Cor ad Cor: This Week at Newman

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping
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A Canadian Christmas, Part 2

... Then there was the family circular. This also is mother’s work, though father, and in their own way the children, helped too. No one in the family used Facebook. You might have thought that they had no friends. But that was not the case. A week before Christmas, I saw them mail some two hundred letters, each with a new photo of the family in their Sunday ties. And, as the days after Christmas trickled by, almost as many came in through their door. Not having children of my own, I didn’t really grasp how much can change over a year, till I had read their letter for the first time. (I’ve since read many more.) Moves, jobs, books read, a book written, a birth, a death, each found its way into that letter. The best way I could describe their letter is as a “state of the union” report—except with cute pictures of the kids. I suppose they take the view that a family is like a kingdom.

A few other customs impressed me. One was the crèche. Somewhere near the end of the season, the family pulls out a small but lovely set of figurines including ox, ass, stable, some hay, and a miniature star. Jesus only arrived after Midnight Mass. The wise men only appeared well after Christmas day. Every year, evidently, these eastern sages remake their dusty pilgrimage along the bookshelves to trudge through the living room ever closer to the stable, and Epiphany.

During these days, baking appeared. Since mom was not at the mall, she had more time to devote to the kids, and the food. I was happy about this. The children baked too. This, of course, caused flour and sugar to ice the floor and stove; but there was good humor about it all. Even father got into the kitchen once or twice over these weeks.
One thing I did think was unfair. Almost as soon as the colorful sugar bread men appeared from the oven, they were whisked away like convicts into their frozen cells in the garage. Some of the children were also not pleased. (One morning I overheard one of the older brothers trying to explain to the younger ones about “pleasure being heightened by delay,” or something or other; I don’t think anyone was convinced.)

I was pleased to hear there were a few extra days when they did get to eat treats. They told me in particular about what happens on December 6. I wasn’t there yet, but a lot went on. That’s the day when St. Nicholas appears. The night before, so they said, each child hangs up a stocking. Shoes are pulled out, even mom and dad’s. For the good, St. Nicholas will bring a reward of chocolate, an orange, and maybe some small toy, like a pencil. For the bad, something else.

Alas! Not all children are always good. Now my cousins are good children. But twelve months is a long time. It is not only St. Nicholas who arrives. Each child knows that another visitor lurches behind him, watching to see if anyone has been grouchy, run away from washing the dishes, or kept their clothes on the floor of their room, or . . . you get the idea. Only a few weeks ago, so they told me, one little boy had been visited by Black Peter. When the children told me how events unfolded I was, frankly, shocked at how lacking in sensitivity these parents could be. Instead of a bright orange in his stocking, this boy found something else in his shoe: a lump of dark coal! Everyone’s cheeks reddened. The offending boy picked up the coal and threw it across the room as tears shot out of his face. Goodness swelled up among the brothers, they assured me. Sticks of chocolate were broken; orange slices were divided, and an intensely boyish sympathy was shared by all. But, as I say, that was a good week before I arrived.
So much for the weeks before Christmas.

Christmas Eve carried its own rituals, and these I did see. December 24 is the one night of the year when everyone, unless flirting with death, can stay awake long into the night. The house was mostly quiet. Father led the boys in cleaning the house. Mother made fish soup. The Christmas tree was now decorated. Everyone indulged in an afternoon nap. On the tree: I did wonder why they left this so late. No one told me the reason, but “everything in its place” seems to be the thinking. Whereas carols start bleeding out of shop speakers after Thanksgiving, my cousins said they were not keen to “spoil their appetite.” Even so, the tree gets dressed rather late for my taste.

About the Masses, I don’t really have much to say. Midnight Mass carries its own halo of mystery about it. The hushed walk to the Church under the stars, the frozen air, the bells, the Gloria, the incense, the lusty carols and good wishes, I leave all of these aside.

As a boy, I remember always waking up early on Christmas day. These children slept late. I deduced two reasons for this. The most obvious was the party. After Midnight Mass, this after-event lasted till 3 or 4 a.m. The other reason is that presents come out like a trickle instead of a flood. My cousins had six or seven kids then—I think they have more now—and each one gets a gift each of the twelve days of Christmas. Even I grew impatient for the parents to come down from bed. When they finally did, out appeared trays of chocolate, sliced meats and cheeses, crackers and sparkling juice for yet another glorious reappearance. After all had grazed, we gathered. All cuddled near to the tree and the presents. Father read from St. Luke’s Gospel. Then we had a carol. Only after that did the one gift of the day come out.

At first, as I say, I was a bit surprised at this routine, and the scarcity of gifts on Christmas Day. But over the next few days, I saw that a similar ritual was performed. Each of the twelve days, in fact, the children and adults were supposed to exchange one gift, however modest. Minimal chores were done. Father mostly stayed home from work. A few friends visited. During the afternoons, some portion of the family would skate, or play board games, or be busied with a new book or toy in some corner of the house. Dickens, I think, was a favorite for the father, and so was T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. At night, the fireplace was stacked high with ready wood.

“Is this when you finally left,” I wondered, shuffling the coals in our own sleepy fire.

“I only stayed the first six days of Christmas,” he told me. “I had a new contract to begin and a long drive ahead.”

“You must have been tired. Was there anything else you saw?” I now asked, amazed by my friend’s story.

“Not that I saw,” he continued. “But my cousins like to conclude the twelve days of Christmas with a party, so they said. I’ve not been to one, but they say it has a medieval theme . . . eating with your hands and such like. Oh yes, there is also an annual Christmas play, and the making and eating of gingerbread houses. But I wasn’t there for these customs, and perhaps a few others.”

And with that, dear reader, our own coals finally died. 

I stretched and looked at the clock which was now past midnight. My friend took his hat and bid me farewell. The next morning I recounted to my wife what I could remember of this family’s celebration. And since then, with this Canadian Christmas in our minds, we have tried in our home to keep better the festival of our Lord’s birth.

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