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HAPPY HOLIDAYS from GERRY BURNIE!
Growing up in rural Ontario during the 1940s qualifies me, I suppose, to talk about an ‘old fashioned Christmas’. Officially the place of my naissance was called Pefferlaw, meaning “beautiful greensward,” one of those sleepy little burgs that time had passed-by almost from the time Captain William Johnston (RN) founded it in the 1820s. Even today, the main street consists of only three small stores, a bank, the venerable Belvedere Hotel (established in 1874), and a “Corner Gas” type service station and restaurant.
The up side of this is that it had retained all those quaint characteristics that one associates with a pioneer community, i.e. neighbourliness, cooperative spirit, and caring. Indeed, everyone knew everyone else going back several generations, for if one’s pedigree didn’t go back that far you were considered a “newcomer.”
It is not to say that it didn’t have its down side. Familiarity often breeds contempt, and feuds that had started with the grandfather could well be passed on to succeeding generations on both sides of the issue. Class and religious differences didn’t mix, either. Catholics didn’t intermingle with Protestants, and the local elite—doctors, lawyers, merchants, and such—drew the line at fraternization and marriage below their station.
For the majority, however, the cooperative spirit survived in the “bee”—that time honoured tradition of people helping people. For example, the neighbourhood men would follow the threshing machine or portable buzzsaw from farm to farm—an occasion of great excitement for us children—and the wives would literally spend days preparing for the noonday meal.
Great store was placed on these meals, for a wife’s reputation depended on it. As the threshers or buzzsawyers moved up and down the line, so did the tales of the meals they had received. Consequently, a typical repast might include pan-fried chicken, beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, salads, sliced tomatoes, green beans, corn and other garden vegetables, relishes and pickles, bread or biscuits, along with pies, cakes and puddings. There were gallons of coffee, lemonade and cold water to drink.
To appreciate what a feat this was, one should bear in mind that most rural properties were not serviced by hydro electric power (which didn’t come to our farm until the mid-1950s), and so even on the hottest days all the cooking had to be done on a wood-burning stove. Water had to be hauled in buckets from the well, and apart from iceboxes there was no refrigeration. Girls from five or six up were expected to help their mother, of course, for all the children had their assigned tasks to perform, but the bulk of the responsibility fell upon the housewife to bring it all together and maintain the family’s reputation.
An even bigger event was planned for Christmas, which in true pioneer fashion was a time for Christ, family and partying, in that order. Although the first half of the 1940s were lean years, with the rationing of certain goods like gasoline, butter, sugar and candies, there was plenty to eat on the farm. On the other hand, the availability of liquor was another matter. The local “moonshiners” who had stepped into the breach during the prohibition era of 1918 to 1927 were either deceased or reformed, and so my parents resourcefully teamed up with friends to pool their liquor stamps throughout the year toward the big day.
This, in turn, resulted in an annual pilgrimage to Lindsay, Ontario (a fairly large regional centre) to stock up. For my sister and I it was the outing of the year on account of all the wondrous things to see and experience, including (for my part) a kindly second-hand shop owner who would let me play on a piano while the parents were off doing, what I later discovered, was Santa’s shopping. This holiday spirit continued even after we returned home, for there the adults would undertake to assess the vintage of the Elderberry wine that season.
Preparations for the Christmas meal began as early as September, when the Christmas cake would be baked and stored in the cellar for the three-month “maturing” period recommended by the ancient family recipe. Meanwhile, the gaggle of farm geese would be fattening for market, to augment our meagre income of approximately $5.00 per week, and this extra money would be used to buy those special things needed for the celebration. However, two prize geese would be left hanging in the cellar to grace our Yuletide table.
As Christmas drew closer, the next cherished occasion was a trip to the woodlot with our father, axe in hand, to harvest the tree. My sister and I got to do the choosing, and it would be difficult to find two more discriminating arborists the right on had been found—a task that sometimes took a whole afternoon to accomplish.
After dragging it home, the decorating followed. Most of the decorations were natural or homemade, like coloured paper chains, strings of popcorn, ribbons, whitewashed pinecones, and gingerbread men that we children had baked and decorated. Nonetheless, there was always room for the Christmas Angel at the top of the tree, overlooking all.
At the school house preparations would be well underway for the annual Christmas Concert, staged at the community hall in Pefferlaw for all the proud parents and kin. One year my grade-four class was cast as ballroom dancers, for which my mother fashioned a blue velvet frock coat from a skating dress, and to show it off I dragged my dancing partner upstage and stayed there for the entire skit. Yes, even at six or seven I was already a ham!
Christmas Eve was always marked by a midnight mass, which was attended by everyone in the community—whether or not they were Catholic. It was an ecumenical tradition that had evolved quite spontaneously, and a rather nice one at that. However, since there was another mass scheduled for the first thing the next morning, a guest priest sometimes officiated at midnight, and some of these could be quite dogmatic. Consequently, one Christmas Eve when the church was well attended by Protestants, one of these over-zealous clerics began preaching about our “Catholic” duty to reach out to the “non-believers” and to shepherd them into the fold—i.e. “The True Faith.” Needless to say, Protestant attendance dropped off quite significantly the following year.
That evening was memorable for another reason, as well. As I recall it was a cold, crisp night, with crystal clear air and a full moon shining overhead. We had just arrived home from the church, and were about to enter the house when we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of a trumpet playing “Silent Night” from perhaps a mile away. Each note carried on the air as if it had wings, and we were utterly transfixed by it until it had finally finished.
Christmas morning began early, not in expectation of finding what Santa had left under the tree—although this was certainly part of it—but to carry out the ordinary tasks associated with farming. Mother and Beverley would arise at around 5 AM to put the geese in the oven and cook breakfast, while father and I would head for the barn—lantern in hand—to feed the cattle and do the milking. Armfuls of wood would then be brought into the house for the day, and water hauled from the well before we sat down to breakfast.
However, I would be lying if I said my sister and I weren’t excited to see what Santa had brought us, and so after bolting down our breakfasts we would urge our parents to allow us to get on with the business of opening presents.
We generally each got one store bought gift from Santa Claus, perhaps a doll for Beverley and a toy truck for me, and one gift to be shared—like a sleigh or a toboggan. Otherwise, we received new clothes from our parents and perhaps a book each from our grandparents. One year I received a copy of “Two Little Savages,” a story written for boys by naturalist Sir Ernest Thompson Seaton, and which sits on my shelf to this very day.
Treats like candies and nuts would then be set out in the parlour, which was generally reserved for guests, and shortly after that they would begin to arrive. These were mostly aunts and uncles, but neighbours might drop by as well, and at about three o’clock in the afternoon dinner would finally be served.
It was a banquet, of course, with roast goose, savoury stuffing, yams, turnip, mashed potato, dinner rolls fresh from the oven, churned butter, and both sweet and dill pickles. For dessert there was Christmas cake with coffee, and a choice of mince, apple, pumpkin and lemon meringue pie. Well deserved compliments accompanied each dish throughout, but it was the warmth of family and conversation with friends that made it a memorable occasion.
Then, after doing the chores and cleaning up, it would be over for another year. And so, before that happens again, may I take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
Gerry Burnie is a writer of Canadian historical fiction from a gay perspective. His books include Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears: Journey to Big Sky. His website is HERE
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7. Who gave Harry Potter his invisibility cloak for Christmas?