The Lies of Christmas

sailsigns

The lies of Christmas. They’re all around us. Every day in every way. I saw lies everywhere I walked in the mall. There were signs that said or implied, buy this coffee maker and you’ll be happy. Buy this shirt and you will have a wonderful Christmas. Love, many of the signs said, can be judged by how expensive the gift. The more you love someone, the more you should spend on them. The more you want someone to love you, the more you should spend on them.

Show your family and friends how successful you are. Buy them this jewellery. Buy them these golf clubs. Buy them gifts that cost more than what your brothers and sisters bought, or your uncles and aunts, or your neighbours.

The signs all chanted buy, buy, buy as I walked by. Some signs whispered. Some shouted. One had a new car wrapped with a red ribbon. A gift for someone you love, a gift you can put In your driveway so everyone can see how much you love your wife or your husband or your fiancé or you son or daughter.

The strange thing is that when I look back on decades of Christmases, I remember very few gifts. What did I get for my sixth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my fourteenth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my twenty-fourth Christmas. I have no idea. I do remember I used to always get a book for Christmas. I remember the gifts under the Christmas tree, gifts that we opened on Christmas Eve. I remember that there was always a gift from Santa on Christmas morning. But I’ll be darned if I remember what they were. When I was twelve I got my Cooey. 22 single shot. Another year I got a football but I don’t remember what year it was. Probably when I turned fourteen. A gift I do remember and will never forget is the finely knitted vest my grandmother made for me. Like her cooking, it was made with love.

What I do remember are Christmas’s at my mother’s parents. Grandma Smith didn’t have a dining room but she had her fold out table all set with her best plates and cups and glasses. She was a wonderful cook and she had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and her special scones. The house was hot from the cooking so we had the front door open and the cold air made clouds as I flowed in. We talked and people told stories and after supper we had tea and sweets and my brother and I fell asleep sitting with my parents on the couch.

I remember Christmases in Gimli at my parents’ house. Exciting Christmases because my grandparents would come from Winnipeg. We watched for them to arrive on the bus. Some of my father’s siblings and their husbands and wives and kids would join us. My parents’ best friends and their two daughters would come through the door. I’ll never forget those Christmas suppers. The smell of supper cooking, the setting out of the table, the laughter, the joyousness of our friendships.

When I think of Christmas’s past, it is people I think of. I don’t regret the disappearance of the gifts, whatever they were but I regret the loss of the people who came through our front door, who shook our hands, who hugged us, who were obviously happy to see us, who embraced us in their friendship. There is nothing so precious at Christmas as to be among people who love you.

I thought as I walked through the mall what lies the signs whispered. I would take a Christmas without the blenders, the DVDs, the vacuum cleaners, the head phones, the ear buds, to be surrounded by friends and family. Yes, the Magi brought gifts to the Christ child, but they didn’t do it as a promotion for the myrrh, frankincense and gold industries. They didn’t do it to boost GDP.

They didn’t do it to buy Christ’s love.

There’s nothing wrong with gifts and may you enjoy the gifts you receive this season and may those you gift enjoy the gifts you give them but remember that love comes from the giver and the receiver not from the price tag on present.

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.

Viking Christmas

Odin
You know Oðin, the one-eyed god in Norse mythology. He’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the CEO of Asgard, the home of the gods. He’s always fighting frost giants, involved in battles, wandering in search of wisdom, preparing for the end of the world, Ragnarok. At least that’s the Oðin, I´ve known. Feasting, fighting, wenching, wandering, drinking.

However, I´ve stumbled on another aspect of Oðin. Some people say Coca Cola invented Santa Claus. Other people say Santa Claus started when the Vikings invaded England and brought with them the idea of Oðin, the wanderer in the blue hooded cloak who carried a bag of bread in one hand and a staff in the other. The Saxons, the guys already in England, had as one of their customs the welcoming of King Frost or King Winter. It wasn´t hard to join together King Winter and Oðin. It wasn´t unusual for pagan beliefs to be joined with Christian beliefs. At my recent visit to the Royal Museum to see the Viking exhibit, there was a Thor´s hammer that was also a cross. It´s not surpring then that even after the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when the Vikings lost their power in England, when people made oaths, they sometimes still used the phrase “To God and Oðin.” The mysteries of the past that come down to us are many layered.

