Christmas Day in Gimli

(from my diary)

There were other magical days. Easter. Islindingadagurinn. The day school got out. Thanksgiving. Birthdays. But Christmas always had its own magic. Part of that were the songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Christmas Bells. Good King Wenceslas. Everyone has his or her own favorites. There aren’t a lot of rousing songs about Easter or Islindingadagurinn. I don’t remember a plethora of songs about school getting out. There might have been a tune or two about Thanksgiving but I don’t remember them offhand. There’s Happy Birthday but it’s brief and once it’s over, there aren’t any lively tunes about growing older.
Maybe the magic of Christmas is founded in its religious beginning. Maybe it’s founded on the mixture of pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs. Mistletoe and kissing and Christ being born. Mistletoe and kissing can lead to kids being born. No question about it. But I doubt if that had anything to do with Christ’s being born because his was to be a virgin birth.
When I was a kid there was nothing more important than the Christmas Eve service at the church. That’s because, ham that I am, I always got a few lines to say and a chance to put on a costume. I thought I always got a part because I was a brilliant actor. My mother said it was because I learned my lines. The church was always packed for the service. No empty pews at Christmas. We got small brown paper bags with candy and an orange. This was before the ToysRUs mentality took hold. A peppermint in one’s mouth with an orange in one’s pocket was a taste of heaven. That’s because nothing more was expected. TV hadn’t arrived to tell us about all the things we should want and make us unhappy because we didn’t have them.
Normally, after the service, we went home and opened our presents. Then Christmas morning there would be one present from Santa Clause.  We were very lucky children, my brother and I, because between my parents and my grandparents there was always a gift under the tree. The gifts were often something useful, like clothes we needed but sometimes there were a baseballs and bat, a bow and arrow, a football, not all at once but one for each year. There was always a book, usually one of the Hardy Boys series. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without a book. I didn’t know then that it was an Icelandic tradition to give a book at Christmas.
There was the Christmas tree, of course. We took the truck into the country and idled down country roads until we saw something the right size and shape, then waded through snow and chopped it down.  My father set it up in the living room and my mother directed the decorating. A lot of the decorations were handmade, knitted or cut from tin can lids. There were some store bought decorations and a string of lights.
People try to make Christmas however they can. Valerie Kline, my friend for twenty years, was born in an internment camp in Uganda during the war. There were no Christmas trees so her father decided to make one. He found a narrow tree trunk, drilled holes all around it. Collected palm fronds and stuck them in the holes. The family made decorations and since in their native Germany and Hungary they lit candles on the tree, they collected candle stubs , set them on bits of tin and fastened them to the fronds. On Christmas Eve, they stood back to admire their tree as Valerie’s mother lit the candles. Then in one great whoosh the dry fronds went up in flames and Valerie’s dad, Gene, grabbed the tree and flung it through the door. It was as Valerie often said, a Kodak moment.
More important than the gifts was the company. If I had to forgo one or the other, I’d have done without the gifts. As I kneeled on the couch so I could watch out the front window through the darkness and the blowing snow for my grandparents, I vibrated with excitement. They came down by bus and walked from the bus stop to our house. “Here they are, here they are,” I’d shout. My grandmother always wore a Persian lamb coat and black boots with a fur fringe. My grandfather wore a heavy wool coat that reached his ankles. Then uncles and aunts and cousins and best friends started to appear until the house was bursting with conversation and laughter. The coats and parkas piled up my parents’ bed. The smell of the turkey roasting, the cranberries cooking, the vegetables boiling and baking, the pies, the cakes, the cookies swirled out of the kitchen into the living room. We were always a large group because Christmas was about sharing. Christmas was about friendship. Christmas was about caring. It also was about story telling or playing Rummoli for pennies or Snakes and Ladders.  Christmas was about storing up good memories for the future to help us through the difficult times that are always ahead.
There were always desserts afterward. My Irish mother learned to make vinarterta soon after she got married so we always had vinartera with the Christmas cake. There were calla lilies and snowballs and rosettes. I don’t ever remember a store bought cookie. There were pies, of course. What would Christmas dinner be without pies?
Even as a child I remember pausing at these times, in the midst of the laughter and conversation and food, and looking around the room at everyone, and being grateful that Christmas was like this and wishing that it could always be like this.
It couldn’t be, of course. People grow older. They move. They  marry and have their own Christmases with their own children and their inlaws. They die. How I long for it to be possible to relive some of those Christmases, for those same people to come tramping through the door in a swirl of cold air turning white around them.
Although I now live in Victoria instead of Gimli and although my grandparents and father  and mother and brother are gone, we still make Christmas. Our lives aren’t as tightly bound because we live in cities but on Christmas Eve, we gather at my house for dinner and conversation and gifts. My son and his family come from Bellingham, my daughter and her family from Brentwood, my nephew and his family from Sidney, my sister-in-law and my niece from Vic West. Sometimes , if we’re lucky,  friends and relatives join us. We just add another table.
In Victoria at Christmas it often rains rather than snows. Some flowers still bloom in protected corners. It doesn’t look like Christmas in Manitoba. But with the magic of Christmas, when my guests begin to arrive, many others arrive with them. They’re the guests of Christmases past, still alive in my mind, my grandparents, my brother, my uncles, my father, our good friends, the Kellers. They swoop in through the opened door in their heavy winter clothes with snow and cold air swirling around them, still laughing, shouting greetings, doling out kisses and hugs, a crowd of them and I greet them, everyone, and welcome them to my house for no Christmas is separate from those of the past and no one is forgotten.

