Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

I don’t know how other communities celebrated New Year’s Eve or whether our community was different but I will always remember the first New Year’s Eve I was allowed (and able to) stay awake for the entire event. The evening was spent at my grandmother’s home and it was quite a festive occasion with music, laughter, dancing, games and tables heaped with food, and many, many people as family and friends gathered.

The countdown began about 11:30 and at about five minutes before midnight the doors were flung wide to the cold winter air and everyone descended out into the cold and the snow. All doors were open wide ….. every door up and down the block was wide open with people in yards and the street. At precisely midnight gunshots could be heard; fired (using blank cartridges) into the air; people banged on metal pots and pans, hooted and hollered into the night, every church bell in town tolled the moment as did the town fire alarm, and sirens. There was a loud HAPPY NEW YEAR shouted from many voices into the night air. I will never forget that moment when everywhere, everyone in town rejoiced at the coming new year and sounds of revelry filled the air.

For many the new year began with the knock of a tall dark person, crossing the threshold to bring a lucky year. New Year’s Day was also a day of celebration with loads of food, visiting and good humour!

My New Year’s eves changed over the years …. As I became a young adult with dances at the local dancing hotspot and sharing with friends; to parties at friends homes as a married couple and to making the event meaningful to grandchildren left in my charge for the evening taking up residence in the town square to hear the ringing of the midnight bells. No matter the changes, it still occasioned a midnight call to family members far and wide to wish a Happy New Year.

I know today we could not fire a gun into the air (albeit with blank cartridges); we would be arrested so that part of the celebration has gone; as has the metal pots and pans. The celebrations have become glamorous and expensive affairs in many communities with dining and dancing events. Many cities around host new year’s eve gatherings in city squares….many people opt to stay at home preferring not to fight traffic and inebriated drivers.

For me, the magic of the first new year’s eve of my youth remains. Somehow; whether it was the festivities or the association with friends and family; the beginning of the new year always held a vision of hope and a bright and happy future for the coming year. Perhaps, it was just the fantasy of youth. Whatever it was and however you celebrate I lift my glass to you in celebration …. Happy New Year to you and yours and may the new year find you in the embrace of good health, prosperity, love and the company of cherished family and friends.

And – a resolution for the coming year …. accept whatever comes with faith, love and good humour --- whether it is your turn to be the pigeon or the statue!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Joy

Recent television commercials advice me how to “make this your happiest Christmas ever”; and another ‘Make it a memorable Christmas”. Of course the gist is …. Just purchase the product and you will have the best Christmas ever – without the product --- well there is just no guarantee! Really!?

I may be very old fashioned but I consider Christmas a privilege --- It is indeed a privilege that those around me allow me to share with them the all the best of my ‘house and home’!

The Christmas season has provided me with so many wonderful memories I don’t know where to begin –- but let me begin by saying they did not include a present or specific gift to make them memorable or ‘best’.

My earliest recollection is of a snowy Christmas evening when I was four years old. I had received a doll’s crib for Christmas … I can still see the blue colour of this little crib…. But the memory remains because of my father and the patience and tolerance he bestowed upon me and that crib. I was so full of excitement it had to be shown to everyone …. And so here he was carrying this crib from home to grandparents homes, to friends of grandparents, to aunts and uncles. Walking all across town with this toy under his arm. I still see him in the evening light with snow falling on his cap, drawing on his hand rolled cigarette and me by his side.

Every Christmas day since has reproduced the magic of this moment. He didn’t have to cart that crib all over town …. By the way, we walked, we didn’t have a car, and I am talking miles across town. And unknown to me …. He had built the crib and I am certain he was asking himself 'why'! My stepdad, me, the crib, the magical Christmas evening with snow softly falling,

He was like a child at Christmas; his joy of the season was so contagious. The air was electrified with his enthusiasm....he would return from shopping trips with a beaming smile as he endeavoured to stow paper parcels in hiding, as he unpacked groceries hard earned and the best on the shelf.  Christmas did not include expensive gifts and toys but encompassed all his best and heart. He considered it a privilege and honour to share his best at this time of year, not only with family but with those who may be less fortunate. His ‘best’ beverage was a home made crock of wine; actually more like a sherry. As fruit was preserved in the fall; soft spots and peelings were placed in a small clay crock and fermented, siphoned off just before Christmas; tasted and tested and stored with delight.  This he shared with his siblings, their wives, and friends presented in tiny little liquer glasses. The delight and joy he received in this sharing …. His face positively shone. This from a man who was a non-drinker …. Sharing with brothers and sisters who had liquor closets. He didn’t need to purchase the most expensive bottle from the store shelf …. He only had to produce his best to share with others; with generosity and joy in the privilege of sharing.

