By F. Joan Garnett
Christmas on the prairies in the 1930s. We had so little. We had so much.
Our house was clapboard-clad and stood atop a hill, bearing the brunt of the North winds that drove the fine snow into drifts – hard banks on which children could run as far as their little moccasin-clad feet would carry them.
And inside the poorly insulated house, nature had given us our own decorations that lasted all winter. On the glass panes of the bay windows, to which the smallest amount of heat was conveyed from the barrel stove, Jack Frost would have created wonderful designs: large swirling fern-like leaves, shooting stars with long points, and tiny stars in clusters.
If we were lucky, a Christmas tree would join this piece of artwork. The only trees in our area being poplar and scrub oak, we depended on getting an ‘imported’ tree from our local store. Probably a ‘Charlie Brown’ one, but it was an evergreen and that was what mattered. As soon as the tree had been brought into the house, someone would pluck off a few needles and put them to heat on the wood stove, savouring the aroma.
Each year, the same tree decorations would come out from below the stairs in our pantry. Precious glass ones of various shapes and colours, small ornaments, well-worn garlands, and the tinsel that had been carefully removed from last year’s tree.
We made paper chains from red and green tissue paper, glued with flour-and-water paste, to hang in the archway. I can still feel the fun and the industry that went in to this activity, while Mom was probably busy in the kitchen making vanilla and chocolate fudge and dates stuffed with walnuts and dipped in icing sugar. Parcelled up with loving care, these goodies were her way of mailing Christmas to my older brothers who were employed in the North by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
We keenly anticipated Santa’s arrival. The stockings that we put out were ones that we wore every day. Mine were pale brown cotton ribbed – the ones that always looked lumpy with long underwear bunched under them. On Christmas morning one of them took on a new significance. There might be a mandarin orange and a walnut in the toe, peanuts in shells, Christmas candy. And whatever gift had been bought locally or, if ‘Santa’ could afford it that year, one from the Eaton’s catalogue.
One memorable year it was my Dimples doll who, together with Virginia, is with me to this day!
The few other presents could not be opened until we had had breakfast and the chores had been done. The cattle had to be milked and all livestock fed and watered before we could relax together.
I can picture my father – agonizingly slowly – untying knots in the string on the outer wrappings of Auntie Kay’s parcel from Ottawa. No cutting with scissors or ripping the paper, and we savoured each moment as, one at a time, each of us shared the others’ discoveries. Then there were family gifts, mostly home-made and practical. Even the few Christmas cards that had been received in the mail had been saved to open on Christmas morning!
It seems hard to believe now, but the Post Office was open on Christmas day, and after the gift opening some of us would ride into town in the horse-drawn cutter, in the hope that there might be more mail. There was also the joy of seeing the village houses with smoke rising straight up from their chimneys into the frosty sky, sensing the quiet specialness of the day.
Such a treat to have a whole day together — skiing on the knoll opposite our hill, playing board games or cards indoors, perhaps reading a new book, sharing the warmth of the wood stove as we anticipated the dinner our mother was preparing.
What could be better than our own home-grown chicken or turkey cooked to perfection in the wood stove oven? Potatoes, carrots, turnip, all from our garden and (if grasshoppers and drought hadn’t destroyed the plants) corn that had been canned in the far-off warm days of summer. Pie from Mom’s mincemeat, Christmas pudding (sometimes carrot pudding) with hard sugar-and-butter sauce.
After dinner, water was heated on the stove to wash the dishes, youngsters taking their turns drying. Perhaps we played a few more games by the light of the coal-oil lamp.
As bedtime approached, there was a feeling of contentment in the air.
Contentment. A gift that can’t be bought.