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I don't normally go near stores on Boxing, but we needed a memory card for the camera. In the store, I could not resist a nice camisole for $5. At home I noted that somebody had gone to the trouble of putting a zipper down the side. It is not needed because the cami slips on easily over the head. It broke my heart that some Asian worker was paid pennies to put that zipper in. Then the garment was practically given away. Do those seamstresses dream going out to clubs in Canada as they put together our frivolous garments?
Loud kitchen crowded with shoulder to shoulder holiday cheer. I become aware of an unpleasant odor. Somebody must have farted. The conversation is good enough that I ignore the smell for awhile. But it is getting stronger. I cannot believe somebody is standing in this crowd of people, just farting and farting away. Finally I have to leave the room. I am surprised the reek has not driven everybody away by now. Later I go over to the food table. Somebody is farting there, too. I look around trying to identify the source. Then I realize it is the meatballs.
Outside another fire engine goes by, lighting up the window with cherry red strobes. Somebody is getting a lovely Christmas surprise. Or maybe the fire department is just out enjoying the holiday lighting displays in the neighbourhood. I am drinking Proseco and talking animatedly. My waving hand hits my glass and half of the bubbly drink spills on my sweater. At least it is not Veuve or Moet. Typical of me, I think. Although usually I reserve such embarrassing mishaps for when I am with dignitaries of one kind or another. But then, my friends are special VIP’s, aren’t they?
The coach-house is bigger than my home, the upper two floors a slick modern conversion with views over a ravine I did not even know existed. Ridiculously stylish men and women are eating designer cupcakes – a trend I missed, or a trend they are trying to launch? PR people, after all. The ground floor cavernous raw brick recreation area with fireplace, bar, large screen TV. A pool table. A challenge. Three glasses of wine; I am sure I will lose. But he has had a few, too. At then end I cannot believe I won, after many laughable shots.
Third Sunday in Advent, if that means anything anymore. The tree went up that weekend. I always put it up that weekend every year. A couple weeks before Christmas so we can enjoy it long enough to make it worth the effort. My mother would be away for Christmas. I invited her over for dinner. Then his mother called and invited herself to join them. She was lonely. They all had a delightful time together. Never would it occur to his mother to invite my mother to a family occasion on her side. But Christmas is for sharing, not bitterness.
The boss takes every gift basket that arrives home with her. Never opening them to share. What is she going to do with all those sweets, anyway? Probably re-gift them. Such a cheapskate. Her idea of a lavish holiday party is to take them to the afternoon tea at the Four Seasons where everybody sits stiffly silent. The boss seems to think this is the height of civilized behavior. Maggie thinks a really good bonus would be more civilized. Nothing, however, is forthcoming. AND -- the office manager is collecting $40 from everybody to buy a gift for the boss.
Rome is wonderful at Christmas time. Festive, but relaxed. Shopping for decorations in the Piazza Navona. Beautiful figurines for your crèche that you can collect over the years until you have a giant diorama of the nativity scene. Candy in the shape of a lump of coal. On the subway on our way to the Vatican, a young man asks, in broken English, “Do you know the words to ‘A White Christmas?” My mother belts the song out for the whole car. My sister and I cringe in our seats, pretending we are not with her. Later we smile, remembering.
In keeping with my father’s tradition, we celebrated on Christmas Eve. Everybody was coming home that year, and by late afternoon we had all plowed our way through heavy snow to be there. You could not say it was a storm; it was just relentless and densely falling, but large, fluffy flakes, so pretty you would not call them threatening. By morning we could barely open the door. But we were all together and safe in my parents’ cozy home. There was plenty of food and holiday treats and good company. It felt a little like being on Noah’s Ark.
As an intern in the design department at the Julliard School, U.S. Immigration could not decide whether I should be applying for a student visa or a green card. With my case under review I was not allowed to leave the country. When Christmas rolled around I thought I would be fine staying through the holidays alone. After all it was New York and there was plenty to do. But, as the school emptied out and most of my friends made arrangements to leave town, I got more depressed by the day. Christmas eve found me sobbing in self-pity.
By Christmas Eve everybody had departed for their holiday destinations. I went ‘home’ to the West Side YMCA. A tiny room. Comfortable enough but not a place to spend large amounts of time. I sat on the bed and wept bitterly. Then the phone rang. The concierge said a package had been delivered for me. I went down and found a Christmas flower arrangement around a little ornamental lantern. From my mother. I took it back to my room and lit the candle. Its cheerful glow lifted my spirits. I still have that lantern and bring it out every Christmas.
