Christmas has always been a time of great celebration in our house. The whole family went all out to decorate and help with the baking and cooking.
However, there was one Christmas when things were not so bright and shiny. When my son was two years old, we moved to Alberta from northern Ontario and stayed with my brother and sister in law, with their daughter who was six months older than my son. I was newly divorced and had no job prospects in Ontario, and at that time, Alberta was the place to be.
My mother had moved to Alberta six months previously, after a painful separation from my father. She was also living with my brother, and was an enthusiastic grandmother to my niece. When my son and I arrived two weeks before Christmas, finances were tight for everyone. My mother was subsisting on her alimony from my Dad, and I had only arrived and had not secured at job as yet. My brother, just starting in the welding profession, suffered long periods of lay-offs and was still studying towards his journeyman ticket, and my sister in law was a stay at home Mom.
As we sat about with our morning coffee two days before Christmas, we pooled our money, disappointed to find there wasn’t enough to get the children any gifts. All we gathered had to go to food. It was especially heartbreaking because the two kids bustled about the house excited about the coming of Santa. They were barely able to keep still enough to help string freshly popped popcorn, all we had for decorations. We had found a small tree in the bush and stuck it in a bucket filled with sand, borrowed from my brother’s sand bags piled in the truck for weight.
Popcorn and cranberry garland
After some thought, my mother suddenly perked up. “What do kids pay most attention to at this age?” she asked us, her eyes bright.
We looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean, Mom?” asked my sister in law.
“Boxes,” she proclaimed triumphantly. “They always end up playing with the ribbons and boxes. If there’s a box, especially big ones, they always end up crawling around in them.”
All three of us smiled in sudden inspiration. “A box fort!” my sister whispered, so the kids wouldn’t hear. “Mom, that’s brilliant!”
My mother smiled, gratified. She hated being a burden on the family, and coming up with a solution to our problem made her feel like she had contributed.
With my brother gone for the day, taking his exams for his next welding ticket, it was up to us women to bring this unorthodox Christmas to life.
We called a neighbor in the subdivision, and she agreed to take the two kids for the afternoon. She had three kids close to their age, and her house was normally chaotic, so two more would hardly be noticed. With three acres, on this nice warm winter’s day, she would simply throw them outside and let them run wild. This was perfect; it meant they would sleep that night.
We dropped the kids off, and in my brother’s rickety pickup truck, we headed to town. Carefully scouring the back alleys behind department stores, we quickly found refrigerator and stove boxes that were broken down and piled there after the stores had set up floor models. Like thieves, we raided the dumpsters and quickly threw the boxes in the back, driving away giggling.
The hour long drive back home from the city was spent frequently stopping and fetching a box that had flown out the back of the truck. Stupidly, we had forgotten to bring tie-downs. Finally my sister in law slowed down and drove on the shoulder while Mom and I kept a close eye out the back. We couldn’t afford to lose our precious, albeit free cargo.
We went straight to the acreage and unloaded the truck before picking up the kids. We didn’t want them to see the start of their Christmas present. Piled safely in the garage, we congratulated ourselves with tea before heading out and picking up the kids just before supper.
After the kids were in bed, we concentrated on making homemade candy and baking for stocking stuffers. It was two o’clock in the morning by the time everything had cooled, ready for wrapping in saran wrap and used ribbons we had found from last year. Then they were hidden in the garage along with the boxes.
The next day was Christmas Eve. The kids were extremely excited. My brother went out and gathered spruce boughs from the bush surrounding their house. He had the kids help tie them together and drape them all round the house, to keep them busy. They hunted for frozen rose hips and strung thread through them, tying those to the boughs to give shots of bright colour. To our dismay, they insisted on having some indoors. My sister in law sighed, resigning herself to having spruce needles all over the floor by Boxing Day.
Frozen rose hips and spruce cones.
We prepared Christmas dinner, ready for cooking the next day. We also made tourtiere, a savory traditional Xmas Eve meat pie originating from Quebec. The kids loved it, and to this day it’s one of my favorite meals.
After bedtime stories and setting out cookies and milk for Santa including a carrot for Rudolf, the children remarkably went right to sleep. We could only account it to the day spent outside with my brother, gathering the materials for decorating the house.
Peeking in to make sure they were fast asleep, my sister in law smiled as she returned to the living room. “It’s time!” she announced. We all rushed out to the garage to fetch the boxes and stocking stuffer goodies.
My brother found a box cutter and we got to work, taping the boxes back to their original shape. Then we cut out windows and a door. My Mom found paint in the utility room, and she got to work painting colourful frames about the openings and shingles on the roof. She even took the time and effort to paint dots on the house, representing lights strung in bright colours.
By the time we had finished attaching three huge boxes together to make a large house structure, the painting done and the positioning complete in the middle of the living room, it was three o’clock in the morning.
We gazed at our creation with satisfaction. Stockings hung and stuffed the homemade treats on the outside of the makeshift house with the help of wire coat hangers, we went to bed to snatch some sleep before the kids woke us up early.
The next morning, we were awakened by excited squeals echoing through the house. We got up, knowing that two kids alone, two years old, could get into trouble before you could blink, so we hurried out to the living room.
We didn’t have to worry. They were crawling around their new gift, my niece already taking control over the game, babbling instructions to my son on his role.
Their makeshift gift was a huge hit. For days, we never had to wonder where they were. They both had naps inside the boxes, clutching their blankets, my son’s thumb stuck in his mouth. Their only disappointment was when we refused allowing them to take it outside and invite all the kids in the neighbourhood to play in it. We knew the snow would quickly render it useless and soggy. So, inside it stayed. We did, however, suffer about ten more kids from the surrounding acreages in the house for an afternoon.
Within a week, the poor cardboard fort was looking bedraggled and rough. We attempted to gain more life from it by taping tears and bends. By New Years Day, we were forced to admit defeat.
We shoveled the snow away from the fire pit in the back yard, put the poor old fort, all the spruce bough decorations and the bare tree that had dropped all its needles on our living room floor. After supper, we lit the pile. The kids were excited to have a bonfire, dancing a path all around it, laughing and singing like tiny pagans.
For years afterwards, no matter how expensive and elaborate the gifts got, they always mentioned that one Christmas when they got the coolest gift and had the most fun ever! We were reminded how simple and accepting children were. We tried to incorporate some aspect of that Christmas, my favorite being the spruce boughs, with its greenery and the scent that pervades the whole house, bringing back the memories.
Perhaps, we should just leave celebration ideas to children, for innately they understand the true meaning of Christmas far more than us cynical adults ever could.
Do you have any aspect of Christmas that was brought about by necessity, but endured because of the memories they invoked?