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Sunday, December 31, 2006

ANOTHER NEW BEGINNING

"No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen."
Epictetus AD 55-135 "Discourses" ibid 15

Here we go again...another beginning, another new year. And we're all asking ourselves 'What lies ahead?' and some of us are making 'resolutions' in regards to the path we intend to take for this fresh start. 2007. How time flies! And did you live up to all those resolutions you made last New Years Eve?

Once again, the year ends and I still haven't finished work on my novel "Shadow the Lion".
But I'm that much closer to the grand finale. It's just a matter of sticking to it. So I resolve to make more effort not to allow myself to get so distracted, although some of this year's distractions were due to travel and moving and the travel is part of my writing too.

I don't expect to be making quite so many trips in 2007. For certain the plans are underway to return to Greece via Venice in mid-May. It's destined to be a reunion trip in more ways than one. A couple of my Classical scholar friends intend to meet up with me in Athens. And a couple of girlfriends are traveling there as well, so I'll be the tour guide for them, something I truly enjoy doing. Of course, just being back in Greece is always a huge inspiration to me. But I resolve that I WILL have the novel done by then because there are other projects I wish to pursue and I can't do that until Shadow is finished.

The next isn't a 'resolution', but a 'must do'. I have to get back into my exercise and diet regimes or else!!! I am getting badly out of shape, aches and pains and stiffness in the joints. You'd think I was an old lady or something! (haha. Heaven forbid!). It's a matter of discipline -- getting out there and doing it! I've been sadly off my routines the last couple of months and slowly trying to get back into them.

"First you say to yourself what you would be: and then do what you have to do." Epictetus

So what are your 'resolutions'? And how do you intend to achieve success?

Starting today I resolve to get out every day and exercise (walk, swim, stretch, visit the gym)
and spend part of the day writing (finish Shadow and some of those travel stories I've got partly written. Along with that, send out more stories for publication. If they MSS are sitting in my files, nobody's going to read them!) My night school classes don't start for another three weeks. I've got that much time to resume my routines and get a good grip on actually accomplishing what I've resolved to do!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!

"Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment."
Samual Johnson 1709 - 1784 "Prayers and Meditations" 1770

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

HOW MY CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER WAS SAVED BY THE KINDNESS OF A STRANGER

"God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ our Savior,
Was born on Christmas Day!"

Christmas 2006. I feel the goodwill of friends and neighbours, especially after the disaster that was averted Christmas Eve by the kindess of a stranger.

It started out to be a great day. I got up early to start the preparations for my Christmas Eve banquet. The menu was simple but exotic and easy to prepare step-by-step. First I made the lobster bisque, then I prepared the slices of sauted French bread and made the liver pate (chicken livers and madeira); next I readied the Cornish hens sprinkled with tarragon with strips of blanched bacon over their tiny breasts; and then prepared the madeira sauce that would serve as the 'gravy'. It was fun getting everything prepared and at just the right time in the afternoon I popped the hens in the oven and sat back to relax for the rest of the day til my guests would arrive at 6.30.

When I went to check on the hens, which by then should have almost been ready for the final preparations where I add the green grapes to slow cook, then prepare the 'gravy' mix, to my horror I found I could not open the oven door. It was locked tight. I turned off the oven heat and tried to pull the door open, not knowing why it was stuck. But to no avail. In a panic I ran down the hall and asked a neighbour what to do but she didn't know. Then I went downstairs and met a man coming into the building with his two kids, a visitor who was on his way to share a Christmas Eve dinner.

Very kindly he came to have a look. Meanwhile I read the instruction book for the stove. Being a new tenant I hadn't really used the oven before, and to my surprise found out that the latch I'd pulled across (thinking it was a safety latch) was really for the self-cleaning oven procedure and would not open until the 'cleanining' was finished.

Meanwhile, a friend called and instructed me to shut the breakers on and off to see if I could de-program the oven in order to open the latch. I tried everything, and it wouldn't work. The kind stranger had left to find someone who might know what to do. By then I was in a panic and in tears. My peaceful day was in upheaval and my dinner would be ruined. Only an hour to go and my guests would arrive but the dinner was locked in the oven!

Just as the first guest arrived, the stranger returned and very carefully worked on the over door until he was able to pry it open. Very grateful and relieved, I retrieved the Cornish hens, which by now were completely cooked and ready for the table, thanks to his help.

We all enjoyed the dinner, and from then on the evening went smoothly and happily. After the feast we opened presents and sat around the fire chatting and having great fun.
Another memorable Christmas Eve and a great big Thank You to this very kind person who helped make it so!

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."
Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol"

If every day was Christmas
If we could make believe
If everyone would give a little more
There'd be harmony.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORIES #16: FAMILY PHOTOS

Baby Jeannie and Me, Lloyminster Sask.

"Heap on more wood! - the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We'll keep our Christmas merry still."
Sir Walter Scott 1777-1832 "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" 1805


"FAMILY PHOTOS: A View of Christmases Through the Years"
My mother enjoyed photography as a hobby. Our family albums are crammed with black and white snaps taken with her Brownie box camera, some hand-tinted with pastel colours. Browsing through them, I am transported back in time to Christmases past.

In the first Christmas photos, Estevan Saskachewan., I'm an infant in a wicker pram, wearing an angora bonnet. My mother's tidy handwriting on the back says "Ruthie, six months old. She's wearing the bonnet Aunt Edie sent from Wales." In another, I'm propped up in a wooden box on the back of a sled. My father, dressed in his fedora hat and overcoat is posed beside me. In Dad's unique, tight handwriting, is written: "Ruthie's first sleigh ride. I made the sleigh." Next year, I'm an 18 month old dumpling, podgy as a little snowman in knitted leggings, sweater and bunny-ear hat, knit by Mom. Next to this picture is one of a Christmas tree piled with decorations I can remember using for years to come, and piles of gifts including a doll in a pram and pictures books. A few years later, another Christmas tree, this time with identical dolls sitting in high chairs and a Red-Rover sled with shiny runners.

By now I have a little sister, so each year Santa brought us identical gifts. She liked dolls better than I did though. I preferred paper-dolls. There is always a lot of snow in these pictures: Lloyminster,Saskachewan. My pal Albert and I, age six, standing arm in arm in the back yard under bare-limbed trees with snow up to the tops of our galoshes. Me wearing the coat Mom had made me out of a hand-me-down: moss green wool trimmed with Persian lamb from one of her old coats.

I'm still wearing that coat three years later in another photo, this one taken by a photographer for Santa, the year we went to Toronto to see the Sant Claus parade. This photo invokes clear and rather unpleasant memories of that Christmas. I was nine then. We had moved from the Prairies to Brantford Ontario and then to Stratford when my father was called up as an army chaplain. We lived at Grandpa and Grandma's house while Dad was overseas. In a photo she had taken to send Dad, my mother stands on the front porch steps wearing an elegant crepe dress, her hair neatly coiffed in the fashion of the '40's, smiling. Behind her, on the door, is a big silver bell with red writing: "Merry Christmas".

Those Christmases without Dad must have been lonely for her, but she never showed us anything but her sweet smile. Christmas at my Grandparent's house was a joyful, exciting event with visiting relatives who arrived by train from other parts of Ontario, and a house full of cousins and Christmas cheer.

That particular Christmas, Grandpa promised us we could go to Toronto to see the famous Santa Claus parade. It would be a special Christmas outing for the whole family. We would take the train in the morning and return that night. It was an adventure I had longed for and I was beside myself with excitement for days before the scheduled departure.Then, on the eve of our journey, I took ill with the flu. I was very sick, but determined not to miss the trip. I don't remember the train trip or the Santa Claus parade. I look at myself in the photo, puffy-cheeked and pale, totally wretched, sitting on Santa's knee unable to smile.

I still haven't forgotten how ill I was that day, and how disappointing it was to have such a special outing spoiled.

The next year's Christmas photo shows us standing on Grandpa's steps with my Dad who is beaming proudly in his army great-coat and beret. My little sister Jeanie is on one side of him. She has a doll in her hand. Twelve-year-old me stands on the other side of him, skinny, long-legged and solemn. Behind us is a spangled sign that says: "Welcome Home!".

That was our last Christmas in Ontario. The following year we took the train across Canada and made our new home in British Columbia where Christmas wasn't always white, although I can still remember skating on the Lagoon and singing carols door-to-door in the snow.

