won the evening’s sweepstakes.
Peter my Czech chiropractor is a master conversationalist. Maybe because he’s been cracking both the lumpen and bourgeois necks of our neighbourhood for years, he can provide a ten-minute distillation on any subject you give him. On my last visit it was that yuletide nugget Handel’s Messiah. Until you’ve sat on a church pew for three hours listening to songs about sheep and clapping at the appropriate times you have no idea what you’re in for. It’s easily two hours before you hear the big number. “It’s over-rated,” says Peter, “It’s like waiting for the Christmas turkey to cook.” Hallelujah.
Every Monday May and I meet for coffee when our children are at karate. Last week I told her that we adopted a puppy from Attawapiskat. May is one of the wisest people I know, and she made me promise to raise our dog to have a sense of purpose in life. “Too many times” she said “people treat their dogs like purses…” She’s right. I’ve witnessed the happy change in our cats once we started to let them out to prowl. So, little Nim will be a pacer, our lead nimoosh. The one who guides us on our runs.
In December, when dad worked the afternoon shift at Chrysler, mom and I would get into the holiday spirit. We would take the bus downtown to see the Christmas lights at Simpsons or eat chicken pie at Kresge’s. On another evening, we’d trim the tree. This is my favorite memory of my mother and it didn’t matter that the decorations were either dime store or home made. We did the entire house: Styrofoam bells on the dining table, foil elves on the stereo. Even my room boasted a winter village scene made from Borden milk cartons perched on cotton batting.
Back in the 1970’s when winters came early, the walk from school was brutal. It was mitigated only by the hope that the Sears Christmas Wishbook was waiting for you at home. Maybe you’d be the first to tear off the brown wrapping, its pages still cold from sitting on the front porch. Every Canadian of a certain age remembers the moody backlit dioramas of cars or soldiers or the pages of dolls with impossibly long, straight hair. After several hours of careful consideration, which included weighing your recent behaviour against parental largess you made your list and started pleading.
For one season I worked at a museum that offered a snippet of Victorian Christmas to overly excited school children and tourists. Our festive programming began in late November and continued on for weeks so that only the most stalwart of holiday twats could survive the season with her holiday spirit intact. Dressed in a ridiculous pastiche of pseudo-Dickensian drag, I repeated the same yuletide harangue to fleets of bored and sticky-fingered youth, the air pregnant with that smell particular to historic houses at that time of year, a combination of dirty hair, stinky feat, mouldy walls and post-gingerbread gas.
Since we didn’t have a fireplace Santa resorted to a most unconventional way of delivering my loot. Bells rang in the basement and then I, spurred on by a combination of greed and Pavlovian conditioning would race upstairs to the laundry shoot, stick my head and chubby hands down it and grab my swag. An odd but effective tradition, the graft limited only by its dimensions: soft toys and small boxes worked best. It was also economical as the more expensive items on my list such as an Easy Bake Oven and Lite Bright couldn’t fit and were thus precluded.
French Canadians will tell you that while you can put up your Christmas nativity scene any time during Advent you never include the L’Enfant Jesu until Christmas Eve. My mémé had a plaster Baby Jesus that was chubby and white with blonde hair and a diaper. The thing was the size of a large toddler and so old that it probably suckled the Roman she-wolf. But after midnight mass and until Epiphany this Colossus assumed its place on my grandmother’s mantle, dwarfing the tiny manger and imposing its Godzilla-like reign of terror among the cowering wise men and frightened donkeys.
My mother’s favorite sister, Simone, converted to Judaism when she married Al. They lived in Oak Park, Michigan, an hour’s drive from our house, so I got to spend a few days during the holidays with my cousin Sandy. In the evenings after she’d light the menorah we’d celebrate with a chocolate seltzer. Served in those jewel-coloured aluminum tumblers, this treat was made with Hershey’s syrup and seltzer shot from one of those old-fashion pressurized bottles. At first glance, the drink seemed cheeky, but when taken in the dimly lit kitchen with the candles blazing, it became exotic and solemn.
The Christmas skating party at St. Gregory’s occurred during the last week before the holiday break. I loved this day because I knew that David Parent would be there and might ask me to take a couple of turns around the rink with him. I carried David’s torch for years and any school outing provided a potential chance to sit next to him on the bus or on a bench in an auditorium. He did ask me to skate once, and I remember the rush when we held hands, our skin separated only by a thin layer of Phentex mitten.
