Friday, December 26, 2008



Another wonderful Christmas Day has come and gone. I had my traditional Christmas Eve dinner of Cornish hens in sherry sauce with my own family and friends and yesterday went for turkey dinner with my daughter-in-law's family. I've always enjoyed the family Christmases. This comes from a long tradition in my own family when all the relatives would get together for the festivities, sometimes at our house and sometimes at my aunt's or grandparent's. I have many happy memories of those holidays and try to make them somewhat the same for my own family even though it is usually just my son and his wife and a few friends (my daughter and grandson live away and rarely have come to spend the holidays with us).



The Christmas feasts at our house were always jolly times, with the true spirit of Christmas which included the remembrance of the Christ child's birth. Both my father and my uncle Frank were Baptist ministers, so naturally there was never any drinking or carousing. Just good fun with jokes and games and lots of merriment. Imagine what a shock it was for me when I married into a family where the Christmas traditions were different, because they were from a different culture and did not focus on the 'holy' aspects of the holidays at all. Yes, Christmas with the in-laws was quite an eye-opener for me, at the time a reasonably 'innocent' bystander quite unused to their kind of "merriment" which included a lot of Christmas 'cheer'.


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 Dad’s 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 we’d 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 I’d 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.

I’ll never forget one of the Christmases we were invited for dinner. We’d already had my family’s Christmas dinner but we also had to go to the in-law’s house or they would be offended. Lena, my father-in-law’s 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 didn’t occur to me, the naive youngster from the tee-totalling family, that all that booze was eventually going to be my husband’s 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 he’d 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 husband’s 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 didn’t approve of me one bit.

She’d cook us dinner once in awhile, never Christmas dinner, because she didn’t celebrate Christmas the way the rest of us did. In fact, my husband’s younger brother, still a teen-ager, lived with her, and at Christmas he was not given any gifts because she said it wasn’t Lennie’s birthday. It was Jesus’s birthday. I always felt sorry for Lennie so we’d invite him to our place and made sure he had lots of presents, and of course he’d drop by his father’s 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 parent’s 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 didn’t 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 I’d 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 didn’t get a glass of whiskey at our place, just some ginger ale and home-made Christmas cookies. There weren’t 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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Monday, December 22, 2008


I have always loved the snow. You'll see that in this photo of me, age 18 months, when we lived on the Prairies. I have many memories of sleigh-rides and building snowmen and snow forts.
I only vaguely remember falling into a big drift and getting stuck and almost frozen. To this day my feet get cold very quickly. But still, I like snow!

When we lived in Lloyminster, I remember learning to ice skate, first on bob-skates with a double blade, then real blade skates. I loved playing hockey on frozen ponds and once fell and cracked my elbow. I still remember the wire cast I had to wear for awhile. Still, I love snow!
Here's a photo of me age 6 with my 1 year old sister Jeannie. Even in the snow she loved having her dolls and doll carriage to play with. I prefered skates, sleds and later skis.

Christmas and snow time were always exciting happy times in my childhood and I still try to keep them like that. This weekend a heavy snow fell on Vancouver which is unusual in that the temperatures were extremely low, below zero celcius and there is about a foot of snow on my balcony. This wrecks havoc on the streets, of course, as people here aren't used to driving in these extreme conditions. Still, I love snow. Today the sun is shining, it's much warmer, there's a lot of slush on the roads (you need hip-waders to cross streets at the corners), but it's a glorious winter day. I actually built a snow-man on my balcony! Yes, I'm still a kid at heart.

Some of the best Christmases in my childhood were spent in Stratford Ontarion when my mom, sister and I lived at my grandparent's house during the war when Dad was overseas. Christmases even in war-time were happy events. All the relatives would come to Grandpa's for the holidays and there was great fun all the time. Some of my Christmas memoir stories are about these times. And this is one of my most favorite memories.
Grandpa's House, Stratford, Ontario.
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 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!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Christmas 1972
Kids and Yorkie

For some reason this Christmas (so far) I don't seem to be as short of cash as usual. Perhaps it's because I've learned to cut back and eliminate unnecessary expenses. I also try to plan ahead for the gift-buying and by doing so aren't so inclined to purchase things without careful thought to expense, necessity and appropriateness. For my Christmas eve dinner, I decided on just a small family event with invitations to friends to drop in later for appetizers and punch.

I guess everyone is tightening the purse-strings this year what with the economic crisis looming. I've already been told my monthly pay is being cut back on the web site I write for (Planet Eye) but at the same time I was offered two new classes by the school board teaching kids writing. So that was an unexpected bonus and a good start for the New Year too.

I remember lots of years when things were tight and tough -- much tighter than now. And yet we always had a very nice Christmas with gifts, turkey dinner and lots of good cheer.
Here's one of the stories about those times, when the best way we had of surviving was to live in a communal setting and share expenses. (This story was written in the mid '90's.)


Here it is, that Jolly Old Season again and true to tradition my bank account is running on empty. No, not because I squandered every cent on presents. Fact is, 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. Am I worried? Not really. Somehow, things always work out alright. Besides, I had lots of experience in my past at 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 and at times an even more miniscule donation from the dole. 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 friends and assorted dogs and cats.

As my boyfriend was on the lam from the American army (this was during Viet Nam) 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 house had been occupied by bikers before we moved in and was known as “The Opium Palace”. We’d hung an American flag upside down in the window as our form of ‘protest’ against the war and there was a big mirror ball hanging in the middle of the front room ceiling.

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 as a plant-manager’s wife.

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.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


My little ornamental tree


It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas around town. The tree lots are full of fresh-cut firs and pines. The malls are full of shoppers and 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. Family Circle, Better Homes showcase homes with ornate trees bedizened with extravagant decorations. Under dazzling branches are heaps of designer-decorated packages. I think of Christmas trees past. My Christmas trees. Although perhaps not so ornately decorated, they are distinctly memorable.

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 very first Christmas tree: 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 hand on the red-brick fireplace behind it, one lumpy with fruit and candy, the other a store-bought stocking full of surprises. There are Christmas cards on the mantle.

In another photograph, taken several years later, there are two dolls in high chairs under the tree. Those must have been the dolls for my little sister and me that our mother lovingly sewed entire wardrobes for. Mine was a boy doll named Tommy. That year we also got a new sled with bright red runners.

Christmas display at Van Dusen Gardens

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 s family get-together with Mom’s delicious Christmas cookies, ginger ale and popcorn which sometimes we stung for the tree. We dipped into the boxes of decorations and drew out the baubles. It was a time of nostalgia, because each ornament had its own little memory attached.

When I had children of my own the 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, glued with sparkles; cut0out trees with sticker decorations. One year, when we lived in a house full of friends, we had a cookie-decorating contest. We baked sugar cookies, decorated them and hung them on the tree. The most elaborately decorated cookie won a prize. We saved the best ones. They lasted a year or two until the mice discovered them. Another year we set out a box of ribbons, glue, paper and sparkles and invited each guest to make a special decoration for our tree.

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

Tree in the Art Gallery plaza, Vancouver

I always look forward to Christmas, especially to the tree decorating time, because of these special memories. Some of the old ornaments are getting tattered and tarnished. I usually have to part with a few. but each year I buy one new decoration so that when I trim the tree the following year there will be a new memory to add to the box of Christmas treasures. And while I’m trimming the tree I’ll be singing the old familiar song:
“Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh, Christmas Tree, how lovely are your branches...”

Tree in Santiago Chile

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008


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I saw on TV that there's a new talking doll on the market that is causing quite a stir. It's the "Little Mommy Cuddle and Coo" doll and like one of it's predecessors, it talks. It brought to mind a story from past Christmases about a talkative doll that spoiled my son's Christmas and dashed his belief in good old Santa Claus. This new doll though happens to (according to adults who have listened to it's chatter) provide a subliminal message that supposedly says "Islam is the Light". Good grief! What would happen if it said "Jesus Saves"? Would it cause quite the same commotion. And does it really say this phrase or, as the Mattel people insist, it's just a phrase that happens to sound like that. Well, at any rate. a number of irate parents returned the dolls to the toy stores very indignantly. I am very skeptical that the doll really 'says' that, but who knows for sure? And so what? Would a small child really understand this? And what might happen? The whole thing sounds pretty ridiculous. But at the same time, I remember clearly how my son's Christmas was spoiled by a very chatty doll. This is the story:

"CHATTY CATHY GIVES IT UP: How a talkative doll spoiled a little boy's Christmas."

Since my childhood, I've lived half my life in a a fantasy world. Believing in Santa Claus was one of those myths, and one that I regretted having to give up.

Christmas was always very special in our house. Mom and Dad played along with the Santa myth to the fullest, and besides the real Christmas celebration of Jesus' birth, there was plenty of fun, pageants, carolling, sleigh-rides, visits to view the Christmas lights and, best of all, the yearly visit to see dear old Santa Claus.

One of the best Christmases ever was the one when all the cousins came to stay. We were living at my Grandparent's house then, Mom, my sister and I, while Dad served overseas. Every Christmas at my Grandparent's house was full of fun. The Aunts and Uncles and cousins from various parts of Ontario came and the house was full of laughter and good cheer.

That particular Christmas, because of the crowd, my cousins and I were allowed to sleep in the sun porch room. As usual, we stayed up late, played monopoly, crochinole, and Chinese checkers, drank glasses of sparkling ginger-ale (our tee totaling family's 'champagne'), ate lots of delicious goodies that Mom and Grandma had baked, sang carols, told stories, and finally were tucked into bed.

Sometime after midnight, we heard a sound on the roof. Jingling bells. A loud 'Ho! Ho! Ho!" Unmistakable footsteps. It was Santa Claus! He was up on the sun porch roof getting ready to come down our chimney to deliver toys! None of us dared make a sound, and ducked under the covers pretending to be asleep.

Sure enough, the next morning there were lots of toys under the tree. Santa had really come, and we had heard him! I could hardly wait for school to resume so I could tell my friends.

The first day back after the holidays, I was bursting with excitement as I entered my class. "Santa Claus came to our house. We heard him on the roof!" I announced to my classmates.

"What?" scoffed an older boy. "Don't you know that Santa is a fake? He's just pretend. You couldn't possibly have heard him!"

I was crushed! I went home for lunch that day in tears. "A boy in my class says Santa isn't real!" I sobbed.

Mom was sympathetic. The disclosure had spoiled some of her Christmas fun too. But she admitted to me that Santa really was just a myth.

"But I heard him on the roof!" I insisted.
"That was just your Uncle Frank pretending to be Santa Claus," Mom explained.
For me, it was one of my biggest disappointments. I was ten years old, and my fantasy world was shattered forever. I've never forgotten it.

Many years later, when I was married and had my own children, I always tried to make Christmas the same kind of magical, exciting time my parents had made it for me. We decorated the tree, had parties, went to visit Santa and took part in all the Christmas festivities in our community.

The year my son turned six and my daughter was just about to turn two, the Christmas fantasy got spoiled again.

This is how it happened: That was the year Mattel put out a new kind of doll. One that talked. Her name was Chatty Cathy, a blonde little cherub with a saucy face. When you pulled the ring in her back, she spouted various lines of dialogue such as "Hello, I'm Chatty Cathy. What's your name?"
I couldn't resist buying one for my daughter.

On Christmas Eve night, after the children had been tucked into bed, and my husband and I had waited to make sure they were asleep, we started to put out the toys from Santa under the tree. This ritual also involved eating the cookies and Christmas cake the children had put on a decorated plate and drinking the beer that would help refresh Santa on his journey. After this was done, we took the carefully hidden packages out of the closet and began setting them up: the usual GI-Joe toys and cowboy regalia for my son, the little girl trinkets for my daughter. And Chatty Cathy. I couldn't resist pulling the ring to hear her talk. She was so cute! I knew my daughter would be thrilled with her. Chatty Cathy and I chatted for awhile, then I put her in her special place under the Christmas tree.

The next day, after all the excitement of finding what Santa had left under the tree, opening presents and trying things out was over, I noticed that my son was unusually quiet. I wondered if he was disappointed with his gifts. No, it wasn't that.

Very quietly, so as not to spoil things for his little sister, he said: "I know that Santa didn't really bring Chatty Cathy, Mom, because I heard you talking while you were playing with her."

I felt so bad! Chatty Cathy had given away the secret of Santa Claus and spoiled the Christmas surprise for my son, just as long ago my class-mate had spoiled Christmas for me by telling me Santa wasn't real. After that, Christmas wasn't quite the same for my son, although we always tried to make it just as much fun. He was a good sport, and went along with the myth of Santa Claus for his little sister's sake.

If you google Chatty Cathy you will find several videos on U-tube of the old ads for the doll and you can hear her talk. And check out the new Little Mommy and see if you think it's really conveying a subliminal message.

Saturday, December 06, 2008



I met a woman yesterday who says she hates kids. We were both on our way to see the free Christmas display at the indoor tropical conservatory and she was worried that as it was a free day there'd be lots of children there. Of course there were as it's a great family place with the tropical plants and beautiful parrots and other birds flying around. Later on I asked if she'd been to the Van Dusen Gardens for their spectacular Christmas display. That's when she told me how she hates kids and doesn't like being where they are. I told her the gardens were very spacious and of course, being Christmas lots of family go. But most of the children love going most to the Bright Lights display in Stanley Park, and that if she doesn't like children she ought to avoid going there.

Why would anyone hate children? I've been thinking about this since our conversation, wondering what could have possible happened in this reasonably young woman's life to give her that attitude. And how could anyone hate children anyway? After 34 years of working in daycare, and raising kids of my own, I am still very fond of children and especially miss my daycare work during the holiday season. After all, Christmas is a big important season for kids. Isn't it all about the birth of the baby Jesus? And isn't there Santa Claus and toys under the Christmas tree and all that? Christmas for me has always been a magical time and even in my adulthood I still love it and enjoy going to the malls just to see the kiddies visiting Santa, watching their delight (or in some cases, fright at the old bearded man with the loud Ho! Ho! Ho!)

Today was the Santa Claus parade and unfortunately it's been pouring rain, so no doubt it put a damper on some of the fun. I've attended a few in the past along with my friend and her grandchildren. And I remember distinctly one long ago when I was a kid and we went up to Toronto for the Santa Claus parade. Here's a story I wrote about it:


As I watch children at the mall sitting on Santa’s knee, it reminds me of a Christmas when I was 9 years old. Every year the T. Eatons Company in Toronto would launch the holiday season with an extravagant Christmas parade. Grandpa suggested we take the train to Toronto for the event. I loved parades, train rides, and more than anything else Christmas and Santa Claus. But the morning of our trip I woke feeling nauseous and feverish. I didn’t tell Mom or she would have canceled the plans and spoiled it for everyone. By the time we reached Toronto I had all the symptoms of full-fledged stomach flu.

I don’t remember much about standing bundled up on the snowy street watching the parade go by; the colorful floats with mechanical toys and story-book characters, the glittering fairies, comical elves, snowmen, reindeer and clowns throwing candies to the children or the big sled carrying Santa himself greeting the crowds with his familiar “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

After the parade came we went to the big Eaton’s department store, through the impressive Toy Land to where Santa sat on his throne waiting to greet the children.
I was wearing my moss-green coat with the velvet collar that Mom had made me, and the red hat with white tassels she had knitted for the festive occasion. I felt wretched, green-around-the-gills. I clutched the candy cane Santa gave me and posed for the camera to have my photo taken with Santa. It was impossible to smile. I could feel the bile rise in my throat, my cheeks burned with fever. What if I threw up on Santa? Would he scratch my name off the ‘good kids’ list and put me down with the naughty ones?

“What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas, little girl?” he asked in a jolly voice.

The big moment had arrived for me to put in my Christmas toy order but I was too sick to reply. I just wanted to go home and crawl into my warm bed. My greatly anticipated visit to Santa ended with me feeling utterly miserable. I only hope Santa didn’t catch my flu germs!

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