He supplied his washed work socks for us to hang on a line …. And the look of joy on his face when we emptied the socks to find the reddest, shiniest apple ever, along with an orange, a handful of nuts to be cracked open later and some cream candies and a candy cane!

I have many, many wonderful Christmas memories and perhaps that is why I delight in this season

With limited budgets my mother always found the ‘exactly perfect’ gift for each person … something you could not ever in your wildest dreams imagine. They were not the latest, greatest, most advertised, guaranteed to ‘produce the best Christmas ever’ items …. They were purchased with care, thought and love for each individual on the list. One item only and it was always the ‘best’ my parents could imagine.

The hand knitted mittens and scarves from grandparents were treasured Christmas gifts …. Sometimes these had been knitted from wool re-carded from an old woolen garment. They were warm, they had been knitted for ‘you’, specifically for you = with love in every stitch. And, most importantly they were wrapped and gifted with ‘love’. You can’t find that in a department store.

My father’s Christmas spirit lives with me every Christmas season. I can still hear his joy at welcoming family and friends to his home and his sincere and hearty ‘Merry Christmas’; the thrill he derived offering his best…..I still see the Christmas lights shining in his face. I still see the handmade gifts carefully wrapped under the tree. I still feel the love of those early Christmas mornings long ago. I can never give what he gave to us; our Christmas season is less without him and his spirit of the season; but I will continue to try to honour his joy of sharing his best with all around him at this time of year.  I think my children have learned the joy of sharing .... for we never know who will be bringing someone new to our table.  One year my son invited a friend who was on leave from the army.  He arrived two days before Christmas; after New Year's Day I had to sit them down to ask if he would be staying forever.  And now each year now we await the call from my daughter .... "oh, by the way, I've found someone who has nowhere to go and I'm bringing them to share our Christmas day"....and yes, there will be a parcel for them under the tree so that they too can share in the moment of giving and receiving!

So all you advertisers out there can keep your products unless you can guarantee me that the product will produce for me the look of joy on the faces of those from my earliest memories….. the joy they derived from the ‘privilege of sharing’ their best and their love.

And so to you who may read this, I wish the joy of sharing, the love and privilege of giving the best of you from the heart. Have a wonderful Christmas season.

I share here with you, pictures of my Christmas tree.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Turn of the Century

This is in my box of memories so I thought I would take this opportunity to share it with you; just a bit of history of farm-type Christmases in Canada at the turn of the century.

The evolution of the Christmas tree in my family begins with this photo here (at least as far as I know it is one of our first). This is a snapshot, turned into Post Card of my stepdad’s Christmas around 1918 when he was about 11-12 yearsof age.   Taken on the homestead farm of his Scottish grandparents in Trout Creek.

I imagine the tree was found somewhere on the farm property; notice it is firmly supported in a pail with water.

I find it particularly interesting to look at what Christmas might bring to a young man at the turn of the century. Apparently the latest in sports equipment for I see a shuttlecock on the carpet for use in playing badminton. A fairly up-to-the-minute game introduced in England around 1899? A current history book titled New War The Siege of Berlin; and of course the wooden cutout soldiers. On the tree we have a hand carved wooden whistle and a canoe.

And the tree decorations …. A few fold-out paper ‘thingys’, Christmas cards and hand made ornaments. Notice the slender wax candles with wicks as yet unlit. I wonder if they were lit!


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Magical! That’s all it was! Christmas was a magical time of year. A time of wonder with lights aglow, faces smiling, music in the air and snowflakes ….. always snowflakes floating on the air. How I loved my childhood Christmases.

There was so much joy and pride in sharing the very best your heart and home had to offer.  It wasn't about 'store bought glitter'. 
December arrived and boy oh boy did I know I was in trouble. December 1st meant I only had 24 days left to make up for a whole year of bad behaviour. Each day through the month until the 24th I kept wondering if I had been good enough to make up for all the obnoxious and bad things I had done. Would I really get ‘nothing’ this year? I don’t mind telling you it was for me a very tense time of year; I was never certain I would make it.

