People didn’t decorate the exterior of their homes in those days but everyone decorated their tree and usually stood them by the front window so they could be seen from the street.
Christmas came early to Brett Avenue.
By this I mean that, for us kids growing up on this 1950s Saanich byway beside Swan Lake, Christmas began with the closing of school. This joyous event was determined by the calendar, and ran from the last Friday before the Great Day to the first Monday in January — about 10 days in all.
That last day before the break was the best day of the school year by far, being devoted exclusively to celebrating the forthcoming Yuletide with treats provided by our parents, an exchange of cards and gifts amongst students and our teacher, and the singing of carols. We even had a tiny tree in a corner of the classroom.
Little if any of this, I gather, is permitted in public schools today where even “Christmas” has been laundered down to “Holiday”. How ironic it is that, in trying to be more inclusive of minorities and other religions, many of us have surrendered, or at least sublimated, much of what made Christmas so special to us. But I digress…
I can remember the absolute joy that came with the December school break. It wasn’t just a holiday, it was Christmas, the anticipation of which had begun long before, as early as October. That’s when the catalogues arrived. Eaton’s, The Bay and Sears were the stars, at least in my home and those of my friends. These weren’t just ordinary catalogues with the usual adult things and everyday household needs; each contained a large section devoted to Christmas toys for boys and girls.
In effect, these were our catalogues, to be devoured and pondered with increasing impatience over the next two and a-half months. We pored over their teasing images of boys’ and girls’ playthings while trying to choose the toy(s) of our choice. That done, perhaps with difficulty for some kids although seldom for me, we made sure our parents knew exactly what it was that we most wanted, then sealed the request in our letters to Santa.
I can’t remember whether my parents in some way or other let it be known that even Santa had a cost limit or whether the things I wanted — cap guns, cowboy stuff, a jackknife, camping accessories and tools as I got older — simply coincided with their budget, but I don’t remember ever being disappointed. Not even when my father and Uncle Cec made my and my cousin Molly’s big gift for the year. Mine was a plywood gas station, Molly’s a doll house.
Would anyone do such a thing today?
Which brings me to another, current observation. Several times lately I’ve walked the aisles of a large toy department and marvelled at the vast selection, the imagination and even ingenuity. But almost every toy has three things in common: they’re of plastic, they’re imported and they’re based upon American pop culture: Barbie, Star Wars, Disney and other TV animated characters.
At least old stalwarts like dominoes are still made of wood. And speaking of old friends from my archaic past, I was pleased to find Steeplechase and Monopoly.
I find it ironic that, for three generations or so, some parents have disparaged cowboys and Indians, not just because it’s now seen to have a colonial/racist connotation, but because it gloried violence. (Bang, bang, you’re dead!) Yet half the toys I observed, even by Leggo, project violence — with a ray gun instead of a cap gun. This is progress?
Plastic, by the way, made its insidious introduction during my childhood when Daisy BB rifles went from having wooden stocks and grips to plastic. Now even the barrels are synthetic. Then came artificial Christmas trees.
But, I’m pleased to report, some things haven’t changed. For those so inclined, real firs and pines are still readily available. There’s nothing in the world to be compared to the sweet, pervasive scent of a real evergreen, something I learned as a kid when, with my brother and my cousins Molly and Denny who lived next door, we’d hike along the CNR tracks to find our own Christmas tree. I wouldn’t think of killing a healthy tree today but back then…
And what could be more timely, more apropos on our dismal dark winter nights than Christmas lights? People didn’t decorate the exterior of their homes in those days but everyone decorated their tree and usually stood them by the front window so they could be seen from the street.
Come the Big Day, after an agonizingly restless night, my brother and I started with opening our stockings before getting up, a ritual in itself with several neat smaller items and an orange. (Speaking of which, they were Japanese oranges not Mandarin, and they came, individually wrapped in green paper, in small wooden crates which were great for recycling or kindling.
You knew Christmas was near when grocery and department stores advertised the arrival of the first shiploads of oranges.)
Then it was breakfast and on to the presents, with my father acting as Santa and doling them out one at a time in rotation with the best saved for the last. This usually took us to lunch. But not the usual lunch of soup or a sandwich; this would be one of snack foods — various kinds of munchies such as chips, pretzels, pickles and egg nog followed by shortbread cookies and fruit cake, all as appetizers to Christmas dinner to come. (About the only occasion my mother let us make a meal of junk food and sweets I can tell you.)
So it was in my house, but not in those of my immediate neighbour and schoolmates, who long before had hit the street to show off their new bikes or skates or dolls. By dark we’d all be home again for our Christmas dinners of turkey and an evening by the fire, my father relaxing with a rum and coke, my mother, who’d shopped and cooked and cleaned and decorated and wrapped for two weeks, just enjoying a well-earned breather.
Boxing day was for visiting neighbours and/or entertaining company (more work for Mom). For me, Christmas, per se, was over. But I did have my new Gene Autry cap gun — and a week to play with it before going back to school.