The Vikings didn´t just bring swords and shields. They brought their beliefs; they brought Oðin. Vikings believed that Oðin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir.

The Oðin described in histories of Christmas is a man who joined people sitting around fires, not participating but listening and observing, seeing if the people were all right and, sometimes, if things were not all right, he would take bread from his sack and leave it for those who were poor and hungry.

It is easy to see the image of Santa Claus beginning to form. A man on a steed. The blue hooded cloak, the unobserved man coming to see if all was well, the leaving of gifts for those in need.

When the Normans came they brought St. Nicholas. For a long time, the image of a benevolent person who came at Christmas time was saintly, stern, lecturing and judging. In a number of countries, he asked questions and decided if you had been naughty and nice and if you had been naughty, you got a lump of coal, or some hay or a potato instead of a desired gift.

Oðin wasn´t the only Nordic god drawn into Christmas. One account says that Frigg, Oðin´s wife, would check to make certain that the entrances to each house were clean. Imagine if you were a housewife and you believed that Odin´s wife was going to come by to check on your housekeeping. What better way to make sure that people kept their places organized and tidy? Although the Viking age ended in 1066, nine hundred years later, my mother always worked hard at making sure our house was tidy and clean for Christmas. I always thought that was because we were going to have relatives coming to visit. But it also may have been part of a tradition started many centuries before with the original tradition forgotten but the need to get organized and keep chaos from descending still at work. If I had said to my mother will you be ready when Frigg checks the house, she wouldn´t have known what I was talking about. She would have said, “Your grandparents are coming. I have to have the house spotless for Christmas.”

Before they became Christian, the Germanic people celebrated Yule. When people became Christian they didn´t automatically give up their traditions and beliefs. Yule celebrations became part of Christmas. For people of Icelandic descent, this keeping of old traditions in spite of the new religion is easy to understand. After all, when a political deal was made for Iceland to become Christian, part of the deal was that people could keep practicing the old religion as long as they did it in private.

If you know your Norse mythology, you’ll know about one of these traditions, The Wild Hunt. When the Wild Hunt takes place, there is a ghostly procession of hunters led by Oðin riding across the sky. When I think about this ghostly procession I remember the Northern Lights on cold clear nights in Gimli, Manitoba. When Oðin leads the procession, he is called Jólnir or Jule figure. He is also referred to as Langbarðr which means long beard. So, we have a long bearded figure in a hooded cloak, riding an eight legged horse across the sky. It´s not too hard to see Oðin turn into Santa Claus and Sleipnir with his eight legs turn into eight reindeer. There are even some traditions of Oðin coming down chimneys. Although, that couldn´t have been an Icelandic tradition since turf houses didn´t have chimneys. There were no stoves or fireplaces, just a fire on the stone floor and a hole in the roof. In Reykjavik today, Oðin or Santa Claus would still have a hard time finding chimneys to climb down because most of the heating is from hot water piped from volcanic areas. No chimneys for a fat man in a red suit with a large bag of toys to scurry down. For that trick, he needs the chimneys of large stone fireplaces.

A lot of people got into the act before we moved from Oðin to our present day image of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas and Sinterklass and Father Christmas plus others. The result is that we no longer have the all-knowing Oðin, no longer the stern saints, no longer the demanding Santa Clauses in shopping malls insisting on knowing if you have been good or bad. Instead, we have a jolly old elf. A gift giver who makes no demands, asks no awkward questions, does his best to meet extravagent requests even if it means maxing out a credit card.

