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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

HOW THE NAZIS HELPED SANTA CLAUS


I was nine years old when my Dad was called up to be a Chaplain in the Canadian Army during World War II. Before that he was a circuit preacher on the Canadian Prairies, and he had been in the army reserve. But when the War was raging and all the available men had to go overseas, he went too.

Almost everyone at school those days had a dad, grandpa, uncle or older brother off in the war, and quite often the word would go around that someone’s relative was killed or missing in action.

Everything was rationed during the war years. I remember going to the store with ration coupons for dairy products. But my younger sister and I didn’t suffer or want for anything. We had our Mom and our grandparents, and every holiday season the relatives came to Grandpa’s house for get-togethers. There was a lot of love in our house, making up for the absence of my father.

When the War finally ended, the first newsreels were released about the horrible atrocities of the Nazi death camps. I was deeply touched by the films of the war and I’ve never forgotten those images of the Holocaust victims.

My Dad had sent many letters and gifts from overseas. We received books from England, Dutch dolls and wooden shoes from Holland. And when Dad finally returned home, he brought an antique German clock which had been wrapped up in an enormous Nazi flag and hidden at the place in Antwerp, Holland, where the armistice was signed. Dad said the soldiers of his hospital unit had brought it to him.

Inside the clock was a treasure-trove of antique jewellery, which he gave my mother. The clock was hung on the wall. The Nazi flag was wrapped up and packed away in Dad’s war box along with his photos of bombed buildings and army camps and letters from the families of the dead and wounded soldiers he had tended while he was the army hospital chaplain.

The year after my Dad returned from the war, our family moved to the West Coast of Canada where he would be pastor of a Baptist church. That Christmas was our first Christmas together in a new home. At the church where Dad was the new pastor, there was to be a Christmas concert. My parents enjoyed organizing concerts and pageants. Mom was a clever seamstress and loved making costumes, and Dad always made sure the Church was beautifully decorated with pine and cedar boughs and lots of Christmas candles. There would be a creche and a candlelight processional in the church Christmas Sunday and a pageant with shepherds, Wise men, angels and the Holy Family. We used the life-like little doll named Peter that Dad had sent my sister from Belgium for the Baby Jesus in the creche.

At the Sunday school concert, Dad would perform his amusing rendition of “When Father Papered the Parlour” and there would be a visit from Santa Claus for the little ones. But there was one big problem. Nobody had a Santa Claus suit.

So Dad unpacked his box of war souvenirs and got out the big Nazi flag, the flag that symbolized everything evil. Mom remarked how lovely and thick the red wool fabric was. And there was so much of it!

“Why not?” Mom asked.

“What a splendid idea,” Dad agreed.

Mom went to work designing, cutting and sewing and by the night of the Christmas concert, she had created a perfect Santa Claus suit out of the flag. Even though the war was over, and the bad things the Nazis had done would always be remembered, the flag had been put to good use.

The red woollen Santa suit made out of a Nazi flag made that Christmas extra special. In fact, the Sunday school Santa at the Grandview Baptist Church’s Christmas concert wore that Santa suit for many years afterwards.

Monday, December 20, 2010

PLAYING AROUND AT CHRISTMAS

A Family Christmas, 1957

We always played games at our house on Christmas eve and at other times during the holidays when the family gathered. I have warm memories of us sitting around a crokinole board, flicking the round wooden discs with a forefinger as I attempted to get it into the winning zone or, better still, into the center hole. Those big wooden hexagonal-shaped boards were as much a part of Christmas as the tree and presents. We also played Chinese checkers and Snakes and Ladders. Having an aversion to snakes, it troubled me to sit in front of that board and have to slide my game chip down their slithery backs. I’d much rather climb the ladders.


Some years later we advanced to some new games: Monopoly, where you played with pretend money and bought and sold property; and Clue, a detective game where you got to solve a murder. (Always the wanna-be-crime writer, I loved that game!). Later it was Scrabble that was a popular game and one I still enjoy.

One year, when I was married and my husband was doing work for a businessman in Chinatown, we were invited to join the family for the Chinese New Years. The place where they lived and where Jimmy Lee, the owner had his watch-repair shop, happened to be listed in the Guinness Book as the narrowest occupied building in the world. And it was narrow. I remember being amazed when we were invited into the Lee’s living room and it was barely wide enough for a couch. Then I had a great surprise when we went ‘downstairs’ where the party was to be held, and discovered that the rec room was right under Pender Street. Who would ever guess? I wondered if it was at one time one of the secret rooms that led into the mysterious Chinatown underground.

