Christmas in the Flats – (Potvin)

lebreton3Christmas was always a special time of the year. Every Christmas was memorable. It was both magical and religious. Somehow I don’t recall the Christmas decorations or sales in stores starting before the first of December. Then again stores were not opened on Sundays or Mondays and nothing was open on Christmas day, not even the convenient stores.

While we lived on Fleet street, we didn’t have a Christmas tree. Instead mom and dad would decorate a fake fire place. It’s funny how that fire place didn’t seem to exist the rest of the year, even though I’m sure it was always part of the furniture. On Christmas eve after supper, mom would start decorating the fire place. Cotton baton was place on the top, to symbolize snow. Then a wooden sleigh with six reindeer. String was tacked across the front from which hung Christmas balls and Christmas cards. Also the Christmas stockings. The fire pit and stocking would remain bare and empty until Christmas morning, when the presents had magically been delivered and the stockings filled. They were all marked from Santa, never from mom or dad. I cannot recall presents being left for my parents back then, but then again Christmas was for children. Nor can I recall receiving many presents, but then the few we had were always a surprise and we always had time to play with them before going to mass.

The Flats belong to the St Jean-Baptist parish, for the French speaking OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACanadians and Our Lady of Perpetual Help for the English speaking Canadians. Being French speaking, I went to St Jean-Baptist Church, which had the 9 AM mass reserved for the children who attended the school on Sundays and all religious holidays. Dad would always come to mass with me and, sat with the other adults while I sat with my class. I would attend my first midnight mass when I became part of the Christmas choir in grade 7. It would be that very same year, that I bought a Christmas present for both mom and dad. I can’t recall what presents I received that year, but remember the small cross and prayer beads I gave to mom and dad. Mom wore the cross Christmas day and showed it to everyone. Dad used the prayer beads each night before going to sleep. I think to this day, it was the best presents I ever gave them.

To add to the excitement, as I mentioned above, I had been picked by brother Yves, the director of the school, to be a member of the first boys choir. We met each Wednesday evening after supper at the school, starting in mid October, where we practiced Christmas songs for the up-coming competition at St Michael s Anglican church. To our disappointment we came in third out of ten choirs. Brother Yves consoled us by saying how proud he was and, for a first time choir we had done better then he had expected. Then he announced that we had been invited to sing at the midnight mass. We all felt like winners at that revelation. Of course this meant more practices for the two weeks before Christmas, along with getting our parents permission. The Sunday before Christmas, after the 9AM mass, we were asked to stay behind. We were lead beneath the church, wear the black robes and white surplices were fitted.

At 11:39 PM, Christmas eve, every member of the choir was assembled at the back of the church. Since the 11 PM mass was not completed yet, we were all quiet. Once more we were lead downstairs where we donned on robes and surplices. Too our amazement, we were then lead up to the jube (loft) and seated in front of the large pipe organ. It was the very first time I sat in this area of the church, looking down at the church. At 5 minutes to midnight, we stood and sang our first song, as the parishioners, started coming in. Perhaps it was all of the practices, or the acoustics in the church or the faces of the parishioners looking up in surprise, but that night the choir sang to perfection. Even brother Yves gave us a smile and a look of surprise as we sang our hearts out. You could feel the joy and pride as our words came out it song. We would sing each 9 AM mass for the rest of the school year, but that night was magical for each and everyone of us in the choir.

When I left the church that night, I was walking on air. It was snowing, those big snow flakes that zigzag as they fall to the ground. I was in no real hurry to get home, except for the presents I had for mom and dad. There have been many times since then, I’ve walked during the same type of snow fall and still feel that joy seeming to build up inside to the point of bursting. Each time I remember that Christmas mass.

Going back to presents, there was always one present that I received, although marked from Santa, mom would explain, that it was uncle Nathy and aunt Alice, my godfather and mother, who had asked Santa to deliver the present. Of course, this was said to ensure I thank them both. Once I grew to understand the presents came from my parents and uncle and aunt, the presents were no longer written from Santa. The magic still remained for quite sometime, since the presents to my brothers were still labelled from Santa. Once aunt Maggy moved in with us, we could look forward to a pair of knitted mittens or glove and a new tuque each Christmas. They were not a surprise gift, since once she had knitted the wrist part of the glove or mitten, she would slip it over your wrist to measure the thumb and fingers. I never had the right words to tell her how I looked forward to that gift. Don’t get me wrong, I did thank her for them each year, but those gloves, or mittens and tuque, were the warmest I’ve ever put on. I’ve bought many of gloves and mittens since then, but I’ve never felt the comfort that I got wearing her knitted ones.

