Sunday, 24 December 2017


by Mary J. Breen

When I was four—so my mother told me—I entertained the parishioners at St. Teresa’s Christmas concert with a rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, complete with Shirley Temple I’m-too-cute-for-words finger-wagging. Even at four I’d already grasped why You better watch out. I knew that Christmas was about arrivals: the coming of the Baby Jesus, and the coming of Santa Claus, and the coming of presents.

My father was a devout Catholic, and for him, the four weeks before December 25th were The Longing of Advent—a time of spiritual preparation, a time of yearning for the coming Savior and the rewards of the next world. My mother’s preparations, however, were much more of this world. Like all the mothers I knew, she shopped and she decorated and she baked. She made Christmas cakes—light and dark—and Christmas fudge—maple cream and chocolate—and sugar cookies cut into the shapes of half-moons, stars, and bells, and then coated in thick white topped with sprinkles and tiny hard silver balls. They looked wonderful but they were hard as rocks.

Our principal Christmas decorations were the over 200 Christmas cards we received every year and which my mother hung on strings stretching from one side of the living room ceiling to the other. She also taped cards to the back of the panes of our solitary French door. Those cards with religious themes—The Star of Bethlehem, The Holy Family, radiant angels and humble shepherds—got first billing; winter scenes, Santas, and cartoon reindeers got the back rows. In a doorway, she thumb-tacked what I thought was an amazing red paper honeycomb bell that folded flat when not in use and which my tall parents bumped into every time they passed through. We had no wreath for the door, and no Christmas-themed candles, glasses, or plates; just the “good dishes” and the “good silver” that were taken from their newspaper wrappings only at Christmas and Easter. We had no Christmas tea towels or napkins, but we did have a white crinkly plastic tablecloth emblazoned with large red flowers that my mother said were poinsettias. None of us had seen a real poinsettia then, nor real holly or mistletoe, but we knew there was something magical about mistletoe since mischievous or dastardly suitors in cartoons were forever clutching sprigs of it as they pursued frightened maidens.

We also had a tiny winter village, and by the time I was eight or nine, I was allowed to set it up on the kitchen table beside the salt and pepper. My mother would give me a mirror the size of a dinner plate for the frozen pond, and some cotton batting for snow, and I would arrange the little white plastic church, the little white plastic shops and houses, and the tiny snow-topped evergreens around the pond. However, much as I tried, they never stayed put on their snowy hills and they were forever tipping over, especially during meals. On the pond was an oversized red Santa with a loaded sleigh and reindeers, the front pair already in flight. Our Santa had only six, not eight, reindeers, but if I looked down at their reflection in the pond, then there were twelve. I was very proud of our village as it seemed to me to be exactly the kind I’d seen at the beginning of TV shows of the day, those tranquil little towns in the distance being dusted with fake falling snow.

Everyone I knew had a real Christmas tree, usually a sweet-smelling fir. Because of the required solemnity of Advent, our Christmas tree could be set up but not decorated until Christmas Eve. My father would hammer two crossed pieces of kindling into the bottom of the trunk to give it a bigger base, but this never worked very well, and, like my little plastic trees, it often toppled too, shattering balls and lights, and making my parents a little testy with each other.

My mother bought and wrapped and mailed off all the presents. Except for those from Santa—Here comes Santa Claus!—which didn’t arrive until Christmas morning, they were all in full view under the tree alongside the parcels that friends and relations had sent. Although she didn’t forbid my shaking or poking or sniffing the gifts, I had to proceed very carefully so as not to knock over the wobbly tree, nor make it appear that I had in any way actually peeked. And that wasn’t easy as wrapping paper back then was thin and flimsy, and no matter how many stickers people used in those dark days before Scotch tape, the paper often tore away in chunks.

Apart from a cardboard star with silver pebbledash on one side, ours was a completely secular tree with the standard decorations of the day. We had no perching elves, no perching birds, no perching angels, and no precious ornaments made by precious children. We just had a string of large coloured lights that all went out if one bulb failed, and large, very fragile red glass balls—not the new pink ones that look like 3-D anatomy lessons. We also had my mother’s thick cookies hung from loops of red wool; peppermint candy canes that, with their crooks broken off, made tasty drinking straws; fuzzy velvet candy canes that looked like large red and white pipe cleaners; a rope of scratchy silver tinsel that looked like a giant caterpillar, and tinsel icicles. My mother was usually fed up with the whole task by this point, so she would just throw the tangled icicles on in clumps and be done with it.

My parents had not, of course, taken the Christ out of Christmas. The music cabinet beside the tree was the designated spot for our cardboard cut-out crèche, a two-foot-wide diorama that my parents called The Crib. They got it when they were married in 1938, and I still have it, now greatly battered. The stable and a huge yellow star beaming down on its roof are the only three-dimensional parts. The figures that fit into (and fall out of) little cardboard slots in the foreground are flat, and so are the background boards that show the Little Town of Bethlehem, some small cypresses, and two distant mountains. Inside the stable are a flat donkey and cow, and closer to us, a flat Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus in his manger, no crib for a bed, not swaddled, but calmly sitting in the prickly straw wearing the brightest halo of them all. Come and behold Him. In the grass on the left are slots for the adoring, flat, ragtag shepherds and their flat sheep and goat; on the right are slots for more sheep and the three flat Wise Kings and their flat camels.

On Christmas Eve, I was allowed to set up The Crib—everything except the Three Wise Kings. They had by far the best outfits, and the whole scene looked lopsided and empty without them, but the rule was that they (and their well-dressed camels) could not arrive until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. My parents called it Little Christmas, and they considered it a very special day as it commemorated the first introduction of the Messiah to us, the Gentiles. So, in our house, the Three Wise Kings stayed in their box until the Twelfth Day of Christmas, giving them at most three days in the light before they were packed away for another year.

As the date when Santa Claus is coming to town approached, I spent a lot of time wondering what gifts I might get, longing for the new dolls and doll carriages, the games and toys from Eaton’s catalogue that I’d asked for and which I hoped Santa had heard about when he was making his list and checking it twice. While I was counting down the days to that Silent Night, Holy Night, my father was busy adding Advent prayers to the many prayers we already said together every evening. My focus, he would remind me, should be gratitude for the wondrous arrival of the little Lord Jesus; however, as we prayed, right there in front of me in full view under the tree was a growing pile of presents. Much as I tried to think about this coming new and glorious morn, the longing I felt was entirely for the pleasure of getting at those packages. I’m sure this was evident to my father, as he would quietly remind me that when he was young, he and his sisters and brothers were happy to receive their Christmas gift of one orange each. His words made me uneasy, but they didn’t make me long for a simpler time nor did they make me indifferent to what was awaiting me under the tree.

I think my good father actually believed he could outsmart the forces of consumerism, and turn my attention to the proper reason for Joy to the World. He didn’t scold me, but I knew he didn’t like seeing me more enthusiastic about the arrival of my new six-gun and holster, my new beaded jewellery kit, my new bubbly bath salts, and my new baby doll than for the arrival of the newborn King who came on that silent night, while shepherds watched their flocks and angels bent near the earth to touch their harps of gold. He wanted just one thing: for every heart—especially mine—to prepare Him room, but I was still young and still governed by the very ordinary, worldly interests of a little kid who loved presents.

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Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Literary MagazineThe National Post, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing.

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