Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas Spirits

I’ve been visited this week by the spirits of Christmases past.
An early memory I have is of Christmas 1955. We – mom, dad, my sister Sue and I – were living on the top floor of an old mansion converted to apartments. The week before Christmas, a measles epidemic swept through our small town. Measles was serious business ... a child my age had already died from it. Sue and I both got sick, and shared a bed in a windowless room, since light hurt our eyes. What I remember is hushed voices, doctor’s visits, and mom sitting anxiously beside our bed keeping vigil. During the worst of it, I slept round the clock. I cannot imagine the anxiety my parents must have felt, but I do remember the glad sound of relief Mom expressed when I finally opened my eyes, the fever broken and the worst of it over. A day or two later – it must have been Christmas eve – Mom and Dad each picked one of us up out of bed, saying they had a surprise for us. When they carried us into the darkened living room, there stood a Christmas tree glowing with lights and tinsel. How beautiful! The spirit of that Christmas was the spirit of joy and gratitude. Just as Advent leads to Christmas, the hard wait was over, the celebration could begin.

 My parents tried hard to hang on to the Dutch tradition of keeping the secular and the sacred as separate celebrations.  St. Nicholas Day in early December was the day for giving small gifts, while Christmas was a spiritual celebration. But it was a losing battle. So for a few years, we’d do our gift giving a week or so before Dec. 25. Gradually the gift-giving migrated to Christmas Eve. That evening, we’d do what was rarely done: we’d eat a supper of finger foods in the living room – chunks of sausage, pickled herrings, cheese, potato chips and other treats, followed by the gift opening. It was our own special tradition. Truly gezellig (cozy)  as the Dutch would say. I’m not sure which year this Spirit of Christmas Past comes from – perhaps about 1963. It was 5 o’clock, and we were preparing bowls of snacks and setting out the candles for our special time, when there was a knock on the door. We looked at each other in horror – it couldn’t be Mr. V, could it? Mr. V, a travelling salesman and a fellow immigrant, made periodic unannounced visits to our home, always at suppertime  so he could be invited to join in our meals. I am ashamed to say now that we teens called him Freddie the Freeloader. Not only did he like to eat, but he also loved to talk, and talk, and talk. Sure enough, Mr. V it was. We told him what was up, but he didn’t take the hint, so he joined us for our special feast, amended by hastily warmed-up soup and a few sandwiches. At the time, I was well and truly ticked by this visit, which lasted about an hour too long, in our opinion. Now, years later, visited by the spirit of that Christmas, I think about the old familiar story, Mary and Joseph asking for lodging. My teenaged heart would have closed the door to Mr. V, but thank God, the Spirit of Generosity and Hospitality implanted in my parents’ hearts was bigger than that. There was room at our table for Mr. V.

When Al and I got married and had our first child, we moved west to Edmonton, far from home and family. For a few years, we tried to go back to Ontario for Christmas, but that became too much. Our friends became stand-ins for family.

However, for Christmas 1978 most of our friends had their own plans, and we would spend Christmas Day alone with our two boys, aged 4 and 2. I was 7 months pregnant and feeling a bit homesick and sorry for myself, but decided it was time to create our own memories and family traditions. So, brightly, I asked the boys, “What shall we have for Christmas dinner?” I had visions of turkey and gravy, but they said, “Meatballs!” I swallowed my disappointment, and their choice was a good one. I had very little to do in the kitchen, and because it snowed that day we had lots of fun playing outdoors. They smacked their lips and had lots of meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy. I’d decided to humour myself, however, with a fancy dessert: a chocolate fondue in front of the fireplace in the living room. Al rearranged the furniture while I chopped up the cake and fruit in the kitchen. He carried those into the living room and placed them on the coffee table while I warmed up the chocolate sauce in the kitchen. He sat down to read and the kids played in the living room while they waited for me to finish up in the kitchen. A coffee table laden with goodies within reach of little hands and a dad who’s not paying attention ... can you see where this is heading? Yes, the goodies were mostly gone by the time I came in with the chocolate sauce ... which we served with ice cream. It was a Christmas that burns bright in my memory. That Spirit of Christmas past is all about expectations, and welcoming the unexpected.

Speaking of unexpected...we expect to see a partridge in a pear tree at Christmas time, but a crow in a Christmas tree? The crow will be greeting our children and grandchildren in a few days when we are all together for Christmas, and creating some Christmas spirit of our own as we sing, eat, play and rejoice together.

 May the spirits that live in the message of  Christmas – the spirits of joy, gratitude, hospitality, generosity, hope, expectation, and so much more – bless you as you celebrate the coming of the Gift of Love this year.


  1. Have a blessed Christmas Jessie

  2. We didn't have a Mr.V., but for the rest, your lovely memories closely parallel mine. Our impatience was shaped by waiting for Dad to finish evening chores--and take a bath, and enjoy a coffee and cigar before the evenings loved rituals could begin.
    I love the crow in the tree.