Although we didn’t put up a Christmas tree, that was OK by me, since Uncle Nathy always decorated a tree. It was not until I was 14 that I actually got to see it decorated. It was always decorated the Saturday, before Christmas, even if the Saturday, turned out to be Christmas eve. It would remain in the corner of the living room until the day after epiphany around the 8th of January. I’ve decorated many a tree since then, but Uncle Nathy’s tree was always a marvel to see. Each year he got a spruce tree. Spruce, he was so found of saying was the real and only type of Christmas tree. Depending on the height of the ceiling, would depend on the size of the tree. The angel on top would always just clear the ceiling. The tree was trimmed so every branch seem to fit into and exact inverted vee. The balls were the old type fragile blown glass type decorated with different designs and colours. They were the same balls each year, but I never got tired of looking at each one as if they were new. Tinsel was draped over each branch, on strand per branch. It was the lights that always fascinated me. I was always invited for the official lighting of the tree. I don’t know how he managed it, but right up to the year he died, Uncle Nathy kept the same bubble lights glowing year after year, even when you couldn’t purchase those lights. They had become illegal to sell because of the fire hazard they cause. Then again the tree was never left unattended when the lights were on. The stem of the bubble lights came up out of a thin layer of angel hair that covered and hid the base where the light bulb was. The angel hair always looked like illuminated white clouds you sometime see just after sundown. The odour of spruce permeated the house all through the Christmas season.

I’ve received a lot of Christmas gifts over the years. I’ve never been disappointed. Many are gone now, but at times I’ll see a toy or article of clothing, reminding me of the times I had opened a Christmas gift that was just like it. Uncle Nathy and aunt Alice always had the way of giving something special. Not that all the other gifts weren’t special, but somehow, they always managed to give me something I had on my mind. The year I turned 12, I had a red boys bicycle, with coaster breaks and a nice soft seat. While delivering the paper, in the fall, I laid my bicycle on the curb. Just as I turned from the porch, the car, I had place my bike behind backed up and ran over my front wheel and fork. I was devastated having been given the bike by my parents in September, for my birthday. Tears welled up in my eyes as the man who drove over it apologized. I half heard what the man said as he looked at the bike and told me not to worry, since it was only a new wheel and fork that looked like it needed replacing. I had to admit, the accident was partly my fault for laying the bike behind the car. He may have offered to have it fixed for me, but I don’t recall hearing that from him, I felt so sad. I continued to complete my deliveries, holding the bike up with one hand, my paper sack hanging from my other side for a few blocks. John Brown a friend of mine saw me and took the bike home for me, while I finished my paper route. By the time I got home, everyone was relieved I hadn’t gotten hurt. Of course I was questioned has to how it had happened, didn’t I know the man and several other questions I couldn’t answer. Then I was told by my parents, they couldn’t afford the repairs. So for the rest of the fall, I rode mom’s old balloon tire bike. On Christmas eve that year, uncle Nathy and aunt Alice came over as usual for a drink and chat. At one point in the evening, uncle Nathy made a comment about my present. He asked that I come over Christmas morning after mass and pick up the present. I was more then happy to go, since I had not seen his tree yet. At one point in the evening he mentioned the accident I had with the bike. He went on to explain how it had not been my fault and the driver was always responsible for walking around his car before backing up. To this day, I’ve always done exactly that, before getting into a car and backing out. As I was walking home, I stopped in to see my aunt and uncle. My cousin Beatrice and her husband were there and everyone met me at the entrance way, hugging, kissing me as I took off my coat and boots. When I walked into the living room, there stood my red bike on a kick stand. They all starred at me as I felt the lump grow in my throat and tears well up in my eyes, only to run down my cheeks. I hugged each and everyone of them, last of which was uncle Nathy. As he held me, he said. “The bike has a kickstand, make sure you use it, when you’re not riding it.” I didn’t get to ride it until early spring, but each time I saw it in the back shed, I felt that lump rise in my throat.