I used to be terrified when I heard the song that said, “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you´re awake, he knows when you´ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” I prefer the jolly old elf, an elf filled with kindness at the darkest time of the year. Yet, yet, in the winter months, especially around Christmas, if I’m lucky enough to be where there are Northern Lights, I am transfixed by the pulsating colors, red, green, blue, traveling across the sky. Watching them I think I see this figure in his blue cloak, riding his eight legged horse over the arc of the world, leading his wildly riding huntsmen. Although I am in awe of these spectral figures, of the shimmering lights, of the majesty of the sky, I have not yet been given a gift of gold. At the same time, I haven´t mocked these huntsmen and so haven´t been taken away with them never to be seen again.

All of this, along with the multiple layers of tradition over the centuries, have often led me along a snowy path to a quiet church service, some joyful singing of hymns and carols, a crèche scene with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. To Oðin, to Frigg, to all their companions, to Father Christmas, to Saint Nicholas, to the Frost King, to all the Santa Clauses in the malls of the world, to mothers and fathers decorating the sacred Christmas tree, the lovers kissing under the magic Christmas bow, to Joseph and Mary and Jesus, Merry Christmas to all.

The Loneliest Christmas

snowdrift
Christmas, whether you celebrate Christ’s birth or not, is a time of the getting together of family and friends.

Encouraged, even demanded by the retail sector, it is a time of gift giving and gift giving is always portrayed as a family event with people arriving at someone’s front door laden with gifts or in someone’s living room with a room full of beloved and loving people.

Television is guilty of creating a feeling of everyone else is happy, everyone can afford to give and receive expensive gifts in houses that have huge rooms and fireplaces. These imaginary houses are perfect from both the outside and the inside. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy. Everyone is wealthy.

I walked through the toy section of Walmart yesterday. Part way through the tour, I thought this is insane. No one needs all this, or any of this. Out of the glittery boxes, the toys are nothing more than brightly painted bits of plastic. I then went to an exclusive Victoria store. Just inside the door there was a coffee table for seven thousand dollars. The perfect gift for one of those perfect houses in the advertisements. Who, I asked myself, buys seven thousand dollar coffee tables?

Since I don’t know, maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd. Maybe I need to upscale myself.

There is no power more powerful than television to make people feel inferior. Show after show has apartments and houses that the characters in the show, in real life, couldn’t possibly afford. In Vancouver where tear-downs are being bought for 1.2 million and over, yup, you have to pay 1.2 million, tear down the current house and then build a new one, people are buying condos the size of walk-in closets. They are buying lane houses no bigger than a one car garage.

Wages have not kept up with prices. Mortgages in Vancouver are taking as much as eighty percent of the combined salaries of a husband and wife. Then there are car payments and food and clothes and dental work and one thousand dollar baby carriages. Credit card companies are charging over nineteen percent and people are taking out HELOCS so they can buy groceries.

“I saw it on TV. Not once but many times. People our age, driving a new car, going on exotic holidays, buying each other enormous gifts. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a loser?” If this is how you feel, give your head a shake. Drowning in debt doesn’t make anyone a winner. The Magi may have brought expensive gifts for Christ but they were kings. They weren’t using a credit card to buy the frankincense, myrrh and gold. You don’t prove you love someone with your gifts.

Instead of buying like a king of ancient times, how about attending a Christmas service? There are free concerts. Christmas pot lucks work just fine. If the spirit of Christmas is giving, not getting, one can have a busy, productive Christmas, especially if the giving is the gift of including people so they aren’t lonely.

Times of celebration can be the loneliest times for people who are left out of the celebrating. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have family, who will be spending Christmas alone. For them an invitation to share Christmas dinner or to go look at Christmas lights with you or attend a concert, even if it is a school concert, will go a long way to making their Christmas a happy one. There is no joy like the joy of being included, to be part of someone’s festivities, to share a meal, to not be alone while everyone around you celebrates. You can give that to someone. Without maxing out your credit card.

When I was young, all my friends seemed to get married at the same time and, in a while, to have children at the same time. Now that I am old, many of those same friends are widows or widowers at the same time and not all of them have children nearby. Some are divorced. Some have a wife or husband in an institution. An invitation to share part of your Christmas can make the season joyful for them.

