It’s that wonderful time of the year when old fogeys wax nostalgic about Christmases Past and how great they were compared to the hectic, grasping, consumer-driven nihilistic modern version delivered upon our poor offspring.
So why should I be any different, being a Certified Old Fogey and all?
Because the rose-coloured-glasses selected recall is all a bunch of hooey and flapdoodle, that’s why.
People, people, people, give due respect to the tales of your parents (like, don’t laugh out loud until they’ve turned in early and you’re outside smoking a joint from their stash), but take it all with a large grain of Mrs. Dash.
Look, here is how it really happened for those of us in the Baby Boom Mafia (don’t use my name because I’m breaking the Code of Silence and some grey-haired ponytails may retaliate by coming over to burn my Rolling Stones album collection.)
Back in the day, my holiday started around Dec. 1 with the traditional ritual of “Sign Here”.
My parents sent out at least 500 Christmas cards because that was what you did in 1950s version of the internet, guaranteeing 500 in return that made up most of our holiday decorations. (The classiest cards covered every horizontal surface in the house and the rest were either taped around door frames or hung on strings that ran all over the place.)
To activate the process, however, my two brothers and myself had to “sign here” on each outgoing Hallmark rather than doing more important things, like waiting for TV to finally reach our region in outland Quebec by the early 1960s. (Even worse, we had to add personal notes to some cards to suck up to people like Grandma so she would include our annual $5 each in her return.)
By week two of the month, we had to raid our penny jars to buy inadequate gifts for Mom (cheap perfume she would keep until we threw it out after her funeral 50 years later) and Dad (a carton of unfiltered Sweet Caps cigarettes he demolished before New Year’s).
At the same time, we had to tackle the outdoor lights, state-of-the-art wonders that used more power than the province of Saskatchewan (big deal—we paid $8 a month for hydro) and were likely in the top-10 things that contributed to today’s global warming.
Inevitably, one bulb would have committed suicide after 11 months stuck in the attic, shutting down the entire family unit that shared its electrical cord. It takes less time to score on Lotto 649 today than it did to do the gazillion combinations to find and replace the dearly departed so its companions could shine on.
The natural tree sat in a standard bucket, anchored and levelled with coal and water (we heated our houses with coal back then until later converting to oil which won’t hold a Christmas tree up worth shit.) Of course, the tree couldn’t be anywhere near the hot-water radiators, which we had to regularly “bleed” in a steamy exercise to stop a great air-bubble thumping noise from the central heating that eventually became the foundation of disco music in the 70s.
By mid-month, we were awash in over-wrapped packages, from umpteen aunts and uncles, that Dad picked up daily from the CN Express depot at the train station. On Christmas day, we would discover they contained things we pretended to love then (knitted wool socks, scarves and toques) and that we would kill to have now.
With two weeks to go, we entered the “don’t touch” phase (even worse than “sign here”) when Mom would bake a million incredible things that were destined for kids a lot luckier than us because they were poor and would get to eat stuff like cookies, cakes and pies we weren’t allowed to touch.
Charity may start at home, but quickly went out the door to evil black holes called “the Church” or the “Women ’s Auxiliary bake sale” or the “Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire” benevolent trough of terminal tooth decay. We were left to scrape off the burnt edges of the rejects that didn’t quite make it up to the poor-person standard while serving as guinea pigs for interesting things arising from Mom’s surprise confusion between baking powder and baking soda.
All this was brightened by daily dumps of snow that started back around Halloween (in Quebec’s Saguenay Valley, there is no term—in French of English—for “Green Christmas”, or Green Easter, for that matter.) We did have a term for our big snow-free holiday, which we quaintly called “August”.
The snow would melt on the outdoor lights and inevitably short out something for another round of bulb roulette as the boys dug six-foot deep troughs to the outside world so the milkman, breadman, mailman, paperboy, preacher and our local beat cops could arrive unimpeded to pick up their seasonal loot (mainly booze, except for the paperboy, who wouldn’t have turned it down if offered).
We boys were also responsible for other seasonal chores, like hauling hundreds of pounds of furnace ashes out to cover slippery parts of the walkways, playing bit parts (third shepherd on the left) in the school’s Nativity play and extracting strings of stainless icicle strands from the alimentary canals of stupid cats who seemed to just love eating that stuff.
On the Big Day Itself, we awoke to Slim Whitman yodelling carols on the hi-fi (ask your parents) and were forced to actually eat eggs and porridge before finally opening our new stash of toques and socks knitted for someone five years younger and 50 pounds smaller.
Then we gathered around the phone so that all five of us could talk long distance to at least five people on the other end before the big phone charges cut in after 60 seconds. (“Hi, Gram, Merry Christmas, thanks for the $5, loved your card. Mildred Parsnip, quit listening in on the party line, you snoop!”)
For Christmas dinner, we were forced to eat all parts of a stupid turkey when we really were turned on by breasts, not to mention the abomination of things vegetarian called sweet potatoes and green beans that defied even minimal improvement through the lavish application of ketchup.
Things are not like that nowadays.
I plug in 1,000 Noma LED lights bought for peanuts over the last five years and they all flame up without a flicker.
The tree sits in a holder that would have saved the World Trade Centre towers on 9-11, fed water and nutrients through an automatic nourishment system more complex that the computers that took us to the Moon.
We press “send” to ship out our Christmas cards over the internet and print the ones for old, rich relatives who might remember us in their wills.
The turkey breasts come in a frozen pack from Loblaws, in just the right amount to mean the cat will get zip in the way of leftovers and the raccoons will have no reason to assault our garbage. The stuffing is in a box. The au gratin potatoes are in a box. The gravy and cranberries in cans. Even the wine has a twist-off cap. There are no flippin’ sweet potatoes.
A pile of presents about the size of a deck of cards sits under the tree, consisting mainly of gift cards that took at least a square foot of paper and five minutes to wrap. The classic tones of Bing Crosby and Dean Martin flow from the I-Pod plugged into the Bose stereo system as a choice of roaring fires crackle from umpteen cable channels on the TV, scented by ample applications of Glade air fresheners. We use Skype to video-link with relatives and friends. Thanks to global warming, there is no snow and the polar bear can join the dodo as long as our shovels rust.
Hell, it’s all so hassle-free that I can have two naps before zapping the traditional President’s Choice Yorkshire pudding in the microwave.
With all this time on our hands, we can only cast our eyes on the trappings of a modern Christmas and recall the Good Old Days.