Wherever we were, Christmas was always special in our family, with beautiful decorations, the aroma of Christmas baking, pine logs on the fire; Christmas music, and a tree we always decorated together with heaps of surprises wrapped in colourful paper under it. Santa always found us, and filled our stockings, even when my sister and I were grown up and had little ones of our own. In her photographs, my Mother has captured all these memorable times and left us this legacy of Christmas with the Family. Christmases Past.

"Always on Christmas night there was music.
An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang
'Cherry Ripe", and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum".
It was very warm in the little house.
Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip
wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death,
and then another in which she said her hear
was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody
laughed again; and then I went to bed..."
Dylan Thomas. "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

Monday, December 25, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #15: TIME FOR CHRISTMAS

"I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.
Only a hippopotamus will do...."

Merry Christmas Day! I must have been a good girl all year 'cause Santa left me lots of beautiful gifts under my little gold tree. I remember one Christmas, though, when I was very disappointed with what I found under the tree...

When I was a teenager it was common for kids to have a 'curfew'. I remember rushing home from a night out with friends, coming up the front steps, straining to hear the radio. If the ten o'clock news was on, I knew I'd made it on time. Friday and Saturday nights I was allowed to be out until midnight, no later. It wasn't always easy making these deadlines. For me, Time, as in numbers on a clock, meant nothing when I was absorbed in a fantastical adventure and having fun. I hated being a clock-watcher. It was like living my life as Cinderella. Maybe I'd turn into a pumpkin when the clock struck the dreaded midnight hour. Probably I'd get heck from my parents and be grounded.

I was always late for school, a chronic daydreamer, a dawdler. Why rush when there were roses to smell, places to explore, and interesting things to stop and observe? Watches and clocks verified this character flaw in me. They told the time. They pointed out that I was the Late One, the White Rabbit, Cinderella.

I started writing at an early age. By the time I was fifteen I had a stack of novellas handwritten in textbooks. What I wanted most was a typewriter. Christmas was coming. I put out hints to my parents and spent many hours daydreaming about my typewriter, imagining how it would change my life. My dream was to become a newspaper journalist. I went to sleep at night with the sound of keys tapping out the 10,000 words of my next novel. If only I had a typewriter: one with a bell that clanged when you threw the platen across, and keys that smacked in the rhythm of the words I would write, and a ribbon that printed in both black or red.

That Christmas, the usual mounds of presents were under the tree. But there wasn't anything as large as a typewriter. I figured Mom had hidden it somewhere. She was good at keeping Christmas surprises. I was certain that on Christmas morning, the typewriter would appear magically under the Christmas tree.

You can imagine my deep disappointment when Christmas morning came and there was no typewriter among the presents, just a small, rectangular gift-wrapped box, my gift from Mom and Dad. I opened it. Inside was a gold wristwatch with an expandable wrist band and dainty oval face. Not only was it NOT a typewriter, but it told the TIME! And to make matters worse, I could tell it was definitely not a new watch!

Mom saw I was disappointed. She was disappointed too, because I plainly did not like her gift. "It's a very expensive watch," she said."We found it at a pawnshop. It's the best make of watch there is. Although it isn't new, it's almost like new. And it keeps perfect time!"

I felt guilty for being so ungrateful. After all, my parents thought they were getting me something special and practical. They didn't realize how much I hated watches. Watches, the dreaded symbol of a curfew, a restriction on my adventurous spirit! Now I'd have absolutely no excuse for being late. I'd turn into the White Rabbit, looking at my watch every hour to see what time it was.Christmas wasn't exactly what I had dreamed that year. But the following summer, for my sixteenth birthday, I got my wish. A real Underwood typewriter, second-hand, but in good working order. And it was just like the ones reporters use. I could be a real writer at last!

Time marches on. My aversion to time and time pieces have carried on over the years. I still find myself rushing to appointments, getting there by the skin of my teeth as the clock ticks on, its accusing hands pointing to the fact that I'm five or ten minutes late. I detest being a clock-watcher, fleeing like Cinderella from the Ball. I rarely wear watches. If necessary, I carry a small travel alarm.

I'm a published writer now. I have a computer, and the keyboard doesn't make that exciting loud clacking sound like the old Underwood did, but it still produces a gentle click to the rhythm of the words I type. And in my jewellery box, I have a gold watch with an expandable wristband, and dainty oval face -- one almost exactly like the watch my parents gave me that Christmas so many years ago. Except this wristwatch is one that belonged to my mother. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of her, and of that Christmas when I was so disappointed not to get a typewriter. And I remember the old Underwood I got for my birthday, all those hours I spent alone in my room, typing, so totally absorbed in those other worlds that there was a sense of TIMELESSNESS. Even now, when I am writing, I forget where I am, miss meals, lose myself in a place where there are no watches or clocks and Time stands still.

Have a holly, jolly Christmas
It's the best time of the year.
I don't know if there'll be snow
but have a cup of cheer.
Have a holly, jolly Christmas
And when you walk down the street
Say hello to friends you know
and everyone you meet.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #14: CHATTY CATHY GIVES IT UP: How a Talkative Doll Spoiled a Little Boy's Christmas

"Oh you better watch out,
You better not cry!
You better not pout!I'm telling why,
Santa Claus is coming to town..."

Since my childhood, I've lived half my life in a a fantasy world. Believing in Santa Claus was one of those myths, and one that I regretted having to give up. Christmas was always very special in our house. Mom and Dad played along with the Santa myth to the fullest, and besides the real Christmas celebration of Jesus' birth, there was plenty of fun, pageants, carolling, sleigh-rides, visits to view the Christmas lights and, best of all, the yearly visit to see dear old Santa Claus.

One of the best Christmases ever was the one when all the cousins came to stay. We were living at my Grandparent's house then, Mom, my sister and I, while Dad served overseas. Every Christmas at my Grandparent's house was full of fun. The Aunts and Uncles and cousins from various parts of Ontario came and the house was full of laughter and good cheer.

That particular Christmas, because of the crowd, my cousins and I were allowed to sleep in the sun porch room. As usual, we stayed up late, played monopoly, crochinole, and Chinese checkers, drank glasses of sparkling ginger-ale (our tee totalling family's 'champagne'), ate lots of delicious goodies that Mom and Grandma had baked, sang carols, told stories, and finally were tucked into bed.Sometime after midnight, we heard a sound on the roof. Jingling bells. A loud 'Ho! Ho! Ho!" Unmistakable footsteps. It was Santa Claus! He was up on the sun porch roof getting ready to come down our chimney to deliver toys! None of us dared make a sound, and ducked under the covers pretending to be asleep.

Sure enough, the next morning there were lots of toys under the tree. Santa had really come, and we had heard him! I could hardly wait for school to resume so I could tell my friends.
The first day back after the holidays, I was bursting with excitement as I entered my class. "Santa Claus came to our house. We heard him on the roof!" I announced to my classmates.
"What?" scoffed an older boy. "Don't you know that Santa is a fake? He's just pretend. You couldn't possibly have heard him!"

I was crushed! I went home for lunch that day in tears. "A boy in my class says Santa isn't real!" I sobbed.Mom was sympathetic. The disclosure had spoiled some of her Christmas fun too. But she admitted to me that Santa really was just a myth.
"But I heard him on the roof!" I insisted.
"That was just your Uncle Frank pretending to be Santa Claus," Mom explained.
For me, it was one of my biggest disappointments. I was ten years old, and my fantasy world was shattered forever. I've never forgotten it.

Many years later, when I was married and had my own children, I always tried to make Christmas the same kind of magical, exciting time my parents had made it for me. We decorated the tree, had parties, went to visit Santa and took part in all the Christmas festivities in our community.

The year my son turned six and my daughter was just about to turn two, the Christmas fantasy got spoiled again.

This is how it happened: That was the year Mattel put out a new kind of doll. One that talked. Her name was Chatty Cathy, a blonde little cherub with a saucy face. When you pulled the ring in her back, she spouted various lines of dialogue such as "Hello, I'm Chatty Cathy. What's your name?"

I bought one for my daughter. On Christmas Eve night, after the children had been tucked into bed, and my husband and I had waited to make sure they were asleep, we started to put out the toys from Santa under the tree. This ritual also involved eating the cookies and Christmas cake the children had put on a decorated plate and drinking the beer that would help refresh Santa on his journey. After this was done, we took the carefully hidden packages out of the closet and began setting them up: the usual GI-Joe toys and cowboy regalia for my son, the little girl trinkets for my daughter. And Chatty Cathy.