I always admired my father for what he did one Christmas. One of his seasonal working men was a terrible alcoholic. He got his pay cheque and drank it away. His temporary friends at the beer parlour helped him with that. He hadn’t saved anything to pay for room and board before the fishing began again and he took up residence in a caboose (a one room shack covered with building paper and tar paper, sometimes plywood) that sat on an old sled. The caboose was some distance outside of town at the back of the beach among a copse of poplar trees. There was always a large amount of drifting snow in that area. My father drove until the snow drifts stopped him, then walked over the drifts, carrying a bag of food and a twenty-six of whiskey.

He couldn’t find the caboose until he saw a chimney pipe sticking up through the snow. He then discovered a beaten down track and followed it to the caboose. He knocked and was let in. It was one room, one chair, one bunk, some wooden fish boxes for cupboards, a tin stove, some firewood, a lamp. There was a small window that let in light and when it wasn’t covered in frost, a view of the vast surface of ice that went all the way to the horizon. It would have been hard to have found a lonelier place

My mother had packed up some butter tarts, some shortbread cookies, some Christmas cake, a meal of turkey and vegetables.

Gunnar wouldn’t leave his lonely snow driven place. My father and he talked for a while, then my father left and Gunnar, we’ll say he was called Gunnar, spent the night alone with the snow and wind and his thoughts.

Some people asked my father, why did you take a bottle of whiskey along with the food. My father’s reply was that it was the gift Gunnar wanted. It wasn’t up to my father to judge what he should or shouldn’t have.

I’ve thought of Gunnar often when I’ve felt lonely, when, for a period of time, because of circumstances, fate, ill luck, I found myself alone when others joined together to celebrate. I’ve comforted myself by thinking of that cold winter night with the wind blowing, the snow drifting, a man alone in a caboose and saying to myself this temporary moment I’m going through isn’t so bad.

We need others, we need community. Condo towers, suburbia, cities, apartments, poverty, illness, old age, death of a partner, a host of things work against community. Small acts of kindness, especially at special times like Christmas help restore it.

The Moveable Feast

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After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.

We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.

My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.

Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.

On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.

The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.

In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.

During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.

Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.

I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.

In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.

We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.

In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.

However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.

However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.

The 10 cent Christmas

My aunt Florence had a stroke and had to go into Betel, the nursing home in Gimli but, if she were still with us, there’s a story that she would tell. She told me about it many times and I was always happy to hear it again.

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was 18), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the air force and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope for the future. Love, they believed, could overcome al l problems.

Their first Christmas Eve, all they had between them was 10 cents. Mind you, 10 cents still meant something. You could buy something with 10 cents. It was two-thirds of a haircut, for example. It was two-thirds of a ticket to the movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just 10 cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make with foil they scrounged from cigarette packages, with tin from cans, with bits and pieces of glass, with chains made from colored paper.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for 10 cents?”

And the butcher, who had known Forence all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage, even though new interlopers like my  uncle were appearing because of an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.

 

 

 

 

Making Laufabrauð

There´s Laufabrauð, Leafbread, like Kladia Robertsdottir´s meticulous leafbread, and Trish Baer´s creative, personalized leaf bread, and then there´s my leaf bread.

Decorating a thin pastry round by cutting a pattern into it is, I tell myself, a matter of small muscle control and we know that women have much better small muscle control than men. That’s my excuse.

The hot shots in the Laufrabruað world do their decorating freehand. However, there is equipment that makes the task easier. They are small brass rollers in different sizes. You run the roller over the pastry and it cuts a line of Vs. You are supposed to have the pointy end of the V on the roller pointed away from you, I discovered. Then you are supposed to turn the pastry so that the point of the pattern is toward you.

Bill desperately trying to get the pattern cut into his Lauafabrauð

You use a small, sharp, pointed knife to tip the first point over, then pass the next V and raise the one after that. You pull it over so that the end can be put under the initial piece. I didn´t know that. When my leaf breads went into the hot fat, the points of the Vs stood up and the thin pastry round , instead of staying flat curled and twisted.

