It’s early Monday morning, 4:25 a.m., and like any writer I am rushing to get these thoughts down because they woke me up and I don’t want to forget them. Besides, I can’t sleep now because all these memories of Christmas have come pouring back. Actually it was pipe tobacco that woke me. I was dreaming of Christmas when I was a child. It could be the fact that my own place is in the midst of getting “Christmassy”… I don’t have a tree up, or any decorations, but my dining room table is covered with wrapping paper, scotch tape and there is a big Rubbermaid box full of gifts that I will be taking with me to Sudbury in about ten days time. I am sure I will share some memories with my grandsons.
But I was dreaming and as I gradually began waking, all these thoughts rushed in so here goes with some good memories of Christmas.
These go way back to the days when it was just Mom and Dad and Gary and me. We were living in Sydney, Nova Scotia. I can barely remember, but I do smell pipe tobacco. Both my grandfathers smoked pipes and I remember that Christmas was a time of seeing “grandpa and grandma” a lot more than usual. In our lives, there was Archie, who was grandpa on my Mom’s side. He didn’t like being called grandpa, so we called him Archie. Then there was Grandpa Gillis, on my Dad’s side. His name was Neil, but everyone called him Papa or Neil D. He always had the fragrance of pipe smoke, which I came to enjoy. Pipe smoke and wool sweaters. His tobacco was different than most. It was a stick that reminded me of a big piece of licorice. He would take his pocketknife and carve tiny slivers of tobacco off the stick and then put them into his pipe. I remember once he put his knife down, and like any nosy little boy I picked it up. Well! Neil D. growled at me. I swear it was a growl, but as I think of it now, it was probably because he had the pipe in his mouth. He said something I could barely understand, but he had fierce eyes that would stare you down. I do remember Christmas in the country, in Grand Mira, smelled different. I think it was the wood smoke smell. Freshly cut balsam or spruce. And cinnamon. I know that Grandma Gillis liked to make cinnamon rolls and that was always a nice smell. And the woodsmoke smell came from the big stove in the kitchen and there was another stove, just for heating, in the “front room”, which was the sitting room at the front of Grandma’s house. When we kids were sent to bed upstairs, there was a bedroom directly above the front room. The bedroom had a hole in the floor, under the bed, designed to let the heat rise. I remember crawling under the bed and putting my face in the hole and listening to all the grown-ups chatter and laugh down below. The other thing about the house in Mira was that it had no indoor bathroom and we got to pee in the snow a lot. The women used the outhouse beside the big tree.
The house in Sydney was different because it was on a street packed closely beside dozens of other houses. I could never figure out how my parents knew how to find it among the hundreds and hundreds of houses in Sydney, but once we pulled up to the front of the house, I knew right away it was where Grandma (MacLean) and Archie lived. Archie’s tobacco smelled sweeter than Neil Ds. Also Archie did not wear wool sweaters as much as Neil D. Archie wore flannel shirts with wide suspenders. He also talked more, but I could rarely understand what he was saying. Every now and then he would shout, Tina, Tina! That was Grandmas name. She would bring him tea and cookies. He drank the tea. I ate the cookies.
The Sydney house at Christmas smelled different. It had more of a smell of baking. I remember the smell of tea biscuits. And the smell of butter melting on the biscuits hot from the oven. And it was warm, very warm. I think it is because there was a coal stove in the kitchen. In the basement there was a big coal boiler. The men would spend time in the basement talking, while the women would spend time in the kitchen and the dining room. Archie’s basement was big, well; it was big from a little kid’s perspective. It had a concrete floor and massive wooden beams. Beams that went from floor to ceiling and then beams that went across the basement ceiling. It was dark too. There were a couple of bare lightbulbs. But the men would go there to smoke and drink. I remember asking my dad what he was drinking. Archie said it was buttermilk and all the men laughed. It was moonshine of course.
The house in Sydney also sounded different. There was music. There was a piano in the living room. Usually Gary and I would pound on it just to hear the keys, but other people would play and sing. I cannot remember who.
The next Christmas I remember was in France and those are my first memories of Santa. I don’t think I quite understood who Santa was except that all the children had to go and sit on his lap. I do remember not being too excited about that. I know Gary was excited. So I guess I went along with it. If it was okay with Gary, then it was okay with me. There were hundreds of children. We were all in a massive building, which I realize now was a hangar on the airbase. I can remember the faint smell of jet fuel and it is likely one of the reasons why I still like that smell. It was always one of those comfort smells for me. I can pick up the smell aviation fuel anywhere. I think it comes from living on airbases.
The other Christmas memory from France was my first ever memory of snow. I think it was special because I was told that snow was not always common where we lived, but getting snow that first year caused quite a bit of excitement for people. I remember Gary teaching me how to slide on it with our shoes. We didn’t have snowboots in France. Another memory is that my Dad would take out an Oh Henry bar, put it on the table and cut it up into bit sized pieces for us with his pocketknife. Dad wasn’t being nice. He was just being cheap.
My next Christmas memories after that were in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. We went to two big Christmas parties that year, one at the church and one at the airbase. I couldn’t figure out why the Santas were different, but they were.
That is the Christmas I learned about Eaton’s. Mom ordered a whole pile of stuff from the Eaton’s catalogue and one winter day a massive cardboard box was delivered to our house. I remember Mom opening the box and taking out all sorts of things. There were dishes, pots, pans, snowboots, winter coats, pants and shirts and socks … it was overwhelming. Apparently, that same box brought our Christmas toys, but I didn’t know it then.
The other thing about Portage la Prairie was the cold. Our house was always warm, but whenever our big front door was opened, there would be a blast of frigid winter air that rolled right into our kitchen. That was also the Christmas I remember learning about Christmas trees and that they were somehow special.
I was the first person to wake up Christmas morning. I knew that I was supposed to go to the tree. So I did. It was great. There were all sorts of gifts. I couldn’t read names very well, or maybe I didn’t want to read names. Either way, I opened most of the gifts and started playing with the toys. When my brothers (Ronald had been born in France) awoke and came downstairs, I was quite protective of all my new possessions.
Once Mom woke up and came downstairs, she set things straight and I discovered I had to share all these new toys with my brothers. Our house always smelled of turkey stuffing at Christmas. That is still a comfort smell for me.
Some days later, Gary and I were playing outside when we discovered a Christmas tree in a snowbank. Wow, what a find. We knew that Christmas trees were special for some reason, so we decided to drag our prize home. It was an effort for two boys to drag the tree. You can imagine our delight when we discovered more and more of these prized trees discarded all over the neighbourhood. It took us a few hours, but before long, Gary and I were the proud owners of about 25 Christmas trees which we stashed in our back yard. Mom and Dad laughed about it, but insisted we take the trees back out to the snowbank on the street. Somewhere there is a photo that Dad snapped of Gary and myself with all our trees.
That's the same winter that Debra was born. It wasn't long after Christmas, but I remember Dad saying we all got a new baby sister for Christmas. I also remember the hospital was next to a lake and Dad drove the car out onto the ice so we could see the hospital and wave at Mom in the window.
Some years later when I became an adult, I had more interesting Christmas memories. One of the best was bringing my own family to Mira for Christmas. I enjoyed that. Grandma’s old house was gone, but we all had dinner at Sadie and Allen’s house. I remember my children being amazed that Grandma would save the Christmas wrapping paper, carefully folding it and putting it away for another year. I also remember playing a game of Trivial Pursuit with my cousins. The best part was when we got stumped on some answers; Grandma would give us the right answer. We all thought we were so smart, but Grandma would amaze us.