I couldn't resist pulling the ring to hear her talk. She was so cute! I knew my daughter would be thrilled with her. Chatty Cathy and I chatted for awhile, then I put her in her special place under the Christmas tree.The next day, after all the excitement of finding what Santa had left under the tree, opening presents and trying things out was over, I noticed that my son was unusually quiet. I wondered if he was disappointed with his gifts. No, it wasn't that. Very quietly, so as not to spoil things for his little sister, he said: "I know that Santa didn't really bring Chatty Cathy, Mom, because I heard you talking while you were playing with her."

I felt so bad! Chatty Cathy had given away the secret of Santa Claus and spoiled the Christmas surprise for my son, just as long ago my class-mate had spoiled Christmas for me by telling me Santa wasn't real. After that, Christmas wasn't quite the same for my son, although we always tried to make it just as much fun. He was a good sport, and went along with the myth of Santa Claus for his little sister's sake.

"I believe in Santa Claus
I believe in Santa Claus
I believe there's always hope when all seems lost
I believe in Santa CalusI believe in Santa Claus,
I'll tell you why I do
Cause I believe that dreams and plans and wishes can come true
I believe in miracles, I believe in magic too
I believe in Santa Claus and I believe in you..."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #13: SANTA'S ARRIVAL

"Up on the rooftop
Reindeer pause,
Out jumps dear old Santa Claus...."

This is another of my stories of Christmas at Grandpa's house. There's a picture of the house at the top of the next blog, and some of the details of this story are included there. Just looking at that picture of my grandparent's old house with my little dog Dutchess out in front standing in the snow, brings back so many of these treasured memories.

One particular Christmas stands out in my memory. I was ten years old and still a firm believer in Santa Claus. Christmas season began as usual, with the festive preparations and Christmas shopping trips. It was 1944 and my Dad was overseas, so my Mom, sister Jeanie and I lived with my grandparents in a very old house in Stratford Ontario. My mother's family were very close, so even with Dad away, Christmas was a very special family gathering with all the relatives congregating from various parts of Ontario.

Mom gave me my allowance to buy gifts for the relatives. I went to Woolworths Five and Dime to do my shopping and found some marvellous little clay snakes with jointed bodies, that undulated and coiled like live snakes, flicking their red felt tongues. For 25 cents I was able to buy one for each of my Aunts and Uncles.

When I brought home my purchases, my mother was horrified, but I wrapped them up and put them under the tree, quite confident they would make a hit with the relatives.

A few days before Christmas, the relatives began to arrive. First Auntie Grace and Uncle Frank who drove up from Eden with their two little girls, Adele and Merilyn. Later, on a snowy night just before Christmas Eve, we went with my Grandpa and the other family members to meet the train from Toronto. Of course, the train arrived and true to predictions of "The Bextons are never on time," again this year Uncle Harold, Aunt Edith and their little boy Haroldie had missed the train. And, as usual, they would not arrive until the next morning flustered and apologetic.

Christmas Eve was a time of laughter and games. We all gathered in front of the roaring fire and sang carols, played Snakes & Ladders, Monopoly, and Chinese Checkers; told the Christmas story, and had family entertainment. If Dad had been there, he would have recited, in his resounding Welsh tenor "When Father Papered the Parlour", but this year in his absence, Uncle Frank (the family comedian) presented his tongue-in-cheek rendition of "Herbert Burped".The children's stockings were hung along the mantle, and the treats were served. Our family's traditional Christmas treats were gingerale, pomegranates, popcorn and Christmas cookies. After the recitation of "The Night Before Christmas" and the story of Jesus's birth, the letters to Santa were put out along with a dish of cookies and a glass of gingerale. Then we kids went off to bed brimming with excitement and good cheer.

This Christmas, all of us kids were crowded into one bedroom on the main floor right beside the porch. My cousin Gracie, the eldest -- a very serious, quiet 12 year old; myself, aged 10; little sister Jeannie and cousin Adele both 5; and the little ones, Merilyn and Haroldie age 3. We lay awake giggling with excitement and unable to sleep, when suddenly, up on the porch roof we heard thumping, the jingling of bells and a loud "Ho! Ho! Ho!". Santa Claus was arriving at our house!We laid in our beds, quivering with excitement but daring not to make a sound so Santa would know we were still awake. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my childhood, and something I can remember clearly right to this day.

The rest of Christmas was completely wonderful and full of magic, with all the gifts, especially the boy dolls with complete wardrobes that Santa had left my sister and I. The black and white clay Chinese snakes made a big hit, especially with Uncle Frank.

A week later, when we returned to school, I was still glowing with the thrill of our special Christmas and how Santa had been heard arriving at our house. As I began to relate the news to my classmates, one of the boys started laughing and said "Don't you know, there isn't a real Santa?"

Unbelieving and humiliated, I went home for lunch and confronted my mother. She gently explained the real story to me and told me that the "Santa" we had heard was really only Uncle Frank pretending for the sake of the little ones. It was a terrible disappointment to me. My magic balloon had been popped. But to this day, I still like to believe that we really did hear Santa arrive on our rooftop, and for me the spirit of that Christmas will always live in my memory.

BELIEVE
Children sleeping,
snow is softly falling,
Dreams are calling
like bells i the distance.
We were dreamers not so long ago,
But one by one we all had to grow.

Friday, December 22, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #12: CHRISTMAS AT GRANDPA'S


"How I miss that Old Fashioned Christmas
Carols being sung by the tree
Window's candlelight shing bright
for the whole world to see..."

Christmas in the ‘40’s was a time when all the relatives came to celebrate at Grandpa’s house. We would troop down to the train station and stand waiting on the wooden platform, our breaths puffing like the steam from the locomotive engine, the frosty winter air nipping our cheeks into roses. The train chugged into the station, the coach doors opened and travelers spilled out onto the platform. Happy greetings filled the air as merry as caroller's songs, families embraced and made their way down the snowy streets.

When my uncle, aunt and cousins arrived, we all went back to Grandpa’s house. How my grandparents found room for everyone, I can’t imagine. All the Aunts, Uncles and Cousins crowded into the small living room around the Christmas tree to chat, the crackling of the flames in the hearth sounding like pop-corn. After a few games of monopoly and Chinese checkers, my Uncle Frank would performed a comical rendition of “Herbert Burped”, tongue-in-cheek, about a little boy who gets swallowed by a lion. Then all of us children were tucked snugly into beds, often three in a bed, the middle one squished between the other two, warm in our flannel nighties, while the grownups sat up late eating Christmas cake and drinking ginger ale.

One particular Christmas stands out in my memory. That was the year I purchased the best Christmas presents I’d ever bought before. Certainly, the most memorable!
I was nine years old, and I felt very grown up as I went off to town to do my own Christmas shopping. I headed straight for the Woolworths Five and Dime store where you could always get the best bargains. I looked over all the trinkets, trying to decide what would be the finest gifts. It was difficult to decide. I wanted something unforgettable. Something everyone would love.

Then I saw it. A little Chinese clay dragon on a bamboo stick. The head of the dragon was made of painted clay, and it had a red felt tongue that looked like fire shooting from its gaping mouth. The body was accordion-pleated tissue paper. When you waved the stick, the body expanded and the head shot out, tongue flickering, like a real fire-breathing dragon. The Chinese dragons would make the perfect Christmas gifts!

I bought one for each of my relatives and excitedly headed for home, proud of myself for making such an extraordinary purchase. But when I showed them to my Mom, she was not she
scolded me for ‘wasting’ my money on such foolish toys instead of buying something more ‘practical’. I felt crushed, disappointed. However, it was too late to return the dragons to the tore, so I wrapped them up and put them under the Christmas tree with the other gifts.

On Christmas morning I waited nervously for everyone to open their presents. I felt embarrassed thinking that my relatives would think the present’s I’d bought were foolish and useless.
Instead, when the gifts were unwrapped, everyone was amused and delighted. especially my Uncle Frank. He played with his dragon all day. Of course, Uncle Frank always was the life of the party!

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the seatown corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I somtimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."
Dylan Thomas 1914-1953 "A Child's Christmas in Wales." 1954

Thursday, December 21, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #11: CHRISTMAS WITHOUT SANTA CLAUS

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Everywhere you go...."

