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FRUITCAKE AND THE "CHRISTMAS BOX" (and maybe a snowman and a moose)

Oh, Christmas, my relationship with you has been complicated!

It seems only logical that our personal family background impacts how we perceive, and choose to celebrate, Christmas. If we were deprived as children, we might compensate with large celebrations for our own family or we might see Christmas as simply a time to sit together for a meal. If we are lavished with everything as children, we might continue that tradition or we might choose to cut back with our own children. (Remember, again, it does not matter how we choose to celebrate, or not celebrate, Christmas - it is an individual choice, and it is all good.)

Growing up on farms on the prairies, with just mom, dad, my sister, and me in the family, and no significant relatives around (they were either a million miles away in Britain or a million miles away in eastern Canada), Christmas was a very quiet event. I looked forward to it for weeks, just as any other child did, but I was quite cognizant of the fact that my friends all had extended families and large gatherings to make Christmas ‘a big day’. Some of the families had a history of homesteading in the area, so many of the families were connected. As we moved a lot, we had no figurative roots in the prairie soil. Throw in the fact that, no matter how thankful we were for what we received, I was also quite cognizant that many of our friends received much more. However, in rural Alberta in the 1960’s, we also knew that some families received much less than we did. We would show up at the school and/or church Christmas concerts very clean and in our best dresses, only to find many other little girls in velvet dresses. I knew I would never own a velvet dress. But, as usual, there were also children who had less clothes than we had. Just as you knew everyone in a small rural community, you also knew very well their (and your) financial standing.

Regardless of our rung on the financial and social scale, mom always provided us with a ‘Christmas’. I never stopped to think, back then, how she managed to put Christmas together – isolated and financially strapped - for whatever we lacked, we also had. We always had one of her old stockings (nylons!) with nuts, hard candies, an apple, an orange, and some little toys or colouring books or hand-knit doll clothes. We always had a present or two (I have no idea where she got them from). We always had a meal together and a game of cards that evening (remember Canasta?). I don’t recall mom ever receiving a present. Mom ‘made do’ with what she could find – and this was difficult in rural areas in the 1960’s. There were no Christmas wish lists back then, no trips to the nearest big town for shopping, and we certainly never got anything from the Sears Christmas Wish catalogue! As mom 'made do', so did we.

But, we also received some memories . . . . dad had an aggravating (to us) habit that he would never actually use what he got for Christmas. He would put it all in a cardboard box and stash it under their bed. Once a year or so, usually when he would need some new aftershave, he would pull out the box and we would gather around as he joyfully pulled each item that he had been saving (sometimes for years) out of his “Christmas Box”. (I remember too much Old Spice.) He continued this routine, adding to the box and subtracting -occasionally. It was a tender moment when we had to do a final purging of his beloved "Christmas Box" when he died in his 80's.

Mom, being British, believed in the power of dark fruitcake. You either love it or hate it. Weeks before Christmas, she would gather the fruit and probably some of grandma’s brandy and make the richest, darkest fruitcake you have ever seen. The cake was then placed in a cookie tin and stashed, along with dad's Christmas box, under the bed. (We were often short of space.) I love fruitcake.

Fast forward years to adulthood, careers, families, suburban living, and rampant consumerism.

I do believe that if you have your own children, there is some added excitement and energy to the entire Christmas season. But, with no children (I know, this was our choice), you sometimes feel that you do not really belong even if you, thankfully, spend the day with relatives, because Christmas has always seemed synonymous with children. I cannot imagine what it feels like to be truly destitute and feeling that you do not belong anywhere. Added to this was the fact that, every day in my career in human services, I was faced with the population for whom life was not all roses (or Christmas ornaments) – poverty, violence, incarceration, mental illness (yes, some is self-induced but some people were innocents born into chaos; regardless, we all came into this world as unblemished infants) – and this was a huge reminder that not everyone has a beautiful Christmas home, endless presents, and boundless hope for the future. Plus, there are wars and poverty and natural disasters in the world right this moment. Throw in television and social media with the (for me) overwhelming advertisements and ‘Christmas movies’ that paint a picture of what Christmas should be like and . . . . that is just as much pressure as the old Sears Christmas catalogue!

One of the benefits of aging is that you become accepting of others and have also learned to do what is right for you without concern for what others might think. We had to create a Christmas that fit for us with no judgement for others who ‘do Christmas’ as they choose.

So, what do we do? The most liberating thing we did was to tell family, years ago, that we were no longer giving presents, and this continued until the precious 'littles' started arriving. (I remember the family clarifying, “You are not buying presents, right?”) Maybe I was just not good at the whole Christmas thing - I remember telling my husband, obviously at one weak moment, that Christmas is a big joke on women who have to do all the work of Christmas - shopping, writing cards, baking . . . Now, today, we love buying presents for only the little people in our life. We wrap them in paper that only has snowmen or moose on it (snowmen are so jolly, and moose are so beautiful) - no Santas in our house, thanks. I look forward every year to putting up a Christmas tree (it is four feet tall). We decorate the front and back verandas. Pre-COVID, we had neighbours over for brunch - this year, cupcakes and a card sufficed. We make our donations. We drive around and look at Christmas lights and decorations. We often attend Christmas Eve service. We usually eat a family meal on Christmas Day with some family.

Our tree is always topped with a little burlap angel that I won in 1976. I was four months out of my parents’ home and in ‘secretarial’ school (I had no idea what I was going to do in life, but that was a stepping stone to a job, then to university, then to a career). We had a Christmas party at the school. The goal was to win the little angel. The challenge was to go through the entire day without crossing your legs. Remember, we were ‘ladies” in training! I wanted that angel SO much, I went through the entire day without crossing my legs. It still holds a place near and dear to my heart.

So, we definitely don't 'go big' at Christmas, and we have not opted out completely. We have chosen the middle lane that works just right for us.

May there be peace on earth. What influenced your view of Christmas and how does it look for you?


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