There were a number of tables set up in Jimmy’s ‘rec room’ and on each was a board with coloured tiles and a bottle of very expensive whiskey. The players sat around on the four sides of each table and one shuffled through the tiles. This was mah-jong. I was fascinated! The sound of the tiles clicking was a familiar one but until that moment I didn’t realize that when I walked through Chinatown and heard the sound it was a mah-jong game being played in some back room. It’s one of the popular Chinese gambling games and they always play it on their new years eve.

A lot of money went back and forth on those tables and many bottles of expensive whiskey were consumed. I watched in rapt silence as the players gambled, won or lost. I wished I knew how to play and for a long time afterwards wanted to buy a mah-jong board and get someone to teach me. But gambling had never been allowed in my home. Not even a game of gin rummy.

Eventually, I learned how to play poker and on some Christmases my husband and I would invite friends over for friendly games of Rummoli, with a deck of cards, a stack of poker chips. The stakes weren’t too high as we always played for pennies. No bottles of expensive whiskey either, just cases of beer and chips with dip for refreshments.

I’ve never forgotten those Christmas eves of playing games with the family and every time I go by a toy store where they sell games, I think of buying a monopoly game or a scrabble game to play. Instead when I have the family over for Christmas Eve dinner we get into playing “Spot the hand!” scoring point whenever the hand in the video version of the fireplace comes out to place a new log on the TV fire. But now I have a gas fireplace and even that game has ended. Must find a new form of entertainment for this year: Video Games anyone?

Monday, December 13, 2010

HEY, MISS TAMBOURINE GIRL PLAY THAT SONG FOR ME!

Before she married Dad, my mother was a nurse in a Salvation Army hospital. She played the tambourine in the Salvation Army band.

Perhaps that’s what inspired her that Christmas when I was four years old, to teach me to play the tambourine. We were living in Lloyminster Saskachewan where my Dad was the pastor of a Baptist church. Because it was then a small railroad community, all the local churches went together at Christmas to produce a Christmas concert. That year, Mom decided she would dress me up in her Salvation Army bonnet and show me how to play the tambourine. She also taught me a verse to recite for the concert. It was to be my debut on stage.

I don’t remember my exact role in this Christmas pageant, or what other children would perform. I do remember, very clearly, being coaxed onto a stage in front of what seemed like an audience of hundreds of strangers (probably just twenty or thirty.) I was absolutely terrified.

I stood there, dressed in mom’s oversized S.A. bonnet, my hair coiled in Shirley Temple ringlets (a procedure done the night before by Mom, each hank of hair wrapped carefully in rags). I was probably wearing one of the lovely hand-smocked dresses Mom made me, and those horrid brown ribbed tights (because it was a freezing Prairie winter day). I was carrying a large, jangling tambourine - the same tambourine Mom used to play with the S.A. band.

As I stepped (or was gently pushed) onto the stage, I heard a long, audible gasp from the audience.

“Ah...” and “Oh...”

Bewildered, I stared down at that vast sea of faces, frozen with stage fright. Someone from the wings prompted me, or possibly it was Mom herself coaxing me to perform.

I gave the tambourine a few tentative shakes and sputtered out my lines. “I will shake my tambourine for the Lord.”

To this day I remember those exact words and how I felt at that moment. Mortified and scared stiff!

A titter from the audience; another loud chorous of : “Ah...” And, whispered audibly behind hands. “Isn’t she cute...”

I could have died on the spot of embarrassment. Instantly I burst into tears and ran off the stage into my Mom’s arms.

Segue ahead four years. I’m eight years old and it’s Christmas Concert time at school. By now we are living in Brantford, Ontario.

I suppose because of my ‘experience’ I am chosen to play the tambourine in the class rhythm band for the Christmas concert.

We are dressed in red pill-box hats and capes and paraded onto the stage.

In the photograph taken of this performance, I am crowded, tiny and shy, in behind the bigger kids. I am not smiling. I probably had stage fright. I do not look happy to be playing the tambourine. Possibly I had hoped to be a drummer or triangle player.

Why then, did my career as tambourine player follow me all the way into my adult life?

Segue again, many years into the future, the 1970’s. I am living in a communal house with my kids and a renegade band of hippies. There is always music in our house. My son, age 14, has become an ardent guitarist. There are always musical instruments at our communal gatherings, including a tambourine.

Inspired by the beat of the music, one day I picked the tambourine up and began to tap and shake it to the rhythm of the rock beat. The tambourine player in me was resurrected. From then on, I practiced and always played the tambourine at parties.