It's the Winter Solstice today, first official day of winter time. I recall my very first Christmas away from my family and friends in Canada, the year I went to live in Greece. How strange it was to see very little evidence of the holiday season (though these days there seems to be more inclanation to celebrate in a more 'western' way.) Last month, when I was in Chile, it was interesting to see all the Christmas preparations, with a giant tree being assembled in front of the Cathedral, carol music in the shops, and lots of decorations. It seemed odd though, as it had that first Christmas in Greece, because the weather was very warm and summery. Still, it was nice to see the Holiday Season was being celebrated just the same as we do in North America.

Here's a little memory of that first Christmas I spent in Greece:


"CHRISTMAS WITHOUT SANTA CLAUS"

One of my most memorable Christmases was the first Christmas I spent in Athens, Greece. It was Christmas without Santa Claus, Christmas the traditional Greek way.

In the shops around Omonia and Kolonaki Squares there wasn't a sign of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman or Santa's Helpers. On the streets the familiar bell-ringers with their red money pots for charity and the sound of recorded Noel carols were missing. Most of the window displays didn't have festive decorations. Up on Busy Patission Street, the big Minion Dept. store had a mechanical children's display, a few plastic Santas and some small ornamental trees with tiny coloured lights. There was a big Christmas tree decorated with lights and bright cardboard packages in Syntagma Square. Although some of the main streets were strung with little bulbs, there wasn't a sign of Christmas tree lights twinkling from apartment windows. And on Christmas Eve, Santa wouldn't find any stockings hung for him to fill.

In Greece, except for those who have adopted the western customs of celebrating the Yule season, the traditions are different. For most of the western world Christmas is the central festival of the year. In Greece, Easter is of greater importance. There may be pageantry and feasting at Christmas, but none of the pre-Christmas 'hype' that is experienced in the western world.

For those Greeks who observe the Orthodox festivals, a short lent The Fast of the Nativity, begins this season on Nov. 17 and ends on Christmas Eve. The Presentation of the Virgin Mary on Nov 31 is the most important feast day, especially for the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.St. Nicholas isn't the Greek Santa Claus; he is the patron saint of seamen. On Dec. 8 the little churches on the Greek Islands celebrate his day with the blessing of the 'koliva' a white dish made to honour the dead. This is taken on voyages to be thrown into the sea to calm stormy waters.

When the short lent, "Makree Sarakostis" ends on Christmas Eve, the Christmas bread, cakes and cookies are baked. Thee will be given to the children who come to sing the 'kalanda'. These are the Greek carollers. Except in homes where families celebrate western customs, the stockings are not hung on Christmas Eve. Gifts aren't exchanged til New Years Day.

On Christmas morning, to the greeting of "Kala Hreestooyena: Merry Christmas" the family sits down to a traditional feast of delicious Greek foods and sweet. The most important feature of the day is the proportioning of the Christmas bread.

The real celebration begins on New Years Eve. It is a social evening when men play cards and gamble the night away, and children sing their carols, accompanied by the chiming of little silver triangles. Their favourite song is about Aghios Vassilis (St Basil). He will come, bringing paper and quill pens, because it is St. Basil who is the Santa Claus of Greece. St. Basil was one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church, famous as an educator and builder of hospitals and homes for the sick and friendless. The children who sing about the benevolent Saint are rewarded with money and sweets.

On New Year's Eve, as the church bells chime in the new year, gifts are exchanged and glasses are clinked in the traditional toasts, a greeting common the world over: "Eftikhismenos oh Kaynooyio Kronios" Happy New Year."

I was far away from my family and friends that Christmas in Greece, but it was a rich experience, one I will never forget.

"Santa works all day in his workshop
Making lots of games and toys.
Then one day, he hops in his sleigh
To bring them to the girls and boys.
Santa's just as nice as he can be
There's just one little thing that worries me.

If it doesn't snow on Christmas
How is Santa goin' to use his sleigh?
In case of rain, will there be a train
That'll speed him on his way?
If it doesn't snow on Christmas
How will Santa get around to us?
If he breaks down on his way to town
Will they let him use a bus?"

Gene Autry: "If It Doesn't Snow on Christmas"

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #10: HOW I GOT TO BE SANTA CLAUS

"Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, lend your ear this way,
Don't you tell a single soul what I'm going to say..."


Twelve years ago, when I returned to Canada after living in Greece for five years, I was offered a job at an all-Chinese Daycare Centre in Chinatown. I was hired as an English teacher to encourage my little group of 4 year olds to speak English. There were two other E.S.L teachers in the Centre and two English speaking pre-school teachers as well. All the staff and children there spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese and it was discovered that when children graduated into Kindergarten at the local school, a great many of them were unable to speak any English, because they only spoke Chinese at home.

It was an interesting job, a learning experience for me too, because in no time I was recognizing Chinese words and building up my Cantonese vocabulary. The Daycare was one of the largest centre's I've worked at, a state-of-the-art building, built with donations from the Chinese community who attended the local Chinese Catholic Church. The Centre was operated by the Catholic Church and the director was a formidable little nun, Sister Tang. The daycare followed the 'Hong-Kong system' which meant it was more structured than I was used to, and teachers were always encouraged to 'be prepared'. Everything was very organized and there was a lot of parent interest. So whenever there was a special event, such as a parent-teacher night, all the extended families would attend.

It was an open-area daycare, the main area of the ground floor was a gym. This would be full of children and adults for the special events. In all there were over fifty children in the centre. So when Christmas approached there were plans for a big party. There was talk of Santa Claus attending to hand out gifts to the children. I wondered if they'd hire someone. It would seem odd to have a "Chinese Santa" but not impossible. I tried to guess which one of the fathers would volunteer for the job.

Then, a couple of days before the big party, they broke to news to me. I WAS THE DESIGNATED SANTA. Me? I couldn't believe it.
"Yes," they said, "Because you're the fattest one."
At first I felt insulted. Yes, I was 'fatter' than any of the tiny Asian women on the staff. But back then I was also a lot thinner than I am today, and that certainly wasn't 'obese'. It kind of hurt my feelings to think that they thought I was 'fat enough' to play Santa. Besides, how could a blonde haired WOMAN be Santa Claus. It was a ridiculous idea!

Being a good sport, I finally agreed. The day of the party came, and Sister Tang produced a Santa suit for me to wear. I stuffed in pillows to make myself fat enough, put on the suit, the fake beard, tucked my hair up under the hat, and went out to face the room full of kiddies and their parents and siblings.

I was SURE that someone would immediately recognize me. On the contrary, each one of the children came up when their name was called, and got their presents. I made my voice as gruff as I could.
"Ho!Ho! How are you today? Have you been a good little girl/boy?"
The amazing thing was that not one child recognized me, nor did they seem to know that "Santa" was really a woman!
This was one of the funniest experiences of my life. What had at first been a kind of embarassing 'put down' turned into a lot of fun. Now I know what it's like being Santa Claus, how those guys behind the fake beards and red suits feel when the little kids come up to sit on their knees and confide in them. I've never regretted accepting the challenge. If I were a man (a 'fat' man) I'd apply for a Santa job every time Christmas came around.

"Santa looked like daddy,
Or daddy looked like him.
It's not the way I had him pictured.
Santa was much too thin.
He didn't come down the chimney,
So momma must have let him in.
Santa looked a lot like daddy
Or daddy looked a lot like him."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #9: VISITING SANTA

"All I want for Chrithmath
ith my two front teeth,
my two front teeth,
jutht my two front teeth.
If I only had my two front teeth,
Then I could with you Merry Chrithmath...."

As I watch children at the mall sitting on Santa’s knee, it reminds me of a Christmas when I was 9 years old.

Every year the T. Eatons Company in Toronto would launch the holiday season with an extravagant Christmas parade. Grandpa suggested we take the train to Toronto for the event. I loved parades, train rides, and more than anything else Christmas and Santa Claus. But the morning of our trip I woke feeling nauseous and feverish. I didn’t tell Mom or she would have cancelled the plans and spoiled it for everyone. By the time we reached Toronto I had all the symptoms of full-fledged stomach flu.

I don’t remember much about standing bundled up on the snowy street watching the parade go by; the colourful floats with mechanical toys and story-book characters, the glittering fairies, comical elves, snowmen, reindeer and clowns throwing candies to the children or the big sled carrying Santa himself greeting the crowds with his familiar “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

After the parade came we went to the big Eaton’s department store, through the impressive Toy Land to where Santa sat on his throne waiting to greet the children.
I was wearing my moss-green coat with the velvet collar that Mom had made me, and the red hat with white tassels she had knitted for the festive occasion. I felt wretched, green-around-the-gills. I clutched the candy cane Santa gave me and posed for the camera to have my photo taken with Santa. It was impossible to smile. I could feel the bile rise in my throat, my cheeks burned with fever. What if I threw up on Santa? Would he scratch my name off the ‘good kids’ list and put me down with the naughty ones?