Scott was my first Christmas boyfriend. I was thirteen and clueless about boys, so our time together was spent in a chronic state of teenage embarrassment. But these few weeks spanned those important days leading up to the holidays when the theory of having a boyfriend was more exciting than its practice. Unsure of what to buy him, I asked my father to choose a suitable gift. Scott gave me a gold necklace, a romantic but age appropriate token. Bejeweled, I then watched as he opened a scale model of the HMS Victory. I’ll bet dad did it on purpose.
From my earliest days until I was about ten, my Christmas holidays were tainted by bouts of bronchitis. These horrible attacks would start the week before school got out and last until at least Christmas Eve. I can still hear the bubbling sound of the vaporizer, and the smell of Vics transports me back forty years. Both my parents were chain smokers, but mom believed the culprit wasn't cigarettes, but soot from Ford’s, the stuff that blackened porches. She probably felt some sense of responsibility though, because my fevered wheezing was good for at least two gifts before Christmas Eve.
Roy hates Christmas. And last night I discovered he hates dogs. Well, not dogs per se, but their owners. Those ignoramuses who let their dogs pee on his lawn. Because Roy is so bloody funny when he’s on a tear, I didn’t tell him that we are training our puppy to go in her own backyard before her walk. Instead, I promised to feed her raisins then bee-line it to his house. It is probably a good thing for Roy’s family that Santa has reindeer rather than huskies pulling his sled. Imagine what he would say about his yellow roof.
The Polish people are disappearing from Roncesvalles Avenue, but at Christmas time they reap their revenge in their delicatessens by a show of unparalleled rudeness. I’m little and dark and hosery in my parka and thus am never taken in turn, but stand there, gasping fish in hand, as scores are served before me. This leaves me with my Christmas dilemma: take my lumps and return home to make my gravlax or storm out in a fit of expletives. I always choose the former because I love gravlax. The shopkeepers know it. And they know I’ll be back next year.
Genealogists with their geezery Uncle Fester prattle and reader-printer boorishness irritate most academic researchers. But genealogy is like karaoke: A guilty, wankery pleasure. Since it’s the Friday before Christmas holidays I’m distracted at work so I spent the afternoon tracing my mother’s family. Turns out one ancestor, with the impossibly cool name of Roi de Portelance settled in Quebec in the 1630’s. With a handle like that he had to be connected. I image a dashing favorite of Louis XIII, hand-picked for his bravery and brawny forearms. Someone who could tame Nouvelle France. “What the hell happened?” My son asked.
A few of our neighbours have put up signs that read “Keep Christ in Christmas”. Good for them, I’m sure they’ll go to Heaven. I am a lapsed Catholic so will probably spend eternity in Hell. But I’ll have good company. For us the holidays are secular, more potlatch than anything. A blessed week or two when you don’t have to work, you can spend time reading to your child, or cooking complicated meals or walking your dog. You can eat and drink with impunity and make your friends feel cherished and important. I refuse to feel guilty about that.
A couple of Christmases ago I’d just got on a packed street car when the thing lurched forward and I stepped on a man’s foot. He yelped so loudly you’d swear I chopped the thing off. Then I saw him. He had that singular accessory of the Toronto homeless: a tote made of three plastic bags turned inside out and stuffed to bursting. He was only wearing running shoes and probably had frozen feet, so my trodding on them must have hurt. I apologized and offered him some sugarplums. He accepted and then both our moods changed for the better.
Christmas time is hard for Agnes. She’s 92 and recently widowed. Now she lives with a niece in a house she bankrolled on the understanding that she’d be looked after. For the niece, this means caring for her as one would keep a canary. “I just hate it” Agnes confided to me over dinner, “when Marissa says, ‘Have a great day!’ I feel like saying, ‘You tell me how I should have a great day, sitting here all alone?’” So last night we practiced, me saying, “Have a Great Day!” and Agnes, in her thick Serbian accent replying, “Fuck Off!”
I’ve seen the shy side of forty, but I’m still a big brat when it comes to Christmas presents. I have friends who either don’t give presents to their spouses or reduce the exchange to stockings or one big purchase like a television or a central vacuum system. To me this is like Halloween without the candy, or getting together with my girlfriends and drinking Fresca. Rich knows this, and bless him, after twenty-three Christmases together he has giving down to an art. Each of my gifts are small, thoughtful parcels, hand picked with nary a gift card in sight.