This, I thought, is going to take a lot of practice.

Kladia doing it the way it should be done.

Some people don´t use the rollers. They cut all the patterns with a knife. I was content to just make straight lines with the rollers and then try to get the pastry not to tear and to flip over without breaking. I worked too slowly and the pastry dried out and the arms of the Vs broke.

In the meantime, Trish was creating Leafbread with her family´s initials on them. Spiffy leaf breads that had R and T on them. They were the kind of leaf breads anyone would be proud to give as a gift. My leafbreads, not so much. I think all except three looked like they´d been made by a demented dwarf..

Then, so they don´t bubble,  you have to prick them with a tool like none I´ve seen before. It´s sort of like a curry comb that only goes part way across the handle. The points are sharp. You prick the pastry all over.

Trish punching  holes in the Laufbrauð before it is fried.

When the leaf breads all had a pattern cut into them, Kladia filled a fryer with two bottles of corn oil and turned the heat up to 400 degrees. Then, carefully, remember these pastries are very thin, like really thin, and having had patterns cut in them, really fragile, she put them into the hot oil.

Kladia frying leafbread

She used two long metal knitting needles to delicately push them down so they were immersed. She said, “You watch for the bubbles.”, then, using the needles, lifted a leafbread up and turned it over. She slipped a needle through one of the holes and  put the leaf bread onto a wad of paper towel. Trish then, gently, pressed a paper towel down on the leaf bread to get off any excess oil.

The finished, golden leaf breads were set on edge in a dish drainer that had been lined with paper towel. Golden, crisp, ready to be eaten with butter, cheese or hangikjöt. Except by me, of course. The pastries are made from wheat flour and I can’t eat gluten. Didn’t matter, we had lunch together (this is a long process, it took us from around ten a.m. to five o’clock in the afternoon). We talked. We took pictures. We discussed many Icelandic things.

Kladia’s background is in history and she is a fount of all things Icelandic and is fluent in the language. She can answer questions both on the Vikings and the banking crises and anything in between. Trish is completing a Ph.d. on images in the Eddas.

My knowledge of Icelandic history and of the Eddas is similar to my Laufabrauð, somewhat haphazard. I know who Snorri was, I know what the Eddas are, but there are a lot of blanks in between, the historic connections aren´t any more secure than my Laufabrauð connections.

However, I take heart. I had a fine day with friends. Richard, Trish´s husband, came by to take some pictures and join us for a lunch of curried lamb with sprouted rice. We shared one of those days where the doing is every bit as important as the outcome. Crumpled Laufabrauð, ragged Laufabrauð, eat just was well as works of art, particularly when they´re slathered in butter or topped with smoked mutton.

I´ve read somewhere that Laufabruð came about because flour was so rare and expensive in Iceland, no grain would ripen so flour had to be imported, that these paper thin discs fried in sheep fat were created so that everyone could have a piece of bread at Christmas. I´m sure it didn´t take long before people were cutting patterns into them, turning them into culinary art.

P.S. To the revisionists among us. I never saw or heard about Laufabrauð when I was growing up in Gimli. Kleinur, yes, vinarterta, yes, rullupylsa, yes, pönnukökur, yes. Even Loftkökur. Laufabrauð, no. Otherwise, I´d know how to make them. They´d be in my genes.

Christmas Past

I can’t find a suitable winter picture of my grandparent’s house so high summer will have to do.

There we are, the lot of us. I can’t find the photo but I don’t need it. I can see us quite clearly. We’re at my grandparent’s house in Winnipeg. It is a small, tidy blue house with a kitchen, a living room that was turned into a dining room on special occasions, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a basement. It is in a working class neighbourhood. The Italians have started to move in, buying up two story frame houses on twenty-five foot lots and fixing them up.

We weren’t a large family. My mother’s parents, my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, me and my new wife.  Grinning like all get out. We’re in our best bib and tucker. The women in their best dresses. Us guys in good dress shirts and slacks. Only my dapper father is wearing a suit.