Remember…Christmas was the only time of year we received a gift. If we blew it at Christmas that was it for another year. We did not receive birthday gifts or tokens on shopping trips, new game cards for electronic gizmos… allowances, notta! No, it was Christmas or no gift at all!

Loved the ‘Christmas’ streets of our town. They were snow packed and the main shopping concourse was lined along four blocks at the centre of town. No large structures….smaller village type, personalized stores. All the shops piped out seasonal music, street corners had Salvation Army workers with kettles and bells ringing and the snow fell in floating dream like swirls as people rushed along with ‘brown paper’ bags containing heavens knew what.

People were jolly and happy, hailing each other and chatting along the street, children were pulled in sleds wrapped up like Egyptian mummies against the cold. Store windows were ablaze with strings of lights and lighted stars. Toys on prominent display in S.S. Kresge, Woolworth and Metropolitan store and hardware store windows. We looked in these windows and dreamed. Every time I watch the story of Scrooge with Tiny Tim looking in a store window I still see our faces peering the same way with the same expression of joy and anticipation.

Many times during the month of December we children were not included in all of the grocery shopping trips and had to remain home. Mother and dad would come home trying to conceal certain shopping bags which were surreptitiously skirted off to another section of the house. The basement became off limits as did other areas of our house. Now mind you when we were younger this had no impact, but once we began to know where the bounty under the tree came from we would do our all to seek out the hidden parcels.

We usually hit pay dirt in mom’s and dad’s closet. Much good that did though. To loosen the outer layer of bound bag only to find a layer of Christmas wrap underneath which we dare not penetrate. But one could pick up boxes and speculate. And speculate we did. By the way, all our speculations were waaaaaaaay off.

And the Christmas tree. Oh the Christmas tree!

One of my uncles would venture out to the forest and cut an evergreen for each family and one for his friends. My father would venture down to select his tree. I think perhaps my father’s vision may have failed him when selecting our tree. It was always so tall he would have to cut some off the bottom as well as the top. And for some reason the tree dad selected had fewer branches……sort of a Charlie Brown type of tree. Our star was always sort of embedded in the top of the tree with other branches rising higher than the star. However, I will say it was the most beautiful tree in the world.

The tree was mounted on a wooden butter box; the trunk nailed to the box. Twine wound round the tree and fastened on either side into wall hooks. For some reason my parents had great fear of the tree falling and the lights shorting out, thus causing a fire. Fires from Christmas trees were not uncommon in our area and our parents would take no chances with a brood of running children around. Tree lights gleamed very hot, no ‘cool’ lights as we have today. One could get burns touching the lights so they were always protected with ‘reflectors’ behind the light.

Lights were strung and decorations hung. Last year’s box of tinsel was carefully extracted and a new box added for the current year. You know the hanging silvery tinsel stuff. Seems to me we always had sparsely little on our tree.

Visiting one of my aunt’s homes I was astounded to find her tree and arch way swag glittering in blankets of tinsel. I thought indeed she had to be the richest person alive … so much tinsel in one home! We could only afford one new box. I’ll bet she had a hundred boxes hung on the tree alone. It glittered quite impressively … but it wasn’t our tree plus it did not have any hand made ornaments that I could find…. So it was lacking although glittering!

Hand made ornaments were proudly added to our Christmas decorations; our paper chains were displayed prominently as well as anything else we had made. And, these items were proudly pointed out to visitors by parents and children.

I can still see my sisters and brothers sitting side by side on the huge horsehair sofa with the lights shining off their faces as they gazed at the tree; eyes all a-wonder and gentle smiles. Particularly the shining face of my youngest sister remains in my memory to this day; the anticipation and joy of that face will never be forgotten by me.

Christmas decorations were few and far between; not at all like the blazing displays of today. Simple green wreaths were hung inside window frames; or perhaps a lighted candle might glow through the window. Swags always adorned archways. We didn't burn as much hydro with overlighted displays as we see today ... but they were every bit as beautiful in a simpler landscape.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmases Long Ago - Events

Many events kept us children busy as anticipation of the holiday season filled the air. School classes decorated windows with festive fare usually cut from construction paper. – snowflakes and Santa Clauses and sleds. In Grade four I can recall painting the classroom windows with poster paint. I was certainly honoured that year as I was selected to paint the central window pane where I painted Santa, his sled and reindeer. A pretty good job of it too!

