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Thursday, December 22, 2011

ODE TO CHRISTMAS TREES

One of the beautiful parts of Christmas are the traditional Christmas trees.  I still prefer the real kind and usually try to have one in my apartment.  But this year, because I'm going to be away, I am only having my small gold decorative tree.  When I put it up, with special small decoration and a string of lights, it looks very pretty and is just as satisfactory as a real tree.  These days many people prefer the imitation trees (much less trouble) but there is something about the scent of pine and cedar in the air that is missing when you use an artificial tree.  (So yesterday I bought pine-scented candles to make up for it!).

This is a story I wrote a few years ago about Christmas trees.  There are so many memories attached to Christmas trees.  I love seeing them, and my own tree always has decorations collected over the years, each with a special meaning.  (I buy a new decoration each year so I have something special to remind myself of that particular Christmas.  This year, as I'm using the small ornamental tree, I bought a tiny carousel when I visited the Burnaby Heritage Museum and it is hanging on the golden boughs along with my other Christmas treasures.)


"OH, CHRISTMAS TREE!"

Two weeks before Christmas. The tree lots are full of fresh-cut firs and pines. Families make special outings to pick this year's tree. Around the city, coloured lights shine heralding the Yuletide.

In the line-up at the Supermarket, I browse through the display of magazines, their covers advertising the
Christmas season, displaying showcase homes with plump trees bedizened with extravagant decorations. Some trees are sprayed gold or silver. And under the dazzling branches are heaps of designer-decorated packages.

I am reminded of other Christmas trees. MY Christmas trees. Although perhaps not so grandly decorated, they are distinctly memorable and remarkably special.

At home I open a box of photo albums and take a nostalgic trip to Christmases past. in a black-and-white photograph, hand tinted by my mother, is Tree Number One. My first Christmas tree: a spindly fir garlanded and hung with lots of tinsel and ornaments. Under its thin branches are the toys Santa has left. In front of the tree, on a little rocking chair sits a large doll with a frilly bonnet and pink dress. Next to it is a doll crib filled with stuffed toys and more dolls. Two stockings hang on the red-brick fireplace behind it, one lumpy with fruit and candy, the other a store-bought stocking full of surprises.

In another photo, taken several years later, the tree has ivory-soap 'snow' on the branches and garlands of popcorn and cranberries. My Mom enjoyed creating special effects for our Christmas tree. Under it are two dolls in highchairs, the boy dolls our mother lovingly sewed wardrobes for. Mine was named Tommy.

Every Christmas was magic when I was a child, a splendid family affair with a house full of visiting relatives and good cheer. Even when we grew older, each year at tree decorating time, it was a special family get-together with mom's delicious Christmas cookies, ginger ale and popcorn for treats as we dipped into the box of decorations and drew out a bauble for the tree. It was a time of nostalgia too, because each ornament had its own little memory attached.

When I grew up and had children of my own, their tree always had some of the decorations they had made: toilet-roll angels with cotton-batting hair and gold wings; egg-carton bells painted red and green and glued with sparkles; cut-out trees with sticker decorations.

One year we had a cookie-decorating contest. We baked sugar cookies, decorated them, and hung them on the tree. The most elaborately decorated cookie won. We saved the best one. They lasted a year or two until some mice discovered them.

Another year we set out a box of ribbons, glue, paper and sparkles and invited each guest that entered our house to make a special decoration for our tree.

Sometimes, other things had to make do for Christmas trees. The year I was going away to California to attend my daughter's wedding, my avocado plant served as a tree, hung with tinsel and silver balls. Another time, when I was living in a cramped bachelor suite, I decorated my ficus plant with lights and tinsel. The year I went to live in Greece, I bought a small laurel plant and decorated it with tiny lights and baubles.

I still have a few of the old treasured ornaments, and every Christmas as I unpack the decoration box to trim my Christmas tree, I am filled with nostalgia, remembering Christmases past: the chenille wreaths from my childhood trees, the expensive silver and gold globes bought to decorate the first tree shared by my husband and I; our children's special ornaments -- little ceramic bells collected on my children's visits to Santa Claus; special little gift ornaments made by friends; starched snow-flakes crocheted by my daughter; ethnic decorations from Mexico and China given to me by newcomers at the daycares where I have worked.

I always look forward to Christmas, especially to the tree decorating time. Some of those old ornaments are getting tattered and tarnished. Each year I have to part with a few, but each year I buy one new ornament to replace the old.


"Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, how lovely are your branches!"