“What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas, little girl?” he asked in a jolly voice.
The big moment had arrived for me to put in my Christmas toy order but I was too sick to reply. I just wanted to go home and crawl into my warm bed. My greatly anticipated visit to Santa ended with me feeling utterly miserable. I only hope Santa didn’t catch my flu germs!

"Jolly old Saint Nicholas
Lean your ear this way!
Don't you tell a single soul
What I'm going to say.
Christmas Eve is coming soon,
Now you dear old man,
Whisper what you'll bring to me
Tell me if you can..."

Monday, December 18, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #8: THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE TREE

"On the first day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
a partridge in a pear tree...."

This was a special Christmas tree that was particularly unique for it's delicious decorations (which were enjoyed by all, including the resident mice!) This year's special Christmas decorations are some I bought in Chile and Argentina. They grace my mantle making a lovely addition to my decor: a small clay nativity scene of Mapucho Indians and a little glass angel from the craft market in Mendoza Argentina. My friend Judy also gave me a cranberry coloured crystal to hang in my window. My apartment is looking very festive!

"THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE TREE"
Christmas is always a special time in our house, and decorating the tree is part of the fun. In my box of decorations are little baubles collected over the years, including the ceramic bells my children got from Santa at one of the Department stores when they were very little. The decoration box also includes a special ornament I buy each Christmas as a memory.

One year, though, we had quite a different tree. I was living in a house with my daughter and two other young women. That year we decided to decorate the tree with sugar-cookies. It was to be a contest. Each of us would make and decorate sugar-cookies and the most creative ones would be the winner. I can't remember what the prizes were but I do remember all the fun we had baking and decorating our cookies.

The tree decorations that year were unusual (as well as edible). The best (winning) cookies were saved and wrapped in tissue paper to hang the following year as a memento. Unfortunately, though, by the time the next Christmas came around, our decoration box had been discovered by mice who had themselves a very tasty feast on our 'edible' decorations.

"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a creature was stirring -- not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there...."
Clement Charles Moore 1779-1863 "A Visit from St. Nick" Dec 1823

Sunday, December 17, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #7: CHRISTMAS AT THE IN-LAW'S

"Wassail, Wassail all over the town,
The wine it is white and the ale it is brown..."

Christmas for me has always been a family affair. From the time I was a small child, it meant visits from the relatives, everyone gathered around the tree on Christmas eve drinking ginger ale, eating the delicious Christmas goodies Mom had baked while we played games like monopoly and crokinole or snakes and ladders. The men would tell funny stories. My Uncle Frank always recited “’Erbert Burped” and Dad’s famous singing of “When Father Papered the Parlour” never failed to send us into rollicking laughter. Mostly Christmas meant remembering the true meaning of the Season with carol singing and stories of the birth of the Baby Jesus.

The children (me, my sister and various cousins) would be tucked into bed with the proverbial visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads, convinced Santa could be heard stomping on the roof, and going off to slumber-land with happy dreams of the surprises we’d find Christmas morning under the tree and in our stockings.

Christmas dinner was a festive event. Turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding with money hidden inside, and everyone gathered around the table with bowed heads while Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Frank said the blessing.

This is the way my Christmases always were in my family. And I thought it that way for all everyone.

What a surprise I got when I got married and was introduced to Christmas at the Ukrainian in-laws. The first time my husband took me home to spend Christmas with his family I was shocked and amazed. It was my first introduction to a hard-drinking, hearty-eating Ukrainian way of celebrating the holidays.

There I was, the new bride, sitting in the midst of a party of elderly folks, a bottle or two of rye whiskey plonked on the coffee table and water glasses filled to the brim -- neat! It was the first time I’d tasted rye straight and it made me gag. I guess I was too polite to say ’no’, so when nobody was looking I passed the glass down to my husband who eagerly downed it, matching glass for glass with the old folks. As the afternoon wore on, the merriment grew more boisterous and argumentative. It was a wonder to me how those elderly folks could drink so much.

I’ll never forget one of the Christmases we were invited for dinner. We’d already had my family’s Christmas dinner but we also had to go to the in-law’s house or they would be offended. Lena, my father-in-law’s common-law wife, was a great cook. She made the best cabbage rolls and perogis. This Christmas she had prepared a very large turkey to feed all the friends who were to drop in. By the time the bird was cooked and ready to come out of the over, she was so drunk that as she removed the turkey from the oven she teetered over and the bird slid off the pan and dropped on the floor. Without missing a beat she picked it up and plonked it on the platter. I was an eye-witness. The others were probably too drunk to notice.

Anyway, it was a delicious dinner and as usual, she was constantly filling your plate.
“Eat! Eat!” or your glass “Drink! Drink!”
It didn’t occur to me, the naive youngster from the tee-totalling family, that all that booze was eventually going to be my husband’s downfall.

Oh yes, those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable. Especially the one when my father-in-law almost cut off his hand when he was demonstrating the new chain saw he’d got for a present. He was drunk, of course, and hardly felt any pain. But he bore the scars forever after and in fact caused serious nerve damage so his hand was never the same. Did that deter the constant partying? Never!

They were good-hearted folk though, and I know their intentions were well-meaning.
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, was a different story. My husband’s parents had been separated for many years and it was easy to see why there was no communication between them. She was a Seventh Day Adventist, strict and totally lacking the joviality and good nature of Lena and Harry. In fact, I was sure she had the ability to put the evil eye on me and quite frankly I was a bit scared of her. She had weird eyes and would sit scowling at me when I arrived with my husband and baby. She had her own ideas of how I should be handling my new baby boy and I know she didn’t approve of me one bit.

She’d cook us dinner once in awhile, never Christmas dinner, because she didn’t celebrate Christmas the way the rest of us did. In fact, my husband’s younger brother, still a teen-ager, lived with her, and at Christmas he was not given any gifts because she said it wasn’t Lennie’s birthday. It was Jesus’s birthday. I always felt sorry for Lennie so we’d invite him to our place and made sure he had lots of presents, and of course he’d drop by his father’s for the Christmas meals too. Maybe the way he was brought up warped him because he grew into the most avaricious nasty man, a bank-manager who had total control over both his parent’s finances and wills and made sure when they died neither of my children got a cent -- it all went to him, his Ukrainian wife, and their two kids.

Those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable, mainly for the vast amounts of food and booze that were consumed and the chaos that reigned as a result. Invariably it would somehow end up with a fight breaking out. I didn’t realize it then, but my father-in-law was not the jolly guy he seemed to be and poor Lena was often the brunt of his drunken temper.

It was an experience worth remembering, but to this day I prefer the old fashioned Christmases of my childhood.

Instead of spending Christmas with a massive hangover I’d rather enjoy what it is really meant to be, a time of good cheer spent with relatives and friends, presents stacked under the tree, stockings hung by the chimney with care and children nestled in their beds waiting for Santa to arrive. (He didn’t get a glass of whiskey at our place, just some ginger ale and home-made Christmas cookies. There weren’t any fights, Mom never ever dropped the turkey on the floor, and nobody ever cut their hand off with a chain saw!)

"A very merry, dancing, drinking
Laughing, quaffing, and unthinking time..."
John Dryden 1831-1700 "The Secular Masque" 1700 l. 39

Saturday, December 16, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #6: I LOVE PARADES!

"Here comes Santa Claus,
Here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus Lane!
Dasher and Dancer and all the Reindeer
Pulling on the reins...."

Ever since I was a little tot I’ve loved parades. Any kind of parades: Bagpipers with swirling kilts and tall bear-skin hats; pretty girls in short flounced skirts twirling batons; clowns and any kind of ethnic costumes, floats with extravagant decorations and beauty queens. Even military parades, especially if there are lots of good brass bands!

I’ve seen all sorts of parades, including the Mardis Gras in New Orleans, several P.N.E parades in Vancouver, parades with familiar Disney characters in Disneyland.
I remember participating in parades myself, when I was a child. In particular, on V.E. Day in my town in Ontario when they held a parade in which children were invited to join in, dressed in costumes. I remember marching in in my Brownie uniform, feeling very proud. One Christmas, we had a parade around the Sunday School at the annual Christmas Concert. My Mom made the costumes for all the children, crepe paper costumes of nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters. I think I was Peter Pan, one of my favourite story-book heroes.

