A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN LANGFORD
One Christmas was much like the other, in those years on Rainville Road—a storybookish name for a street in a blue collar town where I learned to fight wielding a Smurfette lunch box and to entertain myself by finding the bunnies on a Pilsner can. I cannot keep straight which was which when I was seven, eight, and nine. They were my favourite Christmases as a child, and I will treat them as one and the same, piecing them together from at least thirty-two years on.
It was the week before the holiday break and I was in Miss Curry’s class, preparing for the Christmas pageant. We were doing T’was the Night Before Christmas and I had wanted to play the Sugarplum Fairy, but being tall and uncoordinated did not land me the role. I had been relegated to the hateful chorus where I would blend in with all the other children.
While I stewed, I studied the stage plan that Miss Curry had drawn on the board. It gave me an idea that made me sit up straighter at my desk. The set included a Christmas tree that was to stand centre stage for the entire production. I was sure I had something from the Sears catalogue to wear that was green. At recess, I approached Miss Curry and asked if I could be the Christmas tree. To my delight, she agreed. Miss Curry seemed to have a soft spot for me, perhaps because earlier in the year some boys had put a rotten egg in my thermos.
The base of my costume consisted of green tights, a green turtleneck, and a green A-line skirt layered over top of a crinoline. Before that, I didn’t know crinolines existed. It was borrowed from my petite grandmother’s closet and I loved it as much as I loved ruffled knickers, and as much as my big yellow hair ribbons that looked like satin lasagna noodles.
My mother had braided my hair the night before when it was damp, so it unravelled like Rapunzel’s in golden waves halfway down my back. Gold garlands had been sewn to the green base I wore and I was topped with a gold garland halo. I felt like the most angelic tree.
The night of the performance, as the lights came up, I was centre stage and resplendent with empty boxes I’d wrapped to look like presents beneath me. When the Sugarplum Fairy began her elegant dance, clad in her pale, pretty tutu, I—who was supposed to be still and triangular—did the only thing I could do to disrupt her performance without actually resorting to tripping her: I bopped.
If Ms Tilly’s operatic rendition of O Canada had left my parents and extended family (who still got along back then) struggling to keep their composure, my performance left them snorting for air.
My role was a success—even if I wasn’t taken seriously.
Once the holidays began, there was the excitement of preparing for Santa. Our family had pure enough hearts, but they weren’t full of faith. We were non-Christians, or moreover, like my grandparents on my mother’s side, we were atheists. So lacking was my religious education that it wasn’t until my 20s that I learned that Sodom and Gomorrah were actually cities and not the racy and quite beguiling twin brother and sister that I had imagined. Since mangers and Mass didn’t fit into our version of Christmas, it was Santa all the way. If I’d known, however, that my parents were the ones scraping together what little money they had and working extra hours to buy gifts, I would’ve never asked for so much, but Santa had unlimited elf labour, so it was easy to wish for the moon—or a pink bunny rabbit stamp and Merlin, the electronic handheld game—without any qualms.
Near the top of Rainville Road, we lived in a duplex with a two-sided fireplace, which, besides the lush orange shag carpet, was its best feature. Once we used it to grill hamburgers and roast marshmallows with our father when our mother was out of town. The fireplace was spacious enough for a relative to drunkenly crawl through it at a Halloween party, so it was spacious enough for Santa. I would speculate as to whether he would choose the dining room side first for his beer and shortbread, or the living room to get busy stuffing stockings and piling presents under the tree, saving the snacks for later.
Getting the tree was a particularly important ritual to my father. The first day of the school break, my brother and I climbed into his work truck that he used to deliver tires and hit the road. We drove for well over an hour until there were no houses and the roads were bumpy and surrounded by forest. Then my father scanned the side of the road looking for a place to pull over where we wouldn’t arouse suspicion when we followed him with his axe into the woods to illegally chop down a tree.
It was a game, trudging through the forest, looking for the best tree—a game of tricking your kids into exercising and leaving their mother at home for a few hours of peace. It was cold and the ground was high and covered with hard snow. My father, in a puffy coat like the Michelin Man, and with snowflakes in his red beard, was in his element as he made us assess tree after tree. Because of this ritual, the smell of the woods is as synonymous with my father as the Old Spice soap-on-a-rope we got him once a year for Father’s Day.
On the way home, we stopped at the gas station where they were giving out free copies of a record called Radar the Happy Reindeer if you bought a full tank of gas, which we did. When we got home with our tree and the record, my mother had all of our boxes of ornaments out of storage and ready to hang. My father, like fathers everywhere, required a stiff drink to begin the process of unravelling the lights and meticulously attaching them to the tree. Meanwhile, my brother and I put on the Radar album. We felt confused and ripped off by the knock-off reindeer, but the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers Christmas album hadn’t yet come into our lives, so we made do.