FAMILY CHRISTMASES


This was Christmas with my family in 1957.  We always gathered (either at my parent's or my
Aunt Grace's home) for a big turkey dinner, lots of fun with skits and board games, and nothing stronger than gingerale to drink.  They were truly merry affairs and looking back I miss those days.
In this photo, there's my Uncle Frank, the joker playing checkers with my husband Mike while cousin Adele and cousin Gracie's husband Gordon looking on.  Gracies' son David is playing behing them. My son Stevie is just a year old, sitting on my cousin Gracie's knee. My dad, cousin Merilyn, Mom, a friend holding Gracies baby Caroline, Aunt Grace and cousin Lynette are in the background.

When I first married Mike, I was introduced to his Ukranian family, and it was quite a different kind of Christmas celebration for them.  Here's a story I wrote about that experience.

CHRISTMAS WITH THE IN-LAWS


Christmas for me has always been a family affair.  From the time I was a small child, it meant visits from the relatives, everyone gathered around the tree on Christmas eve drinking ginger ale, eating the delicious Christmas goodies Mom had baked while we played games like monopoly and crokinole or snakes and ladders. The men would tell funny stories.  My Uncle Frank always recited “’Erbert Burped and Dads famous singing of When Father Papered the Parlour never failed to send us into rollicking laughter. Mostly Christmas meant remembering the true meaning of the Season with carol singing and stories of the birth of the Baby Jesus.



The children (me, my sister and various cousins) would be tucked into bed with the proverbial visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads,  convinced Santa could be heard stomping on the roof, and going off to slumber-land with happy dreams of the surprises wed find Christmas morning under the tree and in our stockings. 



Christmas dinner was a festive event.  Turkey and all the trimmings,  Christmas pudding with money hidden inside, and everyone gathered around the table with bowed heads while Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Frank said the blessing.



This is the way my Christmases always were in my family. And I thought it that way for all everyone.

What a surprise I got when  I got married and was introduced to Christmas at the Ukrainian in-laws.  The first time my husband  took me home to spend Christmas with his family I was shocked and amazed.  It was my first introduction to a hard-drinking, hearty-eating  Ukrainian way of celebrating the holidays.



There I was, the new bride, sitting in the midst of a party of elderly folks,  a bottle or two of rye whiskey plonked on the coffee table and water glasses filled to the brim -- neat!   It was the first time Id tasted rye straight and it made me gag. I guess I was too polite to say no,  so when nobody was looking I passed the glass down to my husband who eagerly downed it, matching glass for glass with the old folks.  As the afternoon wore on, the merriment grew more boisterous and argumentative. It was a wonder to me how those elderly folks could drink so much.



 Ill never forget one of the Christmases we were invited  for dinner. Wed already had my familys Christmas dinner but we also had to go to the in-laws house or they would be offended. Lena, my father-in-laws common-law wife, was a great cook.  She made the best cabbage rolls and perogis.  This Christmas she had prepared a very large turkey to feed all the friends who were to drop in.  By the time the bird was cooked and ready to come out of the over, she was so drunk that as she removed the turkey from the oven she teetered over and the bird slid off the pan and dropped on the floor. Without missing a beat she picked it up and plonked it on the platter.  I was an eye-witness. The others were probably too drunk to notice. Anyway, it was a delicious dinner and as usual, she was constantly filling your plate. Eat! Eat!  or your glass Drink! Drink!  It didnt occur to me, the naive youngster from the tee-totalling family, that all that booze was eventually going to be my husbands downfall.



Oh yes, those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable. Especially the one when my father-in-law almost cut off his hand when he was demonstrating the new chain saw hed got for a present. He was drunk, of course, and hardly felt any pain. But he bore the scars forever after and in fact caused serious nerve damage so his hand was never the same.  Did that deter the constant partying?  Never!



They were good-hearted folk though, and I know their intentions were well-meaning. 

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, was a different story.  My husbands parents had been separated for many years and it was easy to see why there was no communication between them.  She was a Seventh Day Adventist, strict and totally lacking the joviality and good nature of Lena and Harry.  In fact, I was sure she had the ability to put the evil eye on me and quite frankly I was a bit scared of her.  She had weird eyes and would sit scowling at me when I arrived with my husband and baby.  She had her own ideas of how I should be handling my new baby boy and I know she didnt approve of me one bit. 