Until then we had spent Christmas Day with Steve’s parents in Mississauga, and then drove up north to spend Boxing Day, and the rest of the week at my parents’ place. Both sets of grandparents had large homes and towering trees. Enough trees in our lives, I thought. It never occurred to me to get our own. The kids were two and four. Christmas Eve they demanded our own. The corner store had potted trees with lights on them. The dollar store down the street had sparkly decorations and garlands. Modest, but that was our first family Christmas tree.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was probably the only chance to regain sanity in the entire year. A full time job and two toddlers at home made me feel like the walking dead. I thanked my lucky stars that the firm I worked bridged the gap between the statutory holidays and simply closed down. In a preemptive strike my mother would get the kids up early for breakfast before they had a chance to wake us up. And we could lay about reading or napping while the grandparents took the kids out to play in the snow.
My divorced uncle never knew what to do with his kids. The youngest of five with four older sisters and used to being indulged. Hence, that Christmas, his kids ended up at our place. They sat glumly watching TV in the basement rec room for the first couple of days. I dug the sled out of that garage – unused now that we were in college. I forced Billy and Tammy into snow suits and dragged them to our old favourite hill. They resisted every step of the way. But once we got going I could not get them to stop.
The woods behind our house, owned by a farmer named Beaner, were known as Beaner’s Bush. Any double entendre never occurred to me; I honestly do not think it struck anybody else’s mind, either. Beaner allowed people to use the trails through his bush to hike and cross-country ski. And Beaner was a friend of the family so he allowed us to cut our Christmas tree on his property every year. The tree dad liked best was always well off the trail which meant wading through snow up to our hips, often sinking into unseen bogs beneath.
Everybody in the costume shop was going home for Christmas, but we all agree had to have a tree for a couple of weeks leading up to the holiday. We made the decorations ourselves with bits of spangly or brightly coloured fabric and lengths of braided trim. It was not your orthodox Christmas tree, but even at that I was at first taken aback when the Jewish cutter’s assistant insisted on making ornaments in the shape of the Star of David. Cheeky, I thought. But then I decided why not? Although raised Catholic I could hardly consider myself Christian, anymore.
James was a pain in the ass. Arrogant and quick to point out faults in other people’s work during critiques. A blow-hard who was endlessly drawing parallels from the history of art. Impressing the instructors, but causing much eye-rolling among us. And James’ work could not stand up to criticism, as far as we were concerned. When he did not show up the next semester we were all surprised to learn that he had gotten a well-paying job as a designer of Christmas decorations. Especially since he admitted freely that he was red/green colour blind.
Art College was in the middle of China Town. I browsed the shops, marveling at the craftsmanship that went into the cheap imported goods from Asia. For me, in from the sticks and new to the multicultural metropolis, it was a revelation. Very handy for an art student with limited cash. Everybody got gifts from China Town. A pretty painted parasol for my sister, an intricate rock carving for my brother, an ornamental basket for my mother. For Dad, a paper kite painted like a bird. I think that may have been my Dad’s favourite Christmas present of ever.
Dad offered to come to Toronto to pick me up and drive me home on Christmas Eve. I was delighted not to have to take the bus. When we stopped at Square One on the way up north I realized part of the reason he had been so generous. I had to help him choose his gift for Mom, and we always did that last minute on Christmas Eve. This had been our tradition for years, ever since he realized I could unfailingly pick something Mom would like. I thought moving away to college would put an end to it.
We thought we would not have snow for Christmas Day, but we woke to big white flakes floating lazily from the sky. By mid-day the snow blanketed everything. It was just a few blocks to Dave and Sue’s place but we drove. The kids were small and there was lots to carry. The gifts and our contribution to the feast. Steve’s mother was two weeks a widow. Barely there, sitting in the corner hardly able to focus on the flurry of activity around her. His father had not been able to hold out any longer, although he tried.
Dad could not make it through Christmas dinner. He had to go upstairs and rest. Later he came back down to watch the kids open their gifts. They were small; at the age when Christmas is still magic and becomes magic again for the adults who share the holiday with them. During the week afterward Dad spent a lot of time resting, but never complaining. It was Mom who told us he was in pain. We took the kids out on the sleds to play in the snow every day. Sometimes Dad would come, but he never lasted very long.