We’ve gathered to celebrate.  But what, precisely, is it that each of us is celebrating?

My Irish grandfather came to Canada before 1914. He had three sisters already in Winnipeg so he settled in the city. He got a job as a glazier, then as a drayman. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, without hesitation, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He was young, he was Protestant, he was living in Northern Ireland. The Troubles were constant.  I expect he was celebrating the fact that since he’d arrived in Canada that he didn’t need to carry a pistol in his pocket, that when he returned to Europe in 1915 to fight for King and country, he’d survived his wounds in the Great War, that as hard as things were in the Great Depression, he managed to hang onto his job.

My Irish grandmother was, I expect, celebrating that she’d met my grandfather when he was on leave and had gone home from the Front to see his family in Ireland, had met her and had saved her from spinsterhood by writing from Canada after the war, asking her to marry him. She’d booked her fair on the Empress of France and, a woman by herself, she crossed the ocean, crossed the continent and now had a home of her own, a daughter and two grandsons. Until my grandfather wrote she had seen her future as a babysitter, housekeeper for her brother’s wife because, even though her brother was the youngest in the family, he would inherit everything. Her own house. Her own husband. Her own child. Grandchildren.

My father was celebrating that he’d married my mother, that he’d survived numerous disasters, both physical and financial, that he was loved and liked by my mother and her parents, that somewhere north, through the falling snow, there was, in his home town, a large Icelandic-English family that supported  him through a number of tragedies. Times were difficult and he had to have two jobs to feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, but he was doing it. He was proud of that. I expect he was celebrating that he had finally been able to buy a car. He’d wanted a car for a long time.

In the picture, my brother, four years younger than me, is tall, taller than everyone else. Good looking, very blond and, as an older brother, I’m not sure what, as a teenager, he was celebrating except being with his family, with his girlfriend. His smile says he’s very happy. In the not too distant future, he would die in an accident at work but in this moment, there is no warning, no presentment, only happiness with the place, the people, the food, the holiday.

The girlfriend? Although they didn’t marry, I expect she was celebrating in that moment because she knew that everyone in the room, not just my brother, loved her. She was the daughter my parents never had, my sister I never had, my grandparents’ granddaughter they never had. The happiness of that moment was so great she and I became like brother and sister and her family and her husband’s family, sort of related by marriage to us, have become a big part of my life. Happiness endures.

My wife? Celebrating her beautiful green Christmas dress she was so proud of, a dress that set off her copper colored hair, celebrating being recently married, celebrating being there in that room, safe, loved, secure, happy that there was a place for her, happy to be with people who wanted her, celebrating our having a place of our own, an apartment in the top floor of a house even though if you went barefoot, we were in danger of getting splinters. Celebrating that she had found a job and could support us as I finished my degree. Celebrating that my parents cared enough about her to buy her a muskrat coat (bought through a Winnipeg wholesale) so she’d been warm while waiting for a bus at five o’clock in the morning as she went to work.

And me? If someone had said to me, that evening, what are you celebrating, Bill? I’d have said, I’m celebrating that I’m in the last year of university, that I’m married, that we’ve found an apartment, that I’m writing, that I feel, in this moment, we’re together, talking, visiting, sharing a meal. I know that I wasn’t celebrating gifts. I have no memory of gifts. I know there must have been some, but whatever the gifts were, they are long gone, long worn out, long forgotten. What I remember is being together, the table set, the supper cooking, the conversation, us sitting on the wine colored, overstuffed couch and on chairs that had been added to the living room for extra seating, happy at being in the light and warmth instead of alone in the dark and cold outside where the wind whipped the snow over the drifts.

That was my celebration. The conversation, the voices, the food being placed on the table, the anticipation of eating, the place at the table, the knowledge that in this moment, we were one. In a day or two, we’d go back to our individual lives, the distance among us would need walking, driving, telephone calls, letters, to overcome the silences of the miles,  but for now we had us. That was something to celebrate.