The other weekend I went downtown to see the very first Santa Claus Parade held in Vancouver since the Depression. It was a cold morning, but at least not raining. I was supposed to meet friends in front of the Vancouver Hotel. But when I got downtown I was astounded to find thousands of people jamming the streets. I got as far as Howe Street and couldn’t get further. Standing there in the pressing crowd, everyone anticipating the arrival of the floats and especially Santa himself, I was transported back in time to other Christmas seasons, recalling the various celebrations I’d attended as a child.

One particular Christmas stood out in my memory: The year we went to Toronto to see the famous Santa Claus Parade.

My Grandpa worked for the CNR so we went to Toronto by train: Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, my little sister and me.( My father was overseas.) I was about 9 at the time and I still believed in Santa so this was to be one of the most exciting adventures of my life! Unfortunately though, the morning we were due to leave on our train trip, I was became ill. Hoping I’d recover by the time we reached Toronto, we went anyway.

I bore up the best I could but I still recall how horrible I felt, feverish, listless, nauseated and aching all over. By the time we reached Toronto I couldn’t have cared less about Santa or the parade. In fact, I can’t even remember if I saw the parade. But, to prove I was there, I do have a photo of me sitting on Santa’s knee looking totally miserable.

I enjoyed myself a little more at the Vancouver Santa Claus Parade, except it wasn’t too well organized, there were huge gaps between the participants and floats. The floats were not that spectacular. There were colourful Chinese dragon dancers and Indo-Canadian men and women dancing, a few clowns, some people collecting food for the food bank, other people throwing candies to the crowd, some high school bands (my favourite is still the pipe bands). People had to stand far too long in the cold late November weather waiting, waiting, waiting for Santa. The little children became tired and cranky and the parents restless and bored.

I eventually found a gap in the crowd and crossed the street, past the Art Gallery grounds to the Vancouver Hotel where I had arranged to meet my friends and their two little boys.
There were so many people sitting on the curb that although I searched everywhere I couldn’t find them. At this point the parade had been going on for a couple of hours and still no sign of Santa.

Then, a cheer arose from the crowd, and children’s voices chanted ‘SANTA! SANTA! SANTA!”
A series of floats came by decorated with passages from “T’was the Night Before Christmas” as a taped voice recited the age-old Christmas poem. Then, sure enough, there he was atop a big float, the jolly old fat guy in the red suit. Santa waved and called out “Merry Christmas” to the crowd as he passed by. Half frozen kiddies waved and called back at him.

I thought back to my childhood, and the thrill I always had when it was Christmas and there was a parade with Santa and his elves and the reindeer. But the one I still remember best is the little Santa Claus Parade we had at the church with fairy-tale characters pulled on wagon ‘floats’ by elves, all dressed in crepe paper costumes made lovingly by my Mother. And there was Jolly Old Santa Claus walking behind carrying his bag of presents, calling loudly “HO!HO!HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS, BOYS AND GIRLS!” For all of us kids, this was real Christmas ‘parade’ and we were part of the fantasy.
* * *
"Camels are snobbish
and sheep, unintelligent;
water buffaloes, neurasthenic -
Reindeer seem over-serious."
Marianne Moore 1887- 1972 "The Arctic Ox (or Goat)" 1959 st. 9

Friday, December 15, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #5: CHRISTMAS ON A SHOE-STRING

"We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts, we travel afar..."

This is a story I wrote a few years ago. This year I did nearly all my Christmas shopping in the craft markets of Chile and Argentina. Still, I'm always finding I'm living on a shoe-string during the holiday season. One reason is, I'm not teaching classes at this time of year. It's my winter break. But somehow things always turn out just fine!

Here it is, that Jolly Old Season again and true to tradition my bank account is running on empty. No, not because I squandered every cent on presents. Fact is, I haven’t even started shopping yet. It’s just a fact of life that happens when one lives on an extremely low-income budget.

Am I worried? Not really. Somehow, things always work out alright. Besides, I had lots of experience in my past at organizing gala Christmas celebrations on a shoestring.

I recall those “hard times” back in the ’70’s when I was a divorced single mom struggling to support two kids on a miniscule salary and at times an even more miniscule donation from the dole. My boyfriend and I decided to cut the costs by moving into a big house which we shared with a variety of other equally poor lodgers and friends and assorted dogs and cats. As my boyfriend was on the lam from the American army (this was during Viet Nam) any work he had was under-the-table at a car wash. The other lodgers were young college students, and an occasional deserter or wayward hippie that took shelter with us. We never turned anyone away and each guest or tenant, no matter how impoverished, would participate by helping with cooking, sharing expenses and whatever. We all learned how to make do with very little and we were a happy, carefree gang.

The house had been occupied by bikers before we moved in and was known as “The Opium Palace”. We’d hung an American flag upside down in the window as our form of ‘protest’ against the war and there was a big mirror ball hanging in the middle of the front room ceiling.

The first year we moved in, with our very sparse budget, we were still determined to make the best of it for the Christmas season. After all, it isn’t Christmas without parties, decorations and presents. So all of us got together and cut out coloured tissue paper snowflakes to decorate the windows. We hung lights and somehow managed to get a Christmas tree which we decorated with traditional balls and tinsel as well as strings of popcorn. But what to do for presents?

It happened that I had a lot of material goods brought from my past life as a plant-manager’s wife. So, I sorted through the china tea-cups, jewellery and other items that I had stored away, carefully picking just the right gift for each of my friends. The girls in the house baked Christmas goodies and the old house was full of the delicious, familiar smells of the holidays. The whole motley crew enjoyed a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

It was a special Christmas because it wasn’t in the least bit ‘commercial’. Everything we had made or chosen from our own belongings to give away. It gave Christmas a new, special meaning.

There were a few other Christmases on a shoestring too, during those years. Once I remember us having a box of odds and ends: ribbons, tinsel, shiny paper, glue, sparkles and various artsy craftsy thing and each guest who came visiting had to make a decoration for the Christmas tree. One year my daughter and I made gingerbread houses for all our friends. Another time we had a Christmas cookie contest and decorated sugar cookies cut in various festive shapes which we hung on the Christmas tree. The ornamental cookies were so pretty we decided to keep them for the next year. But alas! The following Christmas when I opened the box up, the mice had eaten all the cookie ornaments!

I recall as a kid, my Mom used to make whole wardrobes for our Christmas dolls, and sew all our holiday clothes too. My parents didn’t have a lot of money and in those days there were no credit cards but there were always plenty of gifts under the tree, and lots of goodies to eat. Christmas was a jolly time spent with family and friends. I guess those early days taught me how to have Christmas on a shoestring and in a way, those Christmases are the most memorable.

"'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be."
Shaker song 1848 st.l "Simple Gifts"

Thursday, December 14, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #4: PASTOR FRED GETS BUSTED

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la lala la la...."

Christmas was always a special time for my parents. Dad was the pastor of a Baptist Church and each Christmas he and Mom would decorate the church sanctuary lavishly with pine and cedar boughs, flowers, and candles. They would work together on these decorations and it was always a masterpiece which we all looked forward to.

On Christmas Sunday there would be a candle-light service and a processional with the choir, the a pageant about the Christmas story. Mom usually made the costumes.

The first Christmas we moved to the Pacific Coast, Dad and Mom decided to go to the forest to get the decorations for Christmas. The city where I live is on the edge of the mountain wilderness, with forests all around. And within the city limits are several large parkland areas with forests. So Dad and Mom set out by car one afternoon to cut the pine and cedar boughs.

Being unfamiliar with the city, Dad didn't realize until an RCMP car pulled him over, that he was in the University Endowment Lands, private property. His car was full of the branches off trees which people are forbidden to cut. Imagine his embarassment when he was given a citation and fined $50 for cutting boughs off the trees.

That same Christmas, Dad organized the children's Christmas Concert. This was the year that Mom made the Santa Claus suit out of the Nazi flag. One of the highlights of the concert was Dad, dressed in baggy old paint-stained overalls, a paint cap, carrying a big pail and brush, performing his rendition of "When Father Papered the Parlour".

It was one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen -- my usually staid Welsh father do.
"When Father papered the parlour
You couldn't see Pa for paste.
He was dabbing it here, dabbing it there
There was paste and paper everywhere.
Ma was stuck to the ceiling,
The kids were stuck to the floor.
You've never seen such a stuck up family
anywhere before!"

