There’s no date on this photograph but if I’m right in estimating my father’s age as 6 or 7, then it was taken in either 1930 or 1931. In other words, two or three years into the Dirty Thirties, known elsewhere as the Great Depression.
Two years with little rain. Two years with barely any crop. Two years of rock bottom grain prices. Two years of working on relief projects. Two years of accepting relief. Two years of making do when there was precious little to make do with.
Two years of hoping after hope that “Next Year” the rains would come. That “Next Year” there would be bumper crops. That “Next Year” grain prices would go up. That “Next Year” relief would not be necessary.
Little did my grandparents know that “Next Year” would not come until 1938. That they had yet to endure the worst year of all – 1937, the year of no rain, the year of no crop, the year of the army worm invasion.
But that Christmas of 1930 or 1931, they found the will to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. They decorated a spindly spruce tree, hung a very thin Santa Claus from the curtain rod, and invited the Robinsons to join them for turkey dinner. They still lived in hope, in spite of the dire circumstances that surrounded them and everyone else.
Much as we do now. As we should do now. Like my grandparents enduring the drought, we do not know when this pandemic will end. We can only hope that it will end sooner rather than later.
Unlike my grandparents who could do nothing to alleviate the drought, we can do some things to alleviate the pandemic. Get vaccinated. Wear masks. Take reasonable precautions. Be kind.
And continue to believe in “Next Year.”
(P.S. Four chapters in “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead recount the dire effects of the Dirty Thirties on everyone, be they city folk or farmers.)
The top of every Christmas tree has something, usually either a star or an angel, to provide the finishing touch to all the lights and baubles and tinsel and garlands that sparkle and glitter and twinkle below. Ours is no different – we have an angel.
But she’s not any old angel.
Once upon a time, many years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, a little girl accompanied her daddy to the hardware store. She went everywhere with him because he was her hero and, in his eyes, she was his little angel (boy, was he mistaken! but I digress).
While her father conducted his business with Mr. Enticnap, the little girl wandered around the store admiring all the decorations for sale. And then, she saw it. Her! The most beautiful angel in the whole world. In the whole universe!
Her silvery shining hair was held in place with a golden diadem. Golden wings spread wide behind her. Her flowing gown was bedecked with golden stars and in her right hand she held a wand tipped with a star. And she shone because you could put a light inside her.
The little girl ran over to her daddy and in her best whiny six-year-old voice pleaded, “P-l-e-a-s-e, Daddy, will you buy her? P-l-e-a-s-e!”
Of course, he did.
She has graced our family’s tree top ever since. She came with me when I moved to Alberta and she continues her duties here.
Mind you, after more than 65 years, she is showing her age. The golden diadem is slightly askew. The starry wand has been glued back into her hand several times. Her wings are not as bright. Her backing is so warped by the heat of numerous tree lights that she is now held together with wire.
She is still the most beautiful angel in the world but not because of her looks. No, that beauty is a result of 65 years of memories, and particularly that one special memory of a father who loved his daughter so much he bought her the angel of her dreams.
Traditions – what would we do without them? Celebrations just wouldn’t be the same. It doesn’t matter what the occasion, we expect that certain foods will be served, certain practices followed and certain things said, and if they’re not, well, the whole shee-bang falls apart.
Traditions represent continuity through past, present and future. They cement family ties and provide a sense of security and normalcy even if all else is falling apart. They give us something non-tangible yet still very real to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
Traditions make sense to those who follow them; to outsiders, they might raise eyebrows.
Take the Christmas Fence that stood around our tree for decades. A fence? you say. Why a fence?
Once upon a time, many years ago, a certain toddler by the name of Margaret just couldn’t keep her hands off the shiny baubles that dangled off the Christmas tree, despite numerous admonitions and even punishments. They were so enticing, they demanded to be grabbed at, handled and, Oops! dropped and broken.
My Uncle George, who lived with us that year, came up with the idea of a fence. He cut a sapling into lengths, nailed them onto wooden bases, bored holes through them and strung two lengths of silver garlands through the holes.
I was informed that everything behind the fence was a “no-touch” zone. Apparently, I listened. However, if even the tiniest bit of a branch extended outside the fence, well, it was fair game.
By the time I had grown past the “grab and dash” stage, my brother had arrived, so once again the Christmas Fence was needed. By the time he had grown past that stage, the Christmas Fence was as much a part of the tree decorations as the lights and tinsel. For many years, once the tree was in place and decorated, we put the “snow” (a.k.a. white cotton batting) around the base and on top of it went the manger scene, the church, the snowmen made of styrofoam balls, the plastic Santa in his sleigh pulled by six reindeer (only six?), the pipe cleaner evergreen trees and, of course, the presents, all securely protected by the fence.