Both my sister and I were living in Toronto that year. We caught a ride home for Christmas with my sister’s old best friend from town, Cathy. I always gotten along with her, too, but for this trip I felt like excluded. Cathy was bringing her stylish Toronto co-worker up for the holidays. Corporate stylish, with everything polished right to the tips of her split-end-free hair. The two of them sat in the front seat cackling over inside company jokes from their workplace. Ann tried to participate. But I could see we were clearly shut out.
That was the only Christmas with my ex’s family in Winnipeg. The marriage only lasted a year and a half, so by the following year we were no longer together. Not the first Christmas away from my family, but it was the first Christmas I dealt with family traditions that were not my own. And Bill was an only child so it was a strangely sedate celebration for me. First we sat and admired my mother-in-law’s carefully decorated tree, then gifts were opened in an orderly fashion. After that we went out to a restaurant for dinner!
The white-haired lady lived across the lane and Mom often dropped in to check up on her. She was a widow and her place was frilly and floral. She always had a dish of candies out on the coffee table in her living room and she always offered them to us. My mother never let us have them except the time we went over at Christmas. It was the tree that impressed me that day. Splendidly sparkly silver tinsel – I had never seen a fake tree before. I was offended when my mother later commented that it was tacky.
Our idea was to camp out on the floor beside the tree and surprise Santa Claus. My mother would not allow that, however. The best we could negotiate was the top of the stairs to our bedrooms. I now realize this was no problem – it was an old farmhouse and my parents had the big room at the back that would have been for the hands, and it had a separate staircase. Not only that but the front stairway had a door at the bottom. Mom and Dad could still do their stealth work with little danger of being caught.
It was the Tooth Fairy that gave everything away. Sophy was old enough that she no longer slept the deathlike sleep of a young child. I thought I had waited long enough to go in and slip the coin under her pillow, but she woke up. She was very upset that the tooth fairy did not really exist. Next morning she deduced that Santa and the Easter Bunny were probably not real either. It was a harsh lesson for her, but I was relieved to no longer have to perform the yearly charade of sneaking the gifts under the tree.
Nice to be unemployed this past Christmas. It removed the stress of holiday preparations. Nowadays when most families have both parents working, the hype of the holiday has increased tenfold from what it was when we were kids and most moms had the luxury of being at home. I did not miss the constant gifts baskets and holiday cocktails that go with working in the design business. Made me so sick of treats by the time Christmas dinner rolls around, I did not feel like indulging. It was like Christmas is the last day for celebration, instead of the first.
With business class tickets supplied by her son, it is not the hassle of traveling at Christmas that wearies her. She can sit in ease in the lounge enjoying a latte waiting to board, instead of out in the rabble. And once she was even on an aircraft that had the seats that transform into beds. Thank goodness for these comforts because they are necessary after spending two weeks with the grandchildren. Her daughter-in-law is definitely not in control. Still it hardly seems worthwhile to fly out west and stay for any shorter length of time. Does it?
New Year’s Eve in New York City – NYE in NYC – I Heart NY. Dinner at the wonderful Italian restaurant across from Lincoln Centre, the whole place ringing with celebratory cheer, people dressed to the nines. Afterwards the opera. Who can even remember which one – Rigoletto, I think. It is the intermissions mobbed with glitterati that are the most entertaining. Isn’t that? Yes, it is! Oh lord, he is just as handsome in the flesh. And later racing upstate to her friend’s beautiful country home where revelers had already gathered. Just on time for the toasts and kisses.
My daughter watched with anticipation as I opened the package. Lenny, too, because it was a gift from both of them. He did not have as much invested in the effort; I overheard the conversation in which he offered five dollars to Sophy so his name could be on the card. She was the one who did the footwork and made the choice. I wanted to be able to gasp with pleasure, but what emerged from the wrapping were two videos – Zoolander and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. What was in her mind to think of buying those for me?
I have to admit, Christmas can put me in a bad mood. I approach with enthusiasm. Right now, for instance, at the end of January, I already have two stocking stuffers for next Christmas. I spotted them on sale and they are just perfect for my kids. I will do that throughout the year when I see things I know my family will like. But then my family dumps thoughtless things on me. I know I should smile and show gratitude – they are my own children, after all. But I sulk. I should not hold others to my own standards.
Having your home burn to the ground during Christmas holidays has its advantages over other times of the year. Everybody has sstuff they don’t really want – dud gifts that would have been packed away or re-gifted. As soon as word got around our small town, stuff began to pour in, and rather than used stuff that might have otherwise been donated, it was all brand new. There were even make-up sets, fancy toiletries and perfumes for my sister and me. And frilly pajamas that our parents would never have given us; that we wore for years afterwards.
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