The audience howled with laughter. The Deacons weren't so impressed. They tried to prohibit Dad from doing his performance. They didn't think it was dignified or proper for the Pastor to perform such a silly song.All the Young People got together and protested. Pastor Fred was vindicated.And the show went on as scheduled, as it did every year for many years later.

I was at a Christmas luncheon recently with the old church friends. I reminded them about the day Pastor Fred got busted by the RCMP, and how the deacons tried to stop the Christmas Concert performance of "When Father Papered the Parlour". It turned out my friend's husband actually has a tape of Dad singing his famous song.

"At Christmas play and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year."
Thomas Tusser 1524-1580
"A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry (1557) The Farmer's Daily Diet."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #3: OH CHRISTMAS TREE!

"Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree
How lovely are your branches.
They're green when summer sun is bright
And in the winter when it's white.
Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,
How lovely are your branches!"

When I was decorating my apartment this week and setting up my little gold artificial tree, I thought of this story I'd written a few years ago. I used to lug a real tree home on my trolley and set it up in my apartment, but the last couple of years I've opted for an artificial one. It's pretty though, all hung with gold and burgundy balls with an angel on top. As usual I decorated my plants with lights and baubles too, so my new apartment looks festive and bright, all ready for the holidays! I even have a fireplace where I have hung my Christmas stockings!

Oh Christmas Tree!
Two weeks before Christmas. The tree lots are full of fresh-cut firs and pines. Families make special outings to pick this year's tree. Around the city, coloured lights shine heralding the Yuletide.


In the line-up at the Supermarket, I browse through the display of magazines, their covers advertising theChristmas season, displaying showcase homes with plump trees bedizoned with extravagant decorations. Some trees are sprayed gold or silver. And under the dazzling branches are heaps of designer-decorated packages.

I am reminded of other Christmas trees. MY Christmas trees. Although perhaps not so grandly decorated, they are distinctly memorable and remarkably special.

At home I open a box of photo albums and take a nostalgic trip to Christmases past. in a black-and-white photograph, hand tinted by my mother, is Tree Number One. My first Christmas tree: a spindly fir garlanded and hung with lots of tinsel and ornaments. Under its thin branches are the toys Santa has left. In front of the tree, on a litle rocking chair sits a large doll with a frilly bonnet and pink dress. Next to it is a doll crib filled with stuffed toys and more dolls. Two stockings hang on the red-brick fireplace behind it, one lumpy with fruit and candy, the other a store-bought stocking full of surprises.

In another photo, taken several years later, the tree has ivory-soap 'snow' on the branches and garlands of popcorn and cranberries. My Mom enjoyed creating special effects for our Christmas tree. Under it are two dolls in highchairs, the boy dolls our mother lovingly sewed wardrobes for. Mine was named Tommy.

Every Christmas was magic when I was a child, a splendid family affair with a house full of visiting relatives and good cheer. Even when we grew older, each year at tree decorating time, it was a special family get-together with mom's delicious Christmas cookies, ginger ale and popcorn for treats as we dipped into the box of decorations and drew out a bauble for the tree. It was a time of nostalgia too, because each ornament had its own little memory attached.

When I grew up and had children of my own, their tree always had some of the decorations they hd made: toilet-roll angels wiht cotton-batting hair and gold wings; egg-carton bells painted red and green and glued with sparkles; cut-out trees with sticker decorations.

One year we had a cookie-decorating contest. We baked sugar cookies, decorated them, and hung them on the tree. The most elaborately decorated cookie won. We saved the best one. They lasted a year or two until some mice discovered them.

Another year we set out a box of ribbons, glue, paper and sparkles and invited each guest that entered our house to make a special decoration for our tree.

Sometimes, other things had to make do for Christmas trees. The year I was going away to California to attend my daughter's wedding, my avocado plant served as a tree, hung with tinsel and silver balls. Another time, when I was living in a cramped bachelour suite, I decorated my ficus plant with lights and tinsel. The year I went to live in Greece, I bought a small laurel plant and decorated it with tiny lights and baubles.I still have a few of the old treasured ornaments, and every Christmas as I unpack the decoration box to trim my Christmas tree, I am filled with nostalgia, remembering Christmases past: the chenille wreaths from my childhood trees, the expensive silve and gold globes bought to decorate the first tree shared by my husband and I; oiur children's special ornaments -- little creamic bells collected on my children's visits to Santa Claus; special little gift ornaments made by friends; starched snow-flakes crocheted by my daughter; ethnic decorations from Mexico and China given to me by newcomers at the daycares where I have worked.

I always look forward to Christmas, especially to the tree decorating time. Some of those old ornaments are getting tattered and tarnished. Each year I have to part with a few, but each year I buy one new ornament to replace the old. Today my visiting friend and I went and bought a tiny fir. Tomorrow we will decorate it together. This will be a memorable Christmas because I'm sharing the tree-decorating with this special friend. And while we're decorating, we'll be singing the old familiar song:

"Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, how lovely are your branches!"

This year's special ornaments came from Chile and Argentina: A little clay Nativity scene with Mapuchu Indians and a small glass angel from Mendoza.

"The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir."
Anonymous Carol

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORIES #2: AWAY FROM HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I knew before
Where the tree-tops glisten
and children listen to hear
sleigh-bells in the snow...."

Christmas in 1983 was the first time I had ever spent Christmas away from my family. I couldn’t have been any farther away from Vancouver than Athens, Greece. It looked as though it would be a dismal time.

I had been living in Athens since October and shared a two-bedroom sparsely furnished flat with another woman. My room-mate’s ill-humour didn’t add to my mood as I faced the holiday season. I had met Connie the year before when we were both tourists in Greece, attracted by her sense of humour which she had somehow lost during the months we shared our apartment and struggled to adjust to life in Athens. We both worked as E.S.L. teachers. What money we earned bought the barest necessities for our flat. I used an upturned drawer to put my typewriter on and bashed out travel stories for newspapers at home. After what we were accustomed to, life in Athens was bleak.

I made friends with two Irish men, Donald and Barry, who made their living busking on the metro enchanting the Greeks with their Irish songs. They were homeless, and as we had an empty salon, I invited them to stay with us. Donald and Barry became my saviours, cheering me with their Irish humour and lively music.

As Christmas drew near I searched for festive signs around town. There were no decorations and in the store windows no sign of Santa Claus, Rudolph or Frosty. A large tree with lights was erected in Syntagma Square, but I missed the cheery sound of Salvation Army bell-ringers and carollers.

I went to the street market where the gypsies sold holly, pine branches and flowers and bought a little laurel bush with shiny green leaves and little wax-like red apples spiked on the ends of the branches. I put it in a flower pot and hung gold garlands on it with three red paper birds for ornaments and a string of tiny coloured lights. Soon parcels arrived in the mail and I placed them underneath.

My room-mate’s Greek boyfriend was opening a bar on Christmas Eve in the town of Chalkis on the island of Euboeia and hired Donald and Barry to play.
The cozy little pub was located near the sea. On Christmas day, as we walked along the waterfront. Barry played his guitar. Some seamen called us over so Barry and Donald sang Irish songs for them, and we all joined in singing Christmas carols. We found a little crèche with models of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus surrounded by live goats and sheep. It was beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas.

That night we reminisced about Christmas at home, describing in detail the turkey dinners we remembered from past Christmas. We imagined what our families would be eating that Christmas day, savouring every vicarious mouth-full: the succulent turkey meat, the spicy stuffing, the cranberry jelly, the candied yams, mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, the variety of fresh vegetables and best of all, the delicious aromas that went with the food. We imagined the steaming plum pudding smothered in hot rum sauce, and how we would get the piece with money wrapped up inside. We felt comfort in each other’s company like a ‘family’. Because of Donald and Barry, Christmas became special after all, even though we were all so far away from home.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."
Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888 "Little Women" 1868 ch. l

Monday, December 11, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORIES #1: HOW THE NAZIS HELPED SANTA CLAUS

"Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry.
You better not pout. I'm telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town..."


I was nine years old when my Dad was called up to be a Chaplain in the Canadian Army during World War II. Before that he was a circuit preacher on the Canadian Prairies, and he had been in the army reserve. But when the War was raging and all the available men had to go overseas, he went too.

Almost everyone at school those days had a dad, grandpa, uncle or older brother off in the war, and quite often the word would go around that someone’s relative was killed or missing in action.

Everything was rationed during the war years. I remember going to the store with ration coupons for dairy products. But my younger sister and I didn’t suffer or want for anything. We had our Mom and our grandparents, and every holiday season the relatives came to Grandpa’s house for get-togethers. There was a lot of love in our house, making up for the absence of my father.

