(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.