Shed cook us dinner once in awhile, never Christmas dinner, because she didnt celebrate Christmas the way the rest of us did. In fact, my husbands younger brother, still a teen-ager, lived with her, and at Christmas he was not given any gifts because she said it wasnt Lennies birthday. It was Jesuss birthday.  I always felt sorry for Lennie so wed invite him to our place and made sure he had lots of presents, and of course hed drop by his fathers for the Christmas meals too.  Maybe the way he was brought up warped him because he grew into the most avaricious nasty man, a bank-manager who had total control over both his parents finances and wills and made sure when they died neither of my children got a cent -- it all went to him, his Ukrainian wife, and their two kids.



Those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable, mainly for the vast amounts of food and booze that were consumed and the chaos that reigned as a result. Invariably it would somehow end up with a fight breaking out.  I didnt realize it then, but my father-in-law was not the jolly guy he seemed to be and poor Lena was often the brunt of his drunken temper.



 It was an experience worth remembering, but to this day I prefer the old fashioned Christmases of my childhood.

Instead of spending  Christmas with a massive hangover  Id rather enjoy what it is really meant to be, a time of good cheer spent with relatives and friends, presents stacked under the tree, stockings hung by the chimney with care and children nestled in their beds waiting for Santa to arrive.  (He didnt get a glass of whiskey at our place,  just some ginger ale and home-made Christmas cookies. There werent any fights, Mom never ever dropped the turkey on the floor, and nobody ever cut their hand off with a chain saw!)



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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

CHRISTMAS ON A SHOESTRING

These days Christmas has become even more commercialized with all the hype of shoppers rushing to the malls to buy! buy! buy!  But it wasn't always like that, especially in my family.  Right from my childhood when my parents earned a meagre living (Dad, an immigrant coal-miner from Wales, was a pastor on the Prairies at the end of the Depression and during the War years my mom, sister and I lived with my grandparents in Stratford Ontario.  Christmas was always a big celebration in our home, no matter what, and many of the gifts were lovingly home-made as there simply wasn't a lot of money to spend.  Because of this family background, when things got tough for me and my kids, after the break-up of my marriage, we were still able to enjoy the holiday season even though "living on a shoe string". Here's a Christmas memoir I wrote a few years ago.

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, jewelery 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.


My kids, Steve & Andrea (Alex) celebrate Christmas in the early '70's (with one of our little Yorkies) 

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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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"FAMILY PHOTOS: A View of Christmases Through the Years"


My mother enjoyed photography as a hobby. Our family albums are crammed with black and white snaps taken with her Brownie box camera, some hand-tinted with pastel colours. browsing through them, I am transported back in time to Christmases past.

The first Christmas photos, Estevan Saskachewan., I'm an infant in a wicker pram, wearing an angora bonnet. My mother's tidy handwriting on the back says "Ruthie, six months old. She's wearing the bonnet Aunt Edie sent from Wales." In another, I'm propped up in a wooden box on the back of a sled. My father, dressed in his fedora hat and overcoat is posed beside me. In Dad's unique, tight handwriting, is written: "Ruthie's first sleigh ride. I made the sleigh."



Next year, I'm an 18 month old dumpling, podgy as a little snowman in knitted leggings, sweater and bunny-ear hat, knit by Mom. Next to this picture is one of a Christmas tree piled with decorations I can remember using for years to come, and piles of gifts including a doll in a pram and pictures books. A few years later, another Christmas tree, this time with identical dolls sitting in high chairs and a Red-Rover sled with shiny runners. By now I have a little sister, so each year Santa brought us identical gifts. She liked dolls better than I did though. I preferred paper-dolls.

There is always a lot of snow in these pictures: Lloyminster,Saskachewan. My pal Albert and I, age six, standing arm in arm in the back yard under bare-limbed trees with snow up to the tops of our galoshes. Me wearing the coat Mom had made me out of a hand-me-down: moss green wool trimmed with Persian lamb from one of her old coats. I'm still wearing that coat three years later in another photo, this one taken by a photographer for Santa, the year we went to Toronto to see the Sant Claus parade. This photo invokes clear and rather unpleasant memories of that Christmas.

I was nine then. We had moved from the Prairies to Brantford Ontario and then to Stratford when my father was called up as an army chaplain. We lived at Grandpa and Grandma's house while Dad was overseas. In a photo she had taken to send Dad, my mother stands on the front porch steps wearing an elegant crepe dress, her hair neatly coiffed in the fashion of the '40's, smiling.
Behind her, on the door, is a big silver bell with red writing: "Merry Christmas". Those Christmases without Dad must have been lonely for her, but she never showed us anything but her sweet smile. Christmas at my Grandparent's house was a joyful, exciting event with visiting relatives who arrived by train from other parts of Ontario, and a house full of cousins and Christmas cheer.