When the War finally ended, the first newsreels were released about the horrible atrocities of the Nazi death camps. I was deeply touched by the films of the war and I’ve never forgotten those images of the Holocaust victims.

My Dad had sent many letters and gifts from overseas. We received books from England, Dutch dolls and wooden shoes from Holland. And when Dad finally returned home, he brought an antique German clock which had been wrapped up in an enormous Nazi flag and hidden at the place in Antwerp, Holland, where the armistice was signed. Dad said the soldiers of his hospital unit had brought it to him.

Inside the clock was a treasure-trove of antique jewellery, which he gave my mother. The clock was hung on the wall. The Nazi flag was wrapped up and packed away in Dad’s war box along with his photos of bombed buildings and army camps and letters from the families of the dead and wounded soldiers he had tended while he was the army hospital chaplain.

The year after my Dad returned from the war, our family moved to the West Coast of Canada where he would be pastor of a Baptist church. That Christmas was our first Christmas together in a new home. At the church where Dad was the new pastor, there was to be a Christmas concert. My parents enjoyed organizing concerts and pageants. Mom was a clever seamstress and loved making costumes, and Dad always made sure the Church was beautifully decorated with pine and cedar boughs and lots of Christmas candles. There would be a creche and a candlelight processional in the church Christmas Sunday and a pageant with shepherds, Wise men, angels and the Holy Family. We used the life-like little doll named Peter that Dad had sent my sister from Belgium for the Baby Jesus in the creche.

At the Sunday school concert, Dad would perform his amusing rendition of “When Father Papered the Parlour” and there would be a visit from Santa Claus for the little ones. But there was one big problem. Nobody had a Santa Claus suit.

So Dad unpacked his box of war souvenirs and got out the big Nazi flag, the flag that symbolized everything evil. Mom remarked how lovely and thick the red wool fabric was. And there was so much of it!

“Why not?” Mom asked.
“What a splendid idea,” Dad agreed.

Mom went to work designing, cutting and sewing and by the night of the Christmas concert, she had created a perfect Santa Claus suit out of the flag. Even though the war was over, and the bad things the Nazis had done would always be remembered, the flag had been put to good use.

The red woollen Santa suit made out of a Nazi flag made that Christmas extra special. In fact, the Sunday school Santa at the Grandview Baptist Church’s Christmas concert wore that Santa suit for many years afterwards.

"Nobody shoots at Santa Claus!"
Alfred Emmanual Smith ("The Happy Warrior of the Political Battlefield")
Campaign Speeches 1936

Sunday, December 10, 2006

'TIS THE SEASON...

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la lala la la!
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la lala la la!"

Here is it is, the Christmas season, one of my most favorite times of year! To keep in the spirit of things, I've decided to post a few of the Christmas memoir stories I've written in the past.
I started writing them a few years ago when my writer's group "The Scribblers" decided that at our annual Christmas get-together we would submit anonymous stories (fiction or non fiction) about the Yule time season.

Yesterday I went to a senior's Christmas luncheon at my Dad's old church, Grandview Baptist.
We came to live in Vancouver in 1947, after the war, when Dad accepted a position of pastor at this church. Mom and Dad always loved the seasonal holidays: Easter. Thanksgiving, Christmas and went to a lot of trouble to decorate the church and organize Christmas concerts and pagents. Mom was an expert seastress and usually it was she who became wardrobe mistresses of these events. Dad would participate at the concerts but putting on his old paint-splattered overalls, paint cap and, holding an empty pail of paint ,would recite his rendition of
"When Father Papered the Parlour." It always brought the house down with laughter.


Every time I go into that old church hall I remember the many happy times we had there. My parents' spirits are still very much there. (Dad left the church in 1960 to take a position of chaplain at Valleyview Hospital, a care home for elderly who had dementia or alzheimers. But many of the old parishoners and the folks my age remember him and my mom with many loving thoughts.) So yesterday when I was at the banquet, sitting the daughter of my late friend Doreen, we began to reminisce. Paula and her brother are my kids' ages and they all grew up together, going to Sunday School and at the summer homes our parents had on Keats Island. Doreen, their mom, was one of my best friends and hiking companion. She died of liver cancer about 10 years ago. So Paula likes being with me and I consider her like a surrogate daughter. We had fun remembering the many Christmas concerts and events that my parents organized at the Church. So when it came my turn to speak about how the Church affected my youth, I had to tell some of these Grandview-related Christmas tales.

Some of the stories I'll post are related to these events and others are Christmas memories of my childhood or things that have made Christmas memorable in some way.

"I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"Long past?" inquired Scrooge.
"No, your past."

Charles Dickens 1812- 1870 "A Christmas Carol." 1843

Thursday, December 07, 2006

THE VIEW FROM THE POET'S STUDY

Ode to the Book

When I close a book I open life.

I hear faltering cries among harbours.
Copper ignots slide down sand-pits to Tocopilla.Night time.
Among the islands our ocean throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,the chalk ribs of my country.
The whole of night clings to its shores,
by dawn it wakes up singing as if it had excited a guitar.
The ocean's surge is calling.
The wind calls me and Rodriguez calls,and Jose Antonio--
I got a telegram from the "Mine" Union
and the one I love (whose name I won't let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.
No book has been able to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up with typography,with heavenly imprints
or was ever able to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals or to eat smoked beef by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous books,
books of forest or snow, depth or sky
but hate the spider book in which thought has laid poisonous wires
To trap the juvenile and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won't go clothed in volumes,
I don't come out of collected works,
my poems have not eaten poems--they devour exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather, and dig their food out of earth and men.
I'm on my way with dust in my shoes
free of mythology: send books back to their shelves,
i'm going down into the streets.
I learned about life from life itself, love
I learned in a single kiss and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.
Pablo Neruda

I'm back from my amazing adventures in Andes country. One of my chief aims in going to Chile was to visit the houses of the poet, Pablo Neruda, and this I achieved. You can read all the details of my Chilean adventures on my travel blog at
http://travelthroughhistory.blogspot.com
but now, in refelcting on my journey, I want to write about the Poet's houses and in particular, how it felt to visit those rooms in which he and his beloved Matilde lived and entertained guests.

It was interesting to see the many unusual and eccentric collections of various trinkets and artifacts that Neruda loved to have around him. There was so much colour, objects that would conjur the Muse and spark the imagination. But mostly, to stand in his studies, surrounded by his books and manuscripts, see in his own handwriting (usually always blue or green ink because those were sea colours) his penmanship, the poems he is famous for crafted on the page before publication.

In each of the houses: La Chascona in Santiago, La Sebastiana in Valparaiso, and Isla Negra on the shores of the Pacfic, I stood in his study, touched the chairs he sat on at his desks, felt his presence as I looked around, viewing from there exactly what he would have seen while he was writing. Always it was a pleasant scene, the green of the gardens and city scape of Santiago, the sweeping view over the rooftops to the sea in Valparaiso, the crashing waves of the ocean at Isla Negra. How could one not have been touched by the Muse in such glorious settings?

Pablo Neruda died in September 1973 shortly after his friend Salvadore Allende was killed in the bombing fo the Presidential Palace in Santiago when Augusto Pinochet led the military coup. Neruda had returned to Chile from France because he had cancer. But shortly after the junta, and when Allende was murdered, he died of his illness and, they say, of a broken heart. He is buried at Isla Negra in a simple grave covered by flowers facing the sea. Beside him is his beloved Matilde, who died in 1983. (Neruda was obsessed with the sea although he didn't like to be "on" it. Each of the three houses has a ship motif, even to the creaking floors that give the impression of being aboard a ship.)

Neruda is very much revered in Chile and every Chilean can recite his poems. I thank my chileno friend Anibal for introducing me to the Poet. It was because of him that I went to Chile, and because of Anibal that I desired to visit Neruda's homes. I came away feeling as though I had really got in touch with the Poet and appreciate his beautiful words more than ever before. If you haven't read his work, I encourage you to do so. You can find most of his poems on-line if you google his name. My most favorite collection is "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair." But I also have a copy of "The Captain's Poems" which he wrote using a nom-de-plume while living on the Isle of Capri in Italy during one of his exiles from Chile. The poems were written for Matilde, his third wife, the one known as "La Chascona" (crazy hair) because of her wild unruly locks.

And it was at that age...Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
Abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was withut a face
and it touched me.
Pablo Neruda from "Poetry"