Eventually, one Saturday afternoon at the jam session at the American Hotel, I got brave enough to get on stage with the band and play. I was good, so good in fact there was one particular drummer who would always request me to accompany him.

By now, my son was an accomplished Blues musician. He said he was going to play at the American Hotel jam session.

“I play the tambourine there on Saturdays,” I announced.

He looked at me aghast.

“You mean you get up on the stage and play the tambourine?

“Yes!” I said proudly. “And I’m good at it too!”

“But you’re my Mom!” he sputtered.

I don’t think he knew it was my Mom who had taught me how to play

the tambourine in the first place, at that Christmas concert so long ago.

CHRISTMAS ON A SHOESTRING


Steve, Alex and one of our little Yorkies

Here it is, that Jolly Old Season again and true to tradition my bank account is running on empty and I haven’t even started shopping yet. It’s just a fact of life that happens when one lives on an extremely low-income budget. Somehow, things always work out alright though. I’ve had lots of experience organizing gala Christmas celebrations on a shoestring.
I recall those “hard times” back in the ’70’s when I was a divorced single mom struggling to support two kids on a miniscule salary as a daycare teacher. My boyfriend and I decided to cut the costs by moving into a big house which we shared with a variety of other equally poor lodgers and assorted dogs and cats.

My boyfriend was on the lam from the American army as this was during the Viet Nam war so any work he had was under-the-table at a car wash. The other lodgers were young college students, and an occasional deserter or wayward hippie that took shelter with us.

We never turned anyone away and each guest or tenant, no matter how impoverished, would participate by helping with cooking, sharing expenses and whatever. We all learned how to make do with very little and we were a happy, carefree gang.

The first year we moved in, with our very sparse budget, we were still determined to make the best of it for the Christmas season. After all, it isn’t Christmas without parties, decorations and presents. So all of us got together and cut out coloured tissue paper snowflakes to decorate the windows. We hung lights and somehow managed to get a Christmas tree which we decorated with traditional balls and tinsel as well as strings of popcorn. But what to do for presents?

It happened that I had a lot of material goods brought from my past life, so I sorted through the china tea-cups, jewellery and other items that I had stored away, carefully picking just the right gift for each of my friends. The girls in the house baked Christmas goodies and the old house was full of the delicious, familiar smells of the holidays. The whole motley crew enjoyed a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. It was a special Christmas because it wasn’t in the least bit ‘commercial’. Everything we had made or chosen from our own belongings to give away. It gave Christmas a new, special meaning.

There were a few other Christmases on a shoestring too, during those years. Once I remember us having a box of odds and ends: ribbons, tinsel, shiny paper, glue, sparkles and various artsy craftsy thing and each guest who came visiting had to make a decoration for the Christmas tree. One year my daughter and I made gingerbread houses for all our friends. Another time we had a Christmas cookie contest and decorated sugar cookies cut in various festive shapes which we hung on the Christmas tree. The ornamental cookies were so pretty we decided to keep them for the next year. But alas! The following Christmas when I opened the box up, the mice had eaten all the cookie ornaments!

I recall as a kid, my Mom used to make whole wardrobes for our Christmas dolls, and sew all our holiday clothes too. My parents didn’t have a lot of money and in those days there were no credit cards but there were always plenty of gifts under the tree, and lots of goodies to eat. Christmas was a jolly time spent with family and friends. I guess those early days taught me how to have Christmas on a shoestring and in a way, those Christmases are the most memorable



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Sunday, December 12, 2010

CHRISTMAS AT GRANDPA'S

Grandpa's House in Stratford Ontario.  That's our dog Dutchess out in front.

Christmas in the ’40’s was a time when all the relatives came to celebrate at Grandpa’s house. We trooped to the train station and waited on the wooden platform, our breaths puffing like the steam from the locomotive engine. Travelers spilled out onto the platform. Happy greetings filled the air as family members embraced and made their way down the snowy streets.


At Grandpa’s house we crowded around the Christmas tree, the crackling of the flames in the hearth sounding like pop-corn. We played games and Uncle Frank performed a comical rendition of “Herbert Burped”, about a little boy who gets swallowed by a lion. Then we children were tucked snugly into bed to await Santa’s arrival.

One Christmas stands out in my memory, the year I bought the most memorable Christmas presents. I felt very grown up as I went off to Woolworths to find some unique gifts.

Then I saw it. A Chinese dragon on a bamboo stick, the head made of painted clay, with a red felt tongue, the body accordion-pleated tissue paper. When you waved the stick, the body expanded and the head shot out,

tongue flickering, like a real fire-breathing dragon.

I felt proud as I showed Mom my extraordinary purchases, but she scolded me for ‘wasting’ money on something so impractical.