Yes, it got a bit ratty over the years, all that security work took its toll. Eventually – I don’t know when – it fell apart and was discarded. Ever since, the Christmas tree has looked so unfinished, so alone, so unprotected, without it!
Next time: Tradition #2 – she isn’t just any angel!
I hated it at first. Thought it was the stupidest gift I had ever received. Threatened to give it back, throw it out, anything but take it home.
It was a Christmas present, and what kid doesn’t like Christmas presents? Christmas is the best time of year for any kid. The anticipation of Santa Claus with his bag of goodies, the tree, decorations, food, cookies, candies, turkey and stuffing. But most of all, presents. Piled up under the tree. Piled so high you can’t see over them. And stockings, hung perhaps not by the chimney but certainly with care, awaiting gifts from Santa. Christmas morning can’t come soon enough.
But first you have to endure the school Christmas concert, the Sunday School pageant re-enacting the birth of Baby Jesus, singing carols, and trying to figure out which cup and saucer to buy for your mother and which tie (or socks) for your father, just to get to the best part – opening your own presents. You wonder if Christmas morning will ever arrive.
But finally, it does. It’s early in the morning. It’s dark. Mom and Dad are still in bed. Never mind. You tear downstairs and run straight to your stocking. There it is, full to overflowing. You ignore the mandarin orange and hard candies, and go straight to the good stuff – the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, the little toys. That will keep you happy until you get to open the mother lode, the pile of parcels under the tree. Now all you have to do is wake up Mom and Dad and wait while they have their coffee and make breakfast.
Sometimes you have to wait even longer because your family is going to spend Christmas day with your relatives. You bundle up in winter clothes, put all the parcels into the trunk, and away you go. When you arrive, the grown-ups have to have coffee, talk, eat cookies and Christmas cake, check the progress of the Christmas feast, and talk about the weather. Don’t they know that Christmas is about opening presents?
But finally the big moment arrives. Paper flies, boxes are strewn about, and in five minutes it is all over. Reality settles in. That’s it, folks! Now we have to wait till next year.
I was 10 that particular Christmas. We drove to Assiniboia, 40 miles away, to spend the day with my Aunt Kay and Uncle Bob (my mother’s oldest brother). Grandpa Higham and Uncle George (my mother’s younger brother) were also there.
It was the gift from Uncle George that intrigued me. It was a rather large squarish box, decorated with a plush cow’s head. That’s a weird decoration to put on a Christmas gift, I thought, but then Uncle George had a reputation for being a joker. It was the last one I opened. I tried to pull the head off before ripping off the paper, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally, I tore off the paper, opened up the box and pulled out – a cow!
She (and it was most definitely a “she”) was white with red blotches. She had horns, an udder and a silly grin on her face. She wore button-up boots and a bell. What a stupid gift to give to a niece! How could my favourite uncle do this to me?
Of course, my parents made me thank Uncle George and they made me take her home and put her in my bedroom with my other plush toys. But they couldn’t make me like her.
They explained to me that she was Elsie, the Borden Cow, the cow in the advertisements for Borden’s condensed milk. But that didn’t make her any less ugly.
What they didn’t tell me was that she had magic powers. She had to, because otherwise how could a despised ugly plush cow turn into a prized possession?
When I packed to go to university, Elsie came with me. She was a connection with home and family. That was important for me, being only 17 and 2000 miles away from home.
Elsie was also a conversation piece at residence. Students would come in to visit, see her, and ask “What’s with the cow?” I would tell them the story, and they’d look at me like I was crazy. She was unique, and somehow by association that made me unique. That was important because I was at that point in life when I was trying to find out who I was and what made me tick.
Elsie is still with me. Like me, she’s a bit worse for the wear sixty-some years later. Her hind legs are bowed under her, her boots are dirty, her coat not as plushy. She still has her bell and her silly grin, and she sports a 1968 McGill Winter Carnival pin. I’ve grown to love her for who she is, slightly quirky, definitely herself.
“Do we have everything?”
“Check the recipe and see what we need.”
I make a list: currants, sultanas, dark raisins, almonds (whole and slivered), almond flavouring, glace cherries, mixed peel.
“Do we have enough butter and sugar?”
“I think so, but check.”
Sugar, yes, but we’ll need several more pounds of butter.
“I’ll do the shopping.”
I go to Mom’s home Friday night. We’ll have to start early Saturday morning to get everything baked. We start watching a silly Christmas movie on TV.
“We have to get the fruit soaking.”
Into the kitchen, dump currants, raisins, fruit into a bowl.
“Rum or brandy?”
“How about both?”
We giggle. And pour in the alcohol. Continue reading “Christmas Baking with Mom”→