There were four of us children for all but my first four Christmases , as I am child number three and my brother Mark wasn’t born yet.. My earliest memories of Christmas are of our home in a cozy suburb of Montreal called Town of Mount Royal. They were magical and precious . Our home had a fireplace which my dad lit most evenings after supper (there is a recent by-law in place now prohibiting wood-burning fireplaces in the entire city). My dad put up lights in the window. The window in the den was divided into many different panes in a grid. My dad (being an engineer) first put in eyelets and strung twine in horizontal rows. He then measured and attached each light exactly in the centre of each pane. Two lights at the end of the string fit into holes in a papier-mâché Creche that one year needed a new Jesus as the dog chewed his head off.
During the day the window looked like a bunch of haphazard wires, but come nightfall, like magic, looked like a box of candy. It really was like a Christmas Card. Coming home in the dark after a day of skiing up north was so welcoming with the glow of those lights. One year my dad tried all the same colour, but it wasn’t the same.
The standing joke in our family was the “bushiness” of the tree that my father selected each year. My dad was not one to spend his dough on frivolities like the trees that were lit up and double the cost of the trees at the ends of rows or behind healthier, more robust ones. No Fraser Fir tree for us, no sir! Why spend $12 when you can get the “same tree” for $8. My Dad was the “Charlie Brown” of tree selection. I am not sure if my memory of these trees has been somehow shaped and influenced by Charlie Brown. I remember needles falling immediately upon placement of the tree and looking at a new tree each year and my mum exclaiming that next year we’d get a bushier one.
We had always gone “Up North” (the Laurentians) in all seasons and my parents rented cottages on lakes in summer and on hills in winter. One year, they happened upon and bought a chalet on a mountain between St. Sauveur-des-Monts and Ste. Adele. This was to be the new family home in a few years, but was for now a second home. We still spent Christmas in the city though because our family always went to church on Christmas Day, and not just because my younger brother and I sang in the Cathedral choir. Church before presents.
The year my voice changed, so did our family. My older brother and sister had both left home to go to college and my dad was “downsized” from his job as an Aeronautical Engineer at Canadair. My parents decided to sell one of the houses. They sold the one in the city, and we became “up-northers” and my dad got a new job when he convinced the Transport Development Agency that they needed him as a project engineer.
The house up north had three hectares of forest. much of it deciduous, but many stands of coniferous trees on our land. Our family now didn’t have to buy a tree, we could select and harvest our own. In October, My dad marked a tree with a ribbon that was to be our “bushy one”. The first year, he couldn’t find the ribbon (below the snow line…doh) so he selected a tree at random and handed me the Swede saw.
As we all got older the need for bushiness seemed to diminish. We still put on the same ornaments that we had been using since I was little. My dad let us select the trees. Never bushy. They looked bushy in the bush, but always looked scrawny in the living room. My mum would start the Turkey and we still went to church before presents, but the Up North church was a cozy log cabin with a cheesy electric organ and the music (although familiar) was less than spectacular. Eventually we decided to go on Christmas Eve, and that became the new tradition. As we all grew and had “significant others” members of the family would have to split their times between our family and the in-laws, and then with kids, my older siblings would come “Boxing Day”. My parents, my younger brother and I maintained this tradition until I was well into my thirties. When my first daughter arrived, she and subsequent additions to the family followed suit. The trees in those last years were puny. a mere token, but the love and warmth of family was not.
Then my dad got sick. He saw the writing on the wall and they decided to “downsize” and they moved to an apartment for seniors. As part of the downsizing, things were given to us kids and some things were sold or donated to charity. Somehow, I got most of the Christmas ornaments. I decided that we would have a tree in our home in the city for the first time in my adult life. It became a tradition of me taking the girls to select a tree. It was always fun! We never went “all out”, but I was not as chintzy as my dad, and usually the tree we chose was fairly bushy. I even splurged each year and bought matching shiny blue balls. The girls made things. Macaroni strings, popcorn, wax and dried flowers, all sorts of things. Not to mention ornaments that had been given to me by students over the years.
Larger family occasions must now be spent in restaurants or hotels or at my older brother’s. Much of the magic and fabric of the season was fading. Even the weather seemed to be moving. The tall white snowbanks of my youth seemed to be replaced with grey slush some years and no snow some years.
The music seemed to be more and more commercial and I missed the wonderful carols and the beautiful and accurate harmony of choral singing. My brother and I put together a little choir one year to do some carolling and that ignited something in me again, but Alas, he had to move away for work. All my “homes” were disappearing. My father died, my mum relocated to Ottawa, my sister moved an hour past Ottawa, my younger brother had my mum down to New York where he lives.
My own home was faltering. Tension and stress and broken communication took their toll and before the end. No one was thriving. It was cold. I didn’t have the will to put up a tree in that final year together. The next year was better in some ways and worse in others. The mother of my children was away for several months and although the house was quiet and calm, the girls and I were at a low ebb. My brother, knowing this, invited us to New York to share Christmas with his family. No tree.
When my house needed to be sold to completely liquidate the marriage, I had to leave so many things that once had great importance. I had to sell my record collection. 2,500 lps gone. As the possession date approached, things had to be moved. I put so much on the curb to be taken away. All the skis, skates, funky rat pack stuff that accumulates over 20 years and more. I threw away all the Christmas stuff. I threw away and donated furniture and clothes and books. Little pieces of my heart that were now worthless to me.
My new life that I embarked upon has different Christmas traditions that I am still trying to balance with my own needs and desires. I have a loving and understanding partner who was not brought up in the church, but who nonetheless has her own traditions of family and gift giving and decorating. I don’t love her ornaments in the same way she does, but I learned that she loved them and has a story about each of them, holding on to memories of loved ones now departed and sentiments that preceded my arrival on the scene. Her love for them is another thing to love about her.
I was awakened and wrote this poem:
My Ornaments are gone
Trifles that meant something
That tied me to tinsel memories
Of gathered pines and home
I left them on the curb of downsize divorce
I never missed them until just now
Four seasons into something new.
Her ornaments are testaments too
Now six seasons into that something new, and my spirit of Christmas has been awakened by a gift that we decided to give to each other.
We decided to make a CD in the studio of songs we both love and give all of the proceeds to charity. We both love making music together and we don’t really need or want conventional gifts from each other. We are lucky. We have enough. Giving to ones that don’t have enough reminds me of all the lessons I have learned from my family.
Away from the rampant consumerism and the darker side of humanity and the religious hypocrites that I have always abhorred, I have realized that doing something kind for others is that elusive bushy tree. Our gift of music is amplified by the love and support and intimate contact we have had with so many people because of this project.
Peace On Earth, Good Will To All!