Christmas morning I waited nervously as the presents were opened. Instead of thinking my gifts were foolish, everyone was delighted, especially Uncle Frank. He played with his dragon all day. Uncle Frank always was the life of the party!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

DON'T MESS WITH MY CHRISTMAS!


It's almost December and already the Christmas music is playing in stores and the decorations are decking the halls.  A lot of the usual commercial hype.  But aside from that, it is a time to be jolly and think of what we'll do for the holidays.  I haven't started Christmas shopping yet but I'm thinking about it. Probably this Christmas I'll do my traditional Christmas Eve Cornish hen dinner. Christmas has always been a special time for me and my family. It's  my most favorite times of year.  I love the Christmas traditions: the carols, the Christmas trees and decorations, the pagents and pantomimes, and I love Santa Claus too.  Today, when I visited the mall, I stopped to watch Santa for awhile.  There was a long line of children waiting to get their photos taken with him but at that moment he was sitting alone on his throne, a big jolly old elf just like Santa should be.  And he even waved at me!  (He must know I haven't been too naughty this year!)

Last week I saw on TV that one of our nearby towns has banned "Christmas holidays" from their school program. It now has to be called "Winter holidays".  This isn't the first time that Christmas has been hijacked and erased from the week we know as Christmas Holidays,  (from December 24 thru to New Years Day). In fact, in the last few years I've noticed more and more often the use of "Happy Holidays" replacing "Merry Christmas".  Why?  Because a certain group of our society feels that it is 'offensive' to other religious groups to refer to December 25 as "Christmas". 

This political correctness crap has gone way too far.  Sure, when 'political correctness' first came into being, it was meant to protect genders, cultures, religious rights, sexual preferences etc etc.  But this is going too far.  DON'T MESS WITH MY CHRISTMAS! 

What would happen if we told the Jewish community they were no longer allowed to call their special holiday "Hanukkah"? or if we said the Muslims couldn't refer to "Ramadan" or the Hindus  were not allowed to  celebrate  Diwali? Even the Wikken people celebrate Winter Solstice.  Is it right then, that the Christian community (Protestants and Catholics among others) should have to drop "Christmas" from our holiday?  I don't think so.

December 25 is Christmas. It's been called that for centuries.  Should we obliterate it all and go back to the pagan Saturnalia of the Romans? Would that make all these 'politically correct' people happy?
In that case though, I suppose we'd have to abolish Santa Claus too.  And I, for one, would be very unhappy about that!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

REMEMBERING

Rev. Capt. R. Frederick Filer M.B.E.
This morning in my Write from the Heart memoir writing group, they were asked to write something from the prompt "I Remember..."  Because tomorrow is November 11, a time to remember the men and women who fought in the wars past and present, several people remembered back to these times in their childhoods.  At this time of year, I always think of my Dad, who was a chaplain in the army during WW II.  This is what I wrote:

I remember the day my Dad came home from The War.  We were living at grandpa's house on Cobourg Street in Stratford Ontario where my mother, sister and I had stayed all the time dad was overseas.  My grandma had died not long before the war ended.  The War was a big part of our lives.  Every kid in school had at least one family member: father, uncle, grandpa or brother, fighting overseas.  Almost on a daily basis someone in the school would learn their loved one had been wounded or killed.  I was lucky. My dad was coming home from The War.

During the four years he was overseas, every night we'd sit at the table in grandma's kitchen and listen to the BBC news on the radio.  I still remember that static, far-away sound of the news-caster's voice.  On the wall by the table was a big map, and we'd stick pins in it to show us where The Action was.  There was a special pin marking the place were Dad was serving as a chaplain in the #10 army field hospital in Holland.

I thought of my dad often during those years when he was away.  I remember going to Kingston with my mom and sister just before he was shipped overseas, and his last visit to Stratford when we went as a family for a portrait, dad looking so handsome in his arm uniform wearing his captain's hat and clerical collar.  I was about 9 then and my dad was very special to me.  I remember, going back to my early childhood living on the prairies, walking with my dad down country roads or visiting farm houses where he knew people from his congregation. I have a picture of myself, age 3, with dad holding me up to sit on a fence so I could pet the sheep.  I remember my dad working in his garden, and preaching on Sundays, and telling me stories about his life when he was a boy in Wales, and later working in the coal mines in Caerphilly from when he was 14 to when he immigrated to Canada and met my mom.  I had missed my dad so much, and when he was going to arrive home at last, I was more excited than at any other time.

