Christmas Eves remembered: eggnog and ghosts

Bedtime brought trepidation: bogeyman coming or Santa?

I have never, ever watched a horror movie. The prospect of being confronted on the big screen by malevolent beings, or seeing an anti-social nutcase wielding a chainsaw, isn’t my idea of comfortable entertainment.

But long ago as kids, we always looked forward to the family rite of scary story-telling, sitting around the fireside on Christmas Eve. After supper, curled up on the floor before the bright burning coals, we listened with our folks to the traditional blood-curdling tales from the BBC, on an old valve radio, (there was no television in those days). When that was all over, and my brother and I had stopped quaking, it was time for Dad to delve into the supernatural, by reading, with suitable dramatic gestures and comic grimaces, from an old

book that was only opened on this annual occasion.

Reassuring parental hugs and pats on the head always signalled time for bed, but after that evening of scary suspense, it was a real test of our resolve to climb those dark stairs. We knew though that we were expected to nod off quickly, despite the bogeyman lurking under the bed, because Santa was due to arrive in the wee small hours.

And of course next day, our terrors of the night before had faded into memory, while we happily wound up and ran around with the toys we had asked for, by shouting up the chimney, weeks earlier.

When television arrived in British homes, the BBC drama department rose to the challenge and the corporation continued to present a spine-tingler each eve of every Christmas. They still do, so I’m told, but for me the images of ghostly spirits, ghouls and goblins, so alive, or conveniently dead, in those old radio broadcasts, was an essential ingredient that nurtured our young imaginations. It was a bonus experience for us that was sadly lacking when the action and the sinister characters were actually portrayed on-screen in those grainy black and white pictures.

Of course family tale-telling around the fire is almost as old as human speech. Long before the arrival of the written word which advanced civilization’s ability to communicate from one age to the next, the pre-history and folklore of the ancients was handed down orally, from generation to generation, by tribal elders and healers.

Here out west, our indigenous Coast Salish neighbours relied on this system to keep their beliefs and traditions alive, because there was no alphabet, no written version of the Hul’q’umi’num’ dialect which had been spoken by their peoples for centuries.

I remember that years ago, in order to help the language survive for future generations, the far-sighted Cowichan Tribes council commissioned a major research project with the linguistics department at the University of Victoria. It was a mammoth task, headed by Dr. Tom Hukari, professor emeritus at the university, in concert with the very knowledgeable Ruby Peter here in the Valley, plus an enthusiastic host of helpful elders. They had retained the language in their daily lives and were happy to share their fluency and knowledge.

When the manuscript was almost complete, I was asked to get involved by my Cowichan friends to co-ordinate the design of the dictionary, to source a number of Hilary Stewart illustrations and to pass this material on to the printer. It was a pleasure for me to play a small part in this very worthwhile enterprise.

The dictionary has since been transferred into electronic software which is now used in local schools where aboriginal studies are on the curriculum. So thankfully, the old indigenous language, so much a part of our Island’s prehistory, has been revitalized and lives on.

But, I digress. The meaning of Christmas had lost much of its significance by early Victorian times and was in danger of disappearing as a festive celebration. But Charles Dickens, with much literary support, virtually saved the day — and saved the Eve too, with his endearing tale of four spooky, spiritual apparitions who convince the grasping, miserly Scrooge to change his ways in time to greet the birthday morning. This little story created a tidal wave of enthusiasm for the festive holiday. It swept the Victorian world. And today, despite the influence of rampant commercialism, the spiritual significance of the occasion is still meaningful to so many of us.

Telling tall tales on Christmas Eve may not be as popular as it used to be, but every year in our household, we sit together around the fireside, and by the blinking lights of the little tree we listen to the voice of Alan Maitland reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd on CBC. He recounts the tale of a lost R.A.F. pilot who manages to find his way home with unexpected help from a mysterious spectral stranger.

The Maitland classic will be broadcast this year on Friday, Dec. 23 at around 6:30 p.m. On the dial 92.1 FM comes into the Valley stronger than 105.7 FM, so I suggest tuning in there.

Of course it’s a ghost story, broadcast coast to coast annually on radio since 1979. But for us, the season wouldn’t be the same without it. And we always toast the happy ending to that story with a little splash of Irish. It does wonders for eggnog.