My Little Red Wagon

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We sang “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.” We were small and our voices were thin and high but enthusiastic. We weren’t Dutch religious theorists or Jesuits. There was Jesus and Joseph and Mary and a donkey and a manger. I don’t think any of us had seen a donkey. There were lots of horses still around Gimli in those days. So many that Gunnar Johnson had a livery stable.

Most of us had been in that livery stable so we knew about mangers and how they smelled of hay and horses. Farmers were still coming in from the country on high-wheeled wagons or sleighs. The sleighs often had a caboose on top, a wooden frame covered with building paper, a window at the front so the driver could control the horses from inside where he was out of the wind along with his passengers, a tin stove with a black pipe that poked through the roof.

We didn’t know any geography but since Mary was riding on a donkey and Joseph was walking, we thought it couldn’t have been cold like Manitoba. The pictures showed them wearing sandals. If they wore sandals in Manitoba, they would have frozen their feet off. We wore a light pair of socks, heavy wool socks, moccasins with felts in the bottom. When it was really cold, we might have worn boot felts inside the moccasins. One time, I skated back home on the icy roads instead of taking off my skates at the outdoor rink and putting on my moccasins. I froze both big toes. The toenails turned white and fell off.

There was the North Star. It was in all the pictures of the holy family. It was guiding them. My parents explained about stars, showed me Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. My father said you could navigate by them. It didn’t make any sense. One day I went further on my bicycle than I was supposed to and got lost. Gimli was only one mile by one half mile and I’d crossed the big ditch on the south side of town and gone into South Beach. I had to ask a man working in his yard how to get back home. Even if it had been night time, I doubted if following the stars would have helped.

There was an Inn in this story. I knew about in. It was the opposite of out. When I was first told Mary and Joseph went to an Inn, I asked “In what?” I didn’t know about stopping houses. There was a hotel in town but men just went to the beer parlour. I had to have it explained that people could pay money to stay there. Why, I wondered, didn’t they just stay home?

Mary was going to have a baby. I knew people had babies. My mom had my brother. She went to the hospital and came back with him. I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t into sharing, either. It was all very mysterious. No one explained where babies came from. I would have understood better if he’d come from the post office. Sometimes, my grandmother sent us packages in the mail. So, I got the idea that sometimes unexpected things came from the post office.

Getting the pieces of the story to make any sense was hard. To make matters worse there was three kings on camels. I’d never seen a king or a camel except on a Christmas card. There were gifts but I didn’t understand why they were bringing these gifts.What does a kid want with gold, frankincense or myrrh. I wanted a red wagon.

red wagon

The next summer, when my grandmother took me to Assiniboine Park to the zoo, I saw a camel. I remember thinking, wow. Three kings rode camels like this for days across the desert to bring gifts to the Christ child. I didn’t resent him getting a bunch of gifts because I’d got my red wagon.

I wondered though what Christ did with his gifts. I played with my gift. I ran up and down the front sidewalk pulling my brother in the wagon. Or I kneeled in it and pushed myself along with one foot.

My father went out and chopped down a spruce tree. It smelled great. When he pulled it inside and set it up, it was exciting. My mother had spent her evenings making decorations. They sparkled. There were lights. What I liked best were the brightly colored birds that sat on the branches. What I liked bester were the gifts under the tree.

We went to church on Christmas Eve. It was exciting. We only had to walk through the snow and cold for about half a block. No camel. It would have been fun to ride a camel. I sort of had hoped there’d be a camel at church. Instead there were people dressed up in costumes and they pretended to be Joseph and Mary. The Christ child was a big doll. I liked that. We sang Christmas carols. The best thing is that when we were leaving, we were given a brown bag with an orange and striped candy. In 1945 in Gimli there were few oranges. This was probably the only orange I would get until the fall of 1946. Sugar was rationed so the candy was precious. Oranges and candy were better than frankincense and myrrh.

After church, we walked home over the snow packed sidewalk. There were lights in in the Scribner’s house. They lived on the corner. Then there were vacant lots until we got to our house. Across the street there were no houses, just the big field with the monument to the Icelandic settlers. My grandpa Swanee worked on that. He helped put the big stone on top.
My father carried my brother. My mother held my hand. I had on a fur lined helmet tied under the chin and a warm coat my grandmother had made for me. It was so cold that the snow squeaked. The sky was dark and filled with stars. We stopped to look at them. There was a light in our window and when we got inside my father went downstairs to put wood into the furnace. We had cocoa. Then we went to bed.

I lay in my bed looking out the east window. I could see the stars. I thought about Baby Jesus. I hoped he’d had warm blankets. I thought the kings should have brought him really warm clothes and hot cocoa. I hoped Santa Claus would bring me my little red wagon.

Christmas Gifts

I have reached an age where there is not much that I need or want. It makes me a difficult father and grandfather at gift giving time. I can just hear my kids saying, “What are we going to get for Dad?” and, in despair, buying something they’ve noticed is missing or worn out in the house.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. There was childhood in which gifts from family and friends, gifts from Santa Claus, were eagerly anticipated. One’s heart’s desire in childhood is often quite simple, quite obvious; we’re not usually subtle in childhood. We’re inclined to say things like, “Boy, would it ever be nice to have a bike. Joe has a bike. A red CCM. You should see it.”

I expect that’s the kind of thing I said that meant my grandparents put a red CCM, kid size, under the tree.

I was lucky. I always got one or more Christmas gifts. Christmas Eve is a big event for people of Icelandic extraction. That’s when we opened the gifts that had accumulated under the tree. From my folks, the gifts were inclined to be practical, to be things that I needed, like new pants, shirts, socks. That, too, was a remnant of an Icelandic tradition but, in Iceland, during the time of emigration, conditions were hard and each person usually got one new piece of clothing. We weren’t well-to-do but we were better off than that.

I always got at least one book. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Arrow, Robin Hood, The Hardy Boys. Over the years, my library grew. I read my books over and over again, borrowed more where I could, bought some when I managed to make enough money from baby sitting or cutting lawns or shovelling snow. However, there was something special about knowing, from having felt the wrapped gift, that there would be a new book to read on Christmas day.

Christmas morning it was hard to stay in bed. My brother and I didn’t get up until we heard that our parents were awake. Then we crept into the living room to look under the tree to see what Santa had brought.

I don’t ever remember doubting Santa Claus’s existence. The existential questions didn’t plague me. How could he cover the whole world in one night even with his magical reindeer? How could he get in and out of houses when they didn’t have fireplaces? Ours didn’t. He came down the chimney, he’d have dropped straight into our wood burning furnace. No, for me, everything was possible. And no one was so mean as to say Santa Claus didn’t exist. No one forced adult disillusionment and cynicism on a couple of little kids.

Santa may have been secular and materialistic but we never saw any conflict between him and Christ. They were two good guys. Santa was jolly. Christ was serious but we didn’t really think much, if anything, about the grown up Christ. Our Christ was the baby Jesus in the manager and while Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was on our lips so was Silent Night. Santa might bring that desperately wanted football but that did not diminish the joy in the brown paper bag with hard candy and an orange handed out at the church.

We didn’t really have Icelandic traditions because my mother was Irish and it’s Mom’s who take care of these things while Dad’s are off doing whatever it is that Dad’s do to pay for gifts and turkey and potatoes and gravy. And cranberry sauce. However, we were very fortunate in having an Icelandic Icelandic family, the Bjarnason’s just two houses south. After we went to the late night service at the Lutheran church, we then went to the Bjarnason’s where Gusta fed us sukla and cookies and cakes and everything nice. We ate so much sugar and spice that it was amazing that we didn’t turn into girls. There wasn’t a single snip or snail to be seen. Moreover, none of us boys complained. None of us said that’s too much sugar and spice. I’ll skip the next piece of vinarterta.

There were, I know, gifts under the Christmas tree brought by Santa. However, only a few of them stand out. The desperately desired bike my grandparents gave me. The football that got used in pickup games for many years. Probably, though, no gift could match the Cooey .22. I was twelve. Nowadays, with all the fuss about guns because our larger, more urbanized population uses guns to do harm, giving a twelve year old a rifle may seem preposterous.

However, my father started teaching me to shoot a .22 when I was two. He held the rifle and I aimed and pulled the trigger. He took me hunting with him around the same time, hauling me behind him on a sleigh. We ate what he hunted. Our favorite meal, Sunday after Sunday, was rabbit pie. We ate venison, goose and ducks. We even ate beaver tail and prairie chicken.

I hunted rabbits with my .22. When I brought them home, I was proud of my accomplishment. Rabbit for the stew pot. When I shot a prairie chicken and brought it home, I was proud of providing a prairie chicken for the stew pot.

Maybe it is prosperity, the ability to buy whatever you want for yourself. Maybe it has something to do with extravagant competition, bigger and bigger and more expensive gifts. Maybe it has to do with the artificial manipulation of desire on TV, the turning of Santa Claus from a jolly old elf who likes his Coca Cola into a pitchman so crazed that no happiness can exist for a child unless he or she is buried in toys.

 

What is left, for me, thank goodness, is the joy of giving. However, even this is tempered with the knowledge of a Canada that I don’t remember. I know that some people in Gimli did not have much and there may not have been anything or very little under the Christmas tree. There may have been no Christmas tree. The bag of candy and the orange at the church may have been the only gift. However, as a child our world is small, it encompasses family and, perhaps, friends. We are not part of discussions about how much can be spent on Christmas gifts or Christmas food or how poor other people might be.

However, as I grew up, I don’t remember soup kitchens, food banks, people living in cars, homeless people pushing grocery carts with their few possessions.

Maybe, because we weren’t constantly being told that we should want things, we were satisfied with less. One of the finest gifts my brother and I ever received came from a friend who came to live with us for a while. He wasn’t much older than us. It was a kind of pinball game you played with it resting on the floor or a table and there was a slot and spring with which you could send metal balls shooting up. There were numbered metal pieces that were curved and each one had a value marked below it. We tried to get the balls into the various curved metal pieces. We played with it for years.

Adults know that we created Santa Claus. We know that Coca Cola helped to develop his current image. As a child it did me no harm to believe in a jolly old elf who was generous and kind and brought kids gifts. The larger questions, the  unanswerable questions of right and wrong, of materialism vs. idealism can wait until later. Kids need jolly old elves in their lives. More than ever. Their adult worries will start soon enough.

Perhaps, though, for me, the most important part of Christmas was Christmas Eve with its ritual of attending a late service. Ritual matters. These many decades later, I remember no more of the gifts than those I’ve mentioned and, of those I have mentioned, there was none more important than the small paper bag with hard candy and an orange that was given to children at the service. Never have I forgotten holding my paper bag as we sang Silent Night. In childhood, that bag contained the sweetness of both the candy and the exotic flavour of the orange. Today, as I think back, what matters is that I know that those kids who weren’t lucky enough to have gifts on Christmas morning, had that bag with those candies and that orange and, I’ve been told, were sometimes given more than one. I hope that is true.