And then, he came home.  But it wasn't the same dad I remembered.  He was a different dad, still handsome in his officer's uniform, a bit thinner and perhaps more careworn.  But he was a stranger.  I remember running to my room, sobbing uncontrollably, partly from happiness and relief at having him back again, but also for reasons unknown to me then.  I didn't realize til years later just why I had cried. Now I understand it was that he was 'different' because of all he had seen and lived through.  I remember later reading through piles of letters he had saved sent to him by parents and loved ones of young men he had buried or who had been wounded.  My dad's job as chaplain had been to comfort the dead and dying and their families.  He had lived through terrifying and devastating experiences.  Once, he told us, a buzz bomb had stopped buzzing right over the hospital. He had thrown himself to the floor and prayed.  And thankfully, the bomb exploded somewhere farther away.  All these experiences had 'changed' my dad.  But really, deep down he was still the same dad I had known before The War, full of compassion and love and gentleness.  He won the MBE for his honorable service at the army hospital.  And he won the respect and love of everyone he met.

So on this Remembrance Day I still think of that day so many years ago when he returned from the war, that 'stranger', but still he was my Dad.  And I think of all the children in the world who are waiting for their Dads to come home from The War, and pray they get back home safely.

Friday, March 05, 2010

WHAT A GREAT PARTY!

 



The party's over. The 2010 Winter Olympics has ended. And what a party it was! I don't remember ever seeing such a jubilant crowd of people day after day as I witnessed here. It even surpassed New Orlean's Mardis Gras.

But now it's over, what a let-down feeling. The feeling was immediate. By Monday morning, after that nail-biting golden goal hockey game between US and Canada (we won! Go Canada!) the streets flooded with thousands of people celebrating way into the night. And Monday morning on the bus, all was quiet, drab, dour. No more red and white toques, mittens, hockey jerkins. No more Canadian flags (and others) fluttering. No more happy smiling face. It was like waking from an unbelievable dream.

I lived one of my dreams during those two weeks, being the Roving Reporter for the Planet Eye Traveler, writing a couple of stories a day for their city guide and the Vancouver Guide. You can see them here
www.planeteyetraveler.com/travel/north-america/vancouver

I managed to get to most of the live free venues and was treated to a night at the medal awards and also got a media pass to an aboriginal fashion show and reception, thanks to a good friend. And although it was sometimes exhausting it was also very exciting and I am so glad I got involved. Because in the beginning I was one of the nay-sayers about the Olympics: all that tremendous expense when other things like low-cost housing for our street poor, the Arts, daycare and other things were being cut. I even planned to 'escape' with my friends to Cuba during the Games. But, as luck would have it, I had to stay behind and thus got invovled in the whole celebration. Being the Roving Reporter gave me a focus each time I went out and made it all the more fun. I even got to hold the Olympic torch on one of my excursions!

Now things have calmed down. All the visitors have left town. The atheletes too, with their medals. (We won 14 gold, the most any country has collected at the Winter Games.) There were highs and lows, tragedies and disappointments, but most o all there was this incredible spirit of patriotism. For once the Canadians were not reluctant to shout out their praise of Canada. The Games made everyone proud!
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Saturday, January 16, 2010

"BUT HE'S A GOOD BOY!"

Recently another dangerous criminal went to roost thanks to the US justice system. We'll call him cocky Rooster, a big-time local gangster involved in the cross-border drug trade and implicated (though not charged) in several gang-relate murders as well as being the alleged leader of one of the biggest criminal gangs in the Lower Mainland.

No sooner had the sentence been decreed than this lout's father is proclaiming loudly to the press "I'm proud of my son because he didn't roll over!"
What kind of a father can possibly be 'proud' of a son who has made his money and his mark on society by dealing in death and drugs?

It makes you wonder what this world is coming to -- what kinds of moral and ethical values parents are teaching their children.

This man and the woman I wrote about in a previous blog are not alone either. Another local dad who's son (the second in a month) has been arrested on gang-related drug charges says only that "they are adults so you do what you do." But what where you doing when they were young and impressionable? One of this guy's sons has already been gunned down (survived) and he claimed at the time he 'wasn't a serious contender'. You've got to be kidding!

Drug and gang-related homicides were up 20% in the Lower Mainland in 2009 and these thugs were all a part of that action. Even young women are falling into the trap and becoming victims.

What kind of an example are parents setting when they knowingly allow their gangster off-spring to operate out of their own homes. "Oh yes, he's a good boy! He drives a Lexus, has a huge bank account, wears a bullet proof vest, illegal weapons on the premises and he deals drugs." Give your heads a shake, folks! These are bad boys! And by offering up excuses for them you are condoning their criminal behavior.