We would make paper chains by linking together construction paper strips, paper fans and smaller snowflakes which we could then take home  for decoration ... where they were proudly displayed on the Christmas tree ... front and centre!

Christmas concerts were everywhere. At school in the auditorium the atmosphere was festive and gay with the school choir singing and student plays. The lower classes were usually afforded a visit from the jolly fellow himself where he handed out 'tiny' candy canes.

Class skating parties were held on the ice rink. Each school had its own ice rink, properly boarded round and ice quality maintained by the school custodial staff. Parents were usually invited to observe and share in a hot mug of ‘something’ while students played on the ice.

And of course, the same as all towns across Canada, the Christmas parade was an extra special highlight....the first parade in our town was in 1949

I seem to remember hanging on to younger siblings as they jumped up and down trying to keep warm waiting for the parade to begin. Today Christmas parades have become somewhat 'ho hum'; designed to incite excitement in youngsters for the coming Christmas Eve event, the parade usually followed by a vist to a Santa booth and a trip to a hot chocolate emporium.  Way back when, oh about a half a century ago and more .... parades were truly festive events with parents and children alike sharing the excitement on the same level .... it was truly a time to watch your parents become children as they grinned from ear to ear and cheered as loud as any youngster in attendance.  School bands from three district high schools marched in file blaring out Christmas music on instruments (usually somewhat off tune); boy scouts and girl guides riding on floats waving gaily beside a float-mounted Christmas tree or fireplace. The parade usually hosted two or three movable ‘fairytale’ floats; the Christmas story complete with manger and baby Jesus and wise men; and of course Santa Clause himself on a sled with reindeer….. ho, ho ho ing merrinly down the mainstreet. And let me tell you …. I swear our town had the very best Santa ever …. We actually thought he was the real McCoy!

Church youth groups held Christmas concerts where parents dutifully attended watching their offspring perform so brilliantly on stage. I loved the church concert, it was the only place I was allowed to sing; it didn’t matter I could not even hit a sour note, I was allowed to sing along with everyone else!  And, I was always a 'star' shining over Bethlehem ... that's it a white robe holding a silver star.  My only stage debut in life ... a paper star .... reciting some verse from memory. 

And let's not forget the letters to Santa.  We would write our letters to Santa and mail them off and daily run to the radio to hear if Santa read our letter today.  Funny, that, I don't think he ever did!

Events haven't changed that much really, except at the time of my youth each and every one was so extra special; very special "happy" moments that have rung through the years;  I still hear the blaring brass school bands and the carols sung with such gusto and heart.  I guess that's it really.... the events were part of the 'heart' of our Christmas -- the good cheer, happy faces and smiles shared by all .... traditiions that bound a family and community together. 

And at the end of the concert we all went home with a little brown bag filled with an orange and candies! Wow!  I knew we were the luckiest children alive to have that bag. My mother remembered Christmases where the Salvation Army bag was their only Christmas present and the only real orange they saw for the entire year.

P.S.  I'm blowing a horn here with the art work.  This was the first hand made Christmas card I received from my four year old first born.  He said Merry Christmas was too long to write out so M.C. would get the message across!.  Enjoy.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmases Long, Long Ago

Do you remember the Christmas Cake. One of the many guest of honours at Christmas tables long ago. Preparations for this cake usually took place mid-November.

And what a cake it was … molasses, currants, citrons, fruit peels, nuts, cherries, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, allspice, cloves! I can smell it now!

Seemed such a waste of good cherries and nuts to me, because I didn’t care too much for all the other ingredients. Hard earned savings were extracted from secret places and a special shopping trip announced Christmas Cake time. Nothing but the best and freshest of ingredients for the cake.

The preparation of ‘the cake’ was not a lonely task, it took both father and mother to prepare the fruit and the mixing. Every measurement doubly checked, each ingredient ticked twice and finally after mixing and mixing; the pans prepared.

The square metal pans were assembled…..sides and bottoms fitted together resulting in three pans; a small, medium and large. Each pan was carefully greased, floured and covered with waxed paper.

And into the oven!