We did not receive a single Christmas group letter this year. If you’ve ever read one of those odious missiles you’ll understand what I’m talking about. If you’ve written one yourself, shame on you for sucking up people’s precious energy with your blathering about the family trip to Colonial Williamsburg or how little Dante finally split the atom. We’ve always wanted to counter with butt-squelching tales of family dysfunction and indiscretion. Then our letter would conclude with the happy news that Rich finally beat those assault and crack charges, a relief really, since the legal-aid lawyer was a complete asshole.
Being married to an Englishman, I’ve had to incorporate a few bizarre Protestant rituals into my holidays. Some were wildly foreign and inexplicable to me. For instance why would anybody intentionally eat trifle or wait until Christmas day, with its grey and razor-sharp lighting to open presents? Or sing those neutered Protestant hymns about holly and ivy? At first it was like celebrating with Klingons. But there are other things that are easier to take, like Christmas stockings and obscene amounts of Cadbury chocolate. And I still get to open one of my presents on Christmas Eve. Joyeaux QISmaS, everybody.
Christmas with an adolescent is pretty much like a Saturday morning with an adolescent. Some of the magic has gone but so have the indecently early wake-ups and the sugary melt-downs. Now that our son’s close to fifteen, Christmas starts at 10:00. There is a civilized round of present opening interrupted only by phone calls from grandparents. Tiny gifts bought with allowance money have replaced school-made crafts, but these are still presented with anticipation. And since it’s Christmas and not a Saturday, he’ll sit at the table with us for an additional five minutes before disappearing back into the basement.
It’s December 26th, the Feast of Stephen, and a rainy, warm day in Toronto. The presents are opened, the required phone calls made, and for the first time in weeks I have nothing to do but wait until it’s time to go to my friend Mary’s house for dinner. It’s noon and the Screenager isn’t out of bed yet. What a terrific, quiet, lazy Christmas this is! Wenceslas may have looked out on Boxing Day, but for me, I think I’ll stay in and knit, or lay down on the couch and listen to the cholesterol harden around my arteries.
I was afraid my puppy would subject me to a kind of enforced socialization akin to the one I endured in my New Mother’s Group, only instead of simultaneously lactating with other women, I would be with Dog People, a coffee in one hand and freshly-bagged warm turds in the other. As its holiday week, I’ve been spending a lot of time walking the dog and I have to report that so far I really like Dog People. Come to think of it, I’ve always liked other people’s dogs more than other people’s children, so I guess it makes sense.
Denise had schizophrenia, but she also had a cat. One Christmas I gave her one of those laser pointer cat toys as a present. It would have been fine and delightful for her cat to chase the little red dot around the room if it wasn’t for her brother, who informed her that people have gone blind using those things. After that, it was as if I had presented her with a ray gun or a baby crocodile. For safe-keeping, the offending weapon was handed over to the brother who then played with it when he thought we weren’t looking.
Elizabeth Zimmerman, the famous knitter, wrote about that time between Christmas and New Years as days of quiet reflection and contentment. She saw it as a time to give thanks. For her, not even the click-click of needles disturbed this solitude. Right now, both the dog and the screeenager are sleeping, Rich is shopping and the cats are outside. All I can hear is the exhalations of our house’s furnace and occasional creaks from her old bones. I find all this quiet depressing, and hope against its prescience, fearful that this is just a glimpse of a solitary life ahead.
This is the time of year that most of us think up resolutions. Like the same two sins I confessed to the priest when I was young - “Forgive me father…I’m rude to my parents and I missed church…”- my perennial goals are to eat less and read more. Over the years these aspirations take on fancier covers, like buy organic milk and rediscover the works of James Joyce, but essentially it comes down to the same things. And by the following New Year, I’ve forgotten all about them and the only thing that shrank on me was my brain.
My uncle P’tit Cul was always the New Year's Baby, possibly because he had the best figure for it out of all the Leclair brothers. Or maybe he just liked to don the toilet paper L’Enfant de Réveillon sash and regulation diaper made from a bathroom towel and kilt pin. At any rate, having enough alcohol in his bloodstream to render him impervious to the weather, he and my dad took to the frozen streets shouting, “Bonne Année Grand Nez!” I’d really like to believe that this was a tradition common among French Canadians but that would be wishful thinking.
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