Dad was never comfortable going out to visit friends or family. For this reason, when we lived on Fleet street, company was always invited Christmas day. By the time we moved to Ottawa street company came over both Christmas eve and Christmas day. Christmas supper was always served between 3 to 4 PM. We received as many as 30 people at times and never less then 20. On Christmas eve, ragout and home made tortieres were served around 8 PM. For Christmas supper, there was turkey, cold ham, roast pork and roast beef. The table was extended and at times a smaller table was added at one end. A long bench was place on one side, while folding chairs were added to the normal chairs we had for the table. Children were served first. Then the adults took their turn. Sometimes the adults ate in shifts, when there were too many to sit at the table. Even the dishes were washed between seating. We did not say Grace. No alcoholic beverages were served with the meal, only coffee, tea, milk or water. There were no formalities with the exception of dad’s place at the table, which was always at one end. Dad was the first to be served, by passing the various platters to him and he would pass them on. Like dad, you started eating once your plate was full. Conversations went on throughout the meal. You may find yourself talking to one person one moment and another the next. Once you had your fill of the main meal, you passed your plate to someone who wasn’t eating and then were given a desert plate. Those home made apple and sugar pies, or home made donuts, or a slice of home made bread, covered with apple preserve or home made jam. You left the table full, complaining you had eaten too much.

I mentioned there was no alcohol served during the meal. That is not to say there was no alcohol in the house. Dad always made sure there was beer in the fridge and several bottles of rye, rum and gin. Rarely did I see either dad or mom drink. Mom always bought a bottle of port and would pour herself a glass and sip on it for hours. Dad would only drink, if someone pour him a glass and generally that was a rye and ice, which, like mom he would sip. I would have the opportunity of seeing my father drunk only once in my lifetime, which didn’t occur on a Christmas eve, but we had moved out of the flats by then. Perhaps, I’ll you about it on a later date. I must say however, it was the first time I drove a car.

As for a Christmas tree. We did get an artificial tree, the last Christmas we spent in the Flats. That tree was put up for several years after, although I’m surprised how long it lasted. When I see old photos with that tree in it, it always reminds me of a snoopy Christmas tree. I’m sure anyone seeing it now would comment on how ugly it looked. Then again, it was one of the very first artificial trees made. It stood some 4 feet tall. It was made of silver tinsel. Because of it being a fire hazard, no lights of any kind could be placed on it. It was decorated with blue and red balls and had a stylized star, which we called a sputnik at the top. Yet that very first Christmas it was set up, it was a marvel to me. It could not be compared to uncle Nathy’s tree, but when the light either from the ceiling light or the sun hit it a certain way, the tree reflected almost a rainbow kind of hue of reds and blues. Perhaps I have a great imagination, but to me there was always something special about that tree. Having said that, I would never think of buying one the same.

I mentioned Christmas stockings earlier. Up until we kids left home, there were always Christmas stockings hanging either from the fake fireplace or just placed on a chair near the pile of presents. They were always stuffed with at least one apple, one orange and candy. Sometimes mom would come home with the pre-made stockings, but my favourite were always the home made ones. I always managed to eat all the candy along with the apple and orange before supper.

Back then and even to this day, mom always had a little extra to give to someone, who came over Christmas day, when we lived on Fleet street, or when we began the open house on Christmas eve, sometime after we moved to Ottawa street. It wasn’t much, perhaps a pair of stockings. To this day, I can still smell the fragrance of Suave, she had given out. They were samples of the product, shampoo, cream rinse and even hair grease, when it was popular for men to wear. These extras were wrapped, no names were placed on them, but somehow, she always knew to what sex the present belonged. I mentioned they were always wrapped. Having said that, I must say, that mom was very frugal. These presents were wrapped with any extra wrapping paper was left or, used paper that had held a present opened earlier.

I sang only one more time at mass on Christmas eve. Before I tell you about it, let me give you a little background information. The mass was held at the Sainte Famille school. This two story school house was on Sherwood street and was an extension of St Jean-Baptist school. It went from kindergarten to grade four. Children who went to this school had to go to St Jean-Baptist once they reached grade 5. I never went to this school, since I had been going to St Jean-Baptist even before we moved to the flats and continued at the same school. On Sundays, there was a 10:00 AM mass for the older parishioners who found it difficult to walk up to St Jean-Baptist. On Christmas eve, there was an 11:30 PM mass that finished shortly after midnight. Once I had started high school, on occasions I would accompany dad to Sainte Famille, when he didn’t feel like going up to St Jean-Baptist. Mind you this was rare. Aunt Maggy attended mass there regularly. My cousin Ronald was a tenor and, I’m proud to say one of the first tenors that sang at the opening of the Art Centre. I can still remember hearing sing the scales as far as a block away from his house, as he practice on a daily bases. As far as cousins go, we didn’t know each other all that well, only to say hi. He was much older than I and we met very infrequently. On one occasion, I was singing by myself while on a swing at the park, when he had walked by and commented on my voice. He had said I had a nice voice and with a bