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.
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.