Not quite so simple a task when I was a child. Today you can set your oven and forget it. But not so when I was a child where all cooking was done on a cast iron, wood fired stove. Baking took almost seven hours so it was quite a task to keep the oven at an even temperature; making certain not to overstock the range with wood and causing the oven to overheat.

Ah, the scents. They linger today; I can still close my eyes and transport over time to the heavenly, spicey smells that permeated our home for days after the Christmas cake was baked.

When properly cooled the cake was wrapped in layers and layers of cheesecloth and waxed paper; that is - after being properly doused with brandy. The only liquor ever purchased in our home was the brandy for the Christmas cake.  On a regular basis the cake would be unwrapped and more brandy applied.
About a week before Christmas; when a good whiff of the cake might send you into alcoholic euphoria, the cake was iced. First layer was marzipan and then an icing sugar icing applied on top - ours resembled the picture here minus the fancy decorations.

This cake was served to all special guests, and every couple in town proclaimed theirs to be the best!

Not a lover of Christmas Cake, but a lover of the icing I didn’t enjoy quite as much as others; but you could not have a piece of cake and eat only the icing. I remember well eating the cake first and saving the icing for last!

My sister now assists my 92 year old mother in baking the Christmas Cake. This is something I have never done, but the memory remains one of simpler times and simpler pleasures!

Friday, December 3, 2010

First my apologies; I've been away from 'blogging' for a bit; pressing family matters having taken precedence.  I will try to schedule posts as well as I can as may be away very soon again.

In case you haven’t noticed it’s that time of year again….December! When thoughts turn to spending money, money, money as we rush with break neck speed to bring home all the glitter and glamour advertisers tell us we should have! Spending with one thought in mind …. Having a joyful, happy, fun filled Christmas!

I remember a simpler Christmas time when we really did have a joyful, happy time without excessive spending and credit card top ups! Some of you may remember also, and in the next several blogs I’d like to share my memories of Christmases past!

Round about the first of December the ‘Wish Book’ would arrive in the mail. Ah, the ‘WISH BOOK’; filled with Christmas wonders and dreams. Toys galore and festive items including velvet dresses and jackets for boys.; jewelry and perfumes for mom, leather items for dad. Gifts for one and all! But mostly a child’s ‘WISH BOOK”; a book of dreams. A book destined to become dog eared within a week….that is if you could find where mother and dad had hidden the book.

In Canada we had two large merchandisers …. T. Eaton Company Limited and Simpsons. These firms published merchandise catalogues twice yearly and a ‘Wish Book’ at Christmas time. For many remote locations almost all merchandise was purchased by mail order from these catalogues – everything from household appliances, furniture and decorations and clothing. Every community was equipped with at least a catalogue store by these merchandisers.

The ‘Wish Book’ usually featured a selected ‘must have’ toy, a premier toy … one for girls and one for boys. The Eaton Company always had a very, extra special ‘Eaton’ doll for girls and a super special fire engine or latest Roy Roger’s guns and holster. No other reading material was necessary, we sat by the hour looking through the ‘Wish Book’ dreaming of Christmas.

Hands would go out and caress the object of our desire as if we were already holding the precious item; and quickly flip back a page. Maybe if we had been extra specially good, just maybe; but maybe not!

Funny thing though, we never ever coveted the extra special premier toy and would flip past that item. We knew in our heart of hearts that Santa would bring the items on Christmas Eve, yet somehow we knew we would not receive the year’s most wanted, most expensive toy, yet we knew they came ‘free’ under the tree. And we also knew we could wish for only one item from Santa.

I’ve been pondering why we passed the special toy of the year. Certain children did receive these items but we never questioned why they didn’t arrive at our home. We sort of figured Santa had run out of these limited editions by the time he arrived at our door. It really was quite apparent that Santa made his first stop of the top of ‘snob’s hill’. Maybe if we lived at the top of the hill rather than the bottom. However most of us lived at the bottom of the hill – only a selected few lived at the top where the doctor’s and lawyers resided.

I can still hear us gathered round the catalogue. “Oh! Look at that”, “I want that”, “You’ve been bad, you won’t get that” “I haven’t been too bad”. And, “Oh! Look at THAT!”. Hours and hours of dreams, little heads together sharing a catalogue. Even dreams were filled with visions from the catalogue as we flipped the pages in our sleep.

I still wish for the ‘Wish Book’ to start my Christmas season and to be able again to share this ‘dream’ book with my brothers and sisters.