That particular Christmas, Grandpa promised us we could go to Toronto to see the famous Santa Claus parade. It would be a special Christmas outing for the whole family. We would take the train in the morning and return that night. It was an adventure I had longed for and I was beside myself with excitement for days before the scheduled departure.

Then, on the eve of our journey, I took ill with the flu. I was very sick, but determined not to miss the trip. I don't remember the train trip or the Santa Claus parade. I look at myself in the photo, puffy-cheeked and pale, totally wretched, sitting on Santa's knee unable to smile. I still haven't forgotten how ill I was that day, and how disappointing it was to have such a special outing spoiled.

The next year's Christmas photo shows us standing on Grandpa's steps with my Dad who is beaming proudly in his army great-coat and beret. My little sister Jeanie is on one side of him. She has a doll in her hand. Twelve-year-old me stands on the other side of him, skinny, long-legged and solemn. Behind us is a spangled sign that says: "Welcome Home!".

That was our last Christmas in Ontario. The following year we took the train across Canada and made our new home in British Columbia where Christmas wasn't always white, although I can still remember skating on the Lagoon and singing carols door-to-door in the snow.

Wherever we were, Christmas was always special in our family, with beautiful decorations, the aroma of Christmas baking, pine logs on the fire; Christmas music, and a tree we always decorated together with heaps of surprises wrapped in colourful paper under it. Santa always found us, and filled our stockings, even when my sister and I were grown up and had little ones of our own.

In her photographs, my Mother has captured all these memorable times and left us this legacy of Christmas with the Family. Christmases Past.

CHRISTMAS AT GRANDPA’S

Grandpa Bexton's House in Stratford Ontario (and that's our dog, Dutchess)


          Christmas in the ‘40’s was a time when all the relatives came to celebrate at Grandpa’s house.  We would troop down to the train station and stand waiting on the wooden platform, our breaths puffing like the steam from the locomotive engine, the frosty winter air nipping our cheeks into roses.  The train chugged into the station, the coach doors opened and travelers spilled out onto the platform.  Happy greetings filled the air as merry as caroler’s songs, families embraced and made their way down the snowy streets.

          When my uncle, aunt and cousins arrived, we all went back to Grandpa’s house. How my grandparents found room for everyone, I can’t imagine. All the Aunts, Uncles and Cousins crowded into the small living room around the Christmas tree to chat, the crackling of the flames in the hearth sounding like pop-corn. After a few games of monopoly and Chinese checkers, my Uncle Frank would performed a comical rendition of “Herbert Burped”, tongue-in-cheek, about a little boy who gets swallowed by  a lion. Then all of us children were tucked snugly into beds, often three in a bed, the middle one squished between the other two, warm in our flannel pajamas, while the grownups sat up late eating Christmas cake and drinking ginger ale.

          One particular Christmas stands out in my memory.  That was the year I bought the best Christmas presents I’d ever bought before.  Certainly, the most memorable!

          I was nine years old, and I felt very grown up as I went off to town to do my own Christmas shopping. I headed straight for the Woolworths Five and Dime store where you could always get the best bargains.  I looked over all the trinkets, trying to decide what would be the finest gifts.  It was difficult to decide. I wanted something unforgettable. Something everyone would love.

          Then I saw it: a little clay Chinese dragon on a bamboo stick. The head of the dragon was made of painted clay, and it had a red felt tongue that looked like fire shooting from its gaping mouth. The body was 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.  The Chinese dragons would make the perfect Christmas gifts!

          I bought one for each of my relatives and excitedly headed for home, proud of myself for making such an extraordinary purchase. But when I showed them to my Mom, she was not impressed.  In fact, she

was upset with me for ‘wasting’ my money on such foolish toys as these instead of buying something more ‘practical’.  I felt embarrassed and disappointed.  However, it was too late to return the dragons to the store, so I wrapped them up and put them under the Christmas tree with the other gifts.

          On Christmas morning I waited nervously for everyone to open their presents.  I felt embarrassed thinking that my relatives would think the present’s I’d bought were foolish and useless.

          Instead, when the gifts were unwrapped, everyone was amused and delighted. especially my Uncle Frank.  He played with his dragon all day.  Of course, Uncle Frank always was the life of the party!