Rob Ford’s Ferris Wheel

At one time it was Toronto the Good. Then it became Toronto the Smug. The people who lived there believed it was superior to everywhere else in Canada. Torontonians were supposed to be more cultured, better educated, more literate, more sophisticated than their country cousins. Winnipeg might have the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Rainbow Stage or The Winnipeg Art Gallery but that was small potatoes and look at the downtown. Decaying. The Portage and Main area haunted by people who sniff gas and drink cheap sherry in the stairwells of parkades. In any case, real culture was in Toronto. That’s where the class acts came to act. 
Vancouver? Well, Vancouver might have the Queen E, Vancouver Playhouse and the Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver also supports major civic facilities such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Museum, Maritime Museum, the Pacific Space Centre, and Science World.  But it’s brash, a city of all new money, a city of social climbers and misfits who have long hair and insist on parading nude on the beach. But, it believes in libraries.
Now that Toronto is no longer the cultural capital of Canada, the denizens of Forest Hill have to give up their attitude of superiority. All that sets them apart is the price of their houses. Vancouver can beat them on that. Imagine, if all you’ve got to brag about is that your house is more expensive than someone else’s? But those people who frequent Bloor and Young have got to give up feeling that just being in Toronto makes up for their daily lives.
For awhile, Torontonians can still wallow in the illusion that they’re superior. But we already know that’s not true. It’ll be hard on their vanity but no one can really blame us if we smile into our hand as Toronto shuts down its libraries. Replaces libraries with a ferris wheel. Toronto the Smug has begun the process of becoming a cultural wasteland similar to the physical wasteland of Detroit.
It used to be when some of those four million people came back home for a summer visit and you asked them where they were living, they said, “In Taronna.” In a voice that also said “And you aren’t.” They obviously felt superior. That’s all over. They used to brag about the CBC being headquartered in Toronto. All those radio and TV programs were produced there. All those stars lived there. So they felt like a star, too. That’ll soon be gone. A city that doesn’t believe reading matters is a city that can’t grasp the kind of programs the CBC produces. FOX NEWS will soon become the Toronto icon. It goes with the circus on the waterfront. You don’t need to know much to ride on a ferris wheel.
Was this how Rome fell? Because people quit believing that education mattered? That culture was an expensive luxury Rome couldn’t afford? If libraries don’t matter, one has to ask what is the purpose of universities? Essentially, universities teach people how to read. Imagine the money that could be saved if the University of Toronto were shut down. Those buildings could be turned into condos and pubs and strip joints. Except, of course, for engineering. You have to have people who can build big ferris wheels and carnival rides and keep them running. But those people could be trained at a technical college.
If Rob Ford has ambitions to become premier, he needs to make a list of all those institutions that are of no more value to the people of Toronto than libraries. Then show he is serious by shutting them down. Theatres jump to mind. Ballet. Art schools. Art galleries. Why would any real Torontonian want to watch a bunch of adults wandering around a stage playing let’s pretend, or grown men in tights hopping about a stage, or go to some place to look at a bunch of pictures? They can see pictures in the Sear’s catalogue.
Those few effete intellectuals who don’t like the new Toronto can leave. They can go other places where people are prepared to waste their hard earned tax money on libraries and those other things effete intellectuals like. They can go to places like Winnipeg or Vancouver or Saskatoon or Fredericton. They can go to Calgary. Even Calgarians believe in libraries. And some of that other stuff. Or they can go to my home town, Gimli. We’ve got a small but good library in Gimli. It’s named after one of the teachers who educated many generations of us. She taught us to read and to love literature. People go there to read, to borrow books, to do research. Teachers bring kids there to show them that we value reading and writing, that literacy is important.
Of course, we don’t have the biggest ferris wheel in the world, or dodgem cars or freak shows or roller coasters so most Torontonians wouldn’t be interested. And don’t protest, those of you who live in this fallen city. You elected him. He must reflect your values.