The next day, while my mother baked and wrapped, I went with my father and brother on another mission: to shop for gifts for her at Home Hardware. It was about as classy a shop as you could find in a town like Langford where meat draws were popular.
“How about one of these?” my father asked, pointing out a Busy Bee Mop in a voice that suggested he thought it was the Cadillac of mops. “She’d like this,” he said, running his hand over a plush toilet seat cover like it was the hindquarters of an expensive horse.
In the end we settled on matching trivets and canisters with a faux antique finish. As far as my brother and I were concerned, they might as well have been real antiques. The only objects d’art we knew were a prized stuffed turtle that our father had picked up on a trip to Mazatlan in the early 70s, and a collection of beer steins that travelled with us and sat on the mantle of whatever house we were living in.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived I was verging on a nervous breakdown from anticipation. We hung our stockings by the chimney (with care) and were sent to bed after Santa’s refreshments were laid out, along with carrots for his reindeer. I laid awake for what seemed like hours before passing out from exhaustion, then woke, briefly, from sleep as thick as eggnog when I heard the sound of jingle bells and a hearty "ho-ho-ho" from the driveway outside my bedroom window. I must've been relieved Santa had come because I relaxed right back into sleep.
At the crack of dawn I awoke, my toes touching something when I stretched my legs: the stocking Santa had placed at the end of my bed. What a thrill it was to feel its weight and hear the crackle of tissue paper!
The rule was that we had to open our stockings together, which meant everyone had to be awake. I began to cough and thrash like I had both croup and epilepsy, in case anyone thought I was still asleep. My parents, I imagined, laid in their bed and savoured the torture they were inflicting by refusing to get up until a more reasonable hour.
Finally my father, sounding remarkably like Santa from the night before, called out, “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas!” and we were allowed to turn on our lights and open our stockings in bed, exclaiming to each other back and forth down the hallway—or at least my father and I did. My mother wasn’t really awake until she had a pot of Nabob and my brother had a habit of nonchalance.
My stocking included a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft and strawberry roll-on lip gloss, both of which felt very grown-up and exceeded my expectations. There were other things too—trinkets and candy. We were allowed to eat the candy even before breakfast because it was Christmas. The toe of the stocking also held, as expected, nuts in their shells that you needed the nutcracker to open, and an orange. It also contained, just when I’d almost given up all hope, the bunny-rabbit stamp. I immediately tested it out on the discarded tissue paper and noticed that it appeared more red than pink, but recognized that it wasn’t the time to be critical.
After my brother and I had opened our stockings, we had to wait for our parents to finish opening theirs before we were allowed in the living room. The wait once again became excruciating as they worked slowly through their stockings and took long sips of their coffees. My father got a customary issue of Playboy, which we weren’t supposed to notice, and my mother got an assortment of spatulas. After my father checked out our bounty, he instructed us to stay put and went into the living room. We could hear him "ooohh" and "aaahh", then exclaim, once he’d plugged the Christmas tree lights in, “Looks like Santa was here!”
When we were allowed in and I saw all the presents, I just knew Merlin was going to be under that tree. When I was handed a box that had a bigger bow than all the other immaculately wrapped presents, my heart quickened. My brother was handed a present at the same time that was also wrapped extra fancy.
I opened mine first. “Thank you, Santa!” I shouted when I saw what it was. I clutched Merlin, still in its box, to my chest and felt that I’d been a very good girl indeed.
My brother opened his present. It was a tape recorder. I was immediately jealous (which is why my brother later rented it to me for $2 with Christmas money that I’d got from relatives).
Santa had also brought me a talking doll. When I lifted her out of the box, her arm came off, leaving her with a clean shoulder stump. I came down the other side of the emotional high of Christmas morning and began to bawl. My mother removed herself from the room because the unceremonious amputation had made her slightly hysterical. My brother followed suit and while the two of them laughed it off, my father tried to put the doll’s arm back on.
The rest of Christmas passed in a sleep-deprived sugar-high blur. It was a relief to finally be sent to bed after turkey dinner. Though, I snuck my light on again after I'd been tucked in because I wanted to lie in my bed, which was still littered with bits of the morning’s tissue paper, and look at my presents again while Christmas continued for the adults outside my bedroom door. The bunny-rabbit stamp puzzled me. Why had Santa given me a red one instead of the pink one I'd asked for? Surely, he made mistakes with so many orders to fill—and I didn't really mind—but it gnawed at me. There was something else too. Some of the presents from Santa had a skinny gold foil sticker on them that said, “Made in Taiwan.” It was troubling, but I pushed the thoughts out of my head.
I turned the light off again, I got back into bed. I said some words of thanks, and then I slept.
With thanks to Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales for these lines of inspiration:
“One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
“I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”