Hauling out my mother’s Christmas ornaments – the ones I painstakingly selected from her larger collection including eight adorned wreaths, seven Nativity Scenes, six Renaissance Angels, five plug-in Ye Olde England Christmas Village Shoppes, four boxes of flashing lights, three bags of mixed over-size baubles, two tins of icicles, and a stuffed partridge in a wooden pear tree – I come across a torn piece of brown paper. I know instantly what it is, and it reduces me to sobs. Every year, after taking down the tree, a chore she dreaded, mom grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote the date, the temperature (a prairie girl after all), and who made it home that year. And then she would draw a little picture on it, usually of a tree in the woods, gathering snow, a star shining down upon it. On this scrap she wrote: God Bless Everyone!
I didn’t make it home that particular year. I was working on a daily radio show in Quebec City. Instead of taking the week off and heading west, I nobly volunteered to fill in as host so our regular staff could make it home for the holidays. It was just me and Karl the tech, that year, a skeleton crew. I didn’t mind. It actually felt good, like I was exhibiting good will and generosity and other character-building behaviours appropriate to the season. At 4 p.m., long past dark, Karl, in a Santa hat, humming Carols, poured something hot and aromatic from a thermos, toasted me from the other side of glass and we began our version of festive cheer, piped from our low-lit little warm studio out to the sidewalk where the shoppers rushed home with their presents.
I welcomed the opportunity to talk to listeners- shut-ins, loners, folks far from home, or worse, without a place to call home- about their formative Christmases and Christmas traditions that set the tone for the rest of one’s life. Christmas for me entails Handel’s Messiah on the stereo as of the first day of Advent. I recall one year watching the sing-along version on the television, live from New York City. Mom handed out copies of the score to anyone willing to join in. The dog barked through it all and my brother and his friends, still dressed in hockey gear, would duck low so as not to block the TV on their way to the kitchen to make sandwiches.
While living at home we were a family choir, engaged to sing at Midnight Mass. My mother taught us to perform The Coventry and Huron Carols, The Holy and the Ivy, The Carol of the Bells, and Ding Dong Merrily on High, in four part harmony. And she would sing a solo, usually “Come Unto Him All Ye That Labour” like a heralding angel. And my dad would beam from the pew. It was always cold, those early Christmases up North, but it was warm in our little chapel. And then we’d go home and have squares and hot chocolate and open presents and stay up until dawn.
On Christmas day there was the usual turkey and fixings. And talking all at once. And “oooh I ate too much”. And more squares and hot chocolate and A Christmas Carol on television. We’d always make sure we had the time right; it was before view-on-demand, before VCRs even. And it had to be the 1951 black and white Alistair Sim version. Still does. Because nobody convinced us like Sim of the possibilities of the full and complete and irreversible transformative powers inherent in the Christmas Spirit as embodied in three spirits, four, if you count Jacob Marley.
This evening, festooning my windows with fake ivy and fuzzy metallic garlands, unknotting strings of blinking lights, loading votive glasses with tea candles, I listened to the author Neil Gaiman read “A Christmas Carol” on my computer. I love all Dickens’ works, but it was his Carol, written in the mid-1800s that has had the most measurable influence on me. Historians say it influenced an entire culture of Victorians who were primed for a kinder, gentler view of human nature. Dickens is credited with reviving and instigating a host of Christmas traditions including seasonal drink, dancing and singing, and family gatherings.
To fully feel the impact of Scrooge’s transformation- his “reclamation”, as the Ghost of Christmas Past refers to it- I like to read the novella; an hour long movie misses a few choice phrases and scenes. (I hasten to add, nonetheless, that the Hamel children can recite many choice scenes. There’s the moment when Scrooge tries to convince poor Marley that the ghost is a result of indigestion: you’re an underdone potato, a piece of cheese.
There’s more gravy than of grave in you!” And then there’s Christmas Day, when upon waking Scrooge is so overjoyed he doesn’t know what to do! He is as “light as a feathers” “as happy as an angel” “as merry as a schoolboy” and “as giddy as a drunken man”. Then, with tears in our eyes we murmur along with a humbled and suddenly quite handsome Scrooge to his nephew who invited him every year, without fail, to Christmas supper: “ Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool with no eyes to see with nor ears to hear with all these years?” (A line, which by the way, was written for the screenplay.)
Recently I sat with a group of acquaintances talking about their favourite ‘classic’ Christmas movies. National Lampoon. Bridget Jones. Bad Santa. I couldn’t help wonder at the criteria for what constitutes a ‘classic’? Is something a classic because we watch it every year? Is it a classic because we say so? While Bridget is funny and the “tacky Christmas sweater party” has become a classic activity thanks to the movie, and while Chevy Chase’s pratfalls are genius, and while I get that a “bad” Santa is a stab at the fake jolliness of a symbol of crass commercialism (isn’t it?), I submit that the spirit of Christmas is more about finding ways to turn an ugly sweater, a family vacation, or a symbol of generosity into the butt of a joke.
The classic, the time-worn age-old gift of Christmas is a reminder to be “as a little child”, looking at the world through eyes of wonder, responding to others out of a sense of play and an urge to laugh, heartily, not ironically, cleverly, nastily, lasciviously, nor out of ridicule, derision, or drunken contempt.
As I’m listening to “A Christmas Carol”, to the scene after a night of spectres visiting Scrooge, I catch something new. Scrooge, so overjoyed that the Spirits were indeed real and had given him another shot at life, broke into fits of laughter: “Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so may years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!”
I suppose I feel that, as a culture, we’ve been “out of practice for so many years.” I don’t know what goes on in the homes of others, but, even without a TV or radio, I can’t escape the ads that pop up insidiously on my telephone and computer, invading what peace I might find, hammering at me to show my love for others through shopping.
The question most asked this season does not seem to be: And how will we allow the spirit of “peace and goodwill toward others” and the “shared joy and laughter of our childlike selves into our hearts?” How will we entreat the “restfulness that allows nothing to dismay ourselves, nor our loved ones?”No, it’s a measure against an endless list of chores, a kind of competition involving speed, spending and the best brand. It’s: “Got all your shopping done?” The assumption is now “classic”, established, expected: the season is about shopping. So, how do we stop the juggernaut from careening straight out of Christmas and into Valentine’s and Easter and Halloween so that the question isn’t the “classic” question of every season? Finished your shopping yet? Nope. Not til I drop dead.
Last week Betty and I decorated the Palais Royale Theatre, the town hall, to get it ready for the Lion’s Seniors supper and the big dance on Boxing Day. We pulled out all the old decorations and plastered the place. Tis the season for my random and multi-coloured aesthetic to explode in all its glory, like a toddlers first go at colouring! After we hung the wreaths, lights and stockings with care we popped some popcorn, poured ourselves a wee bit of cheer, turned off the overheads and visited and laughed splendidly for another hour. Just visited. Feet up. Basking in the glow of Christmas lights, twinkling potential for magic and wonder. “Visiting” is what we do naturally on the prairies and that’s the brand of spirit I want to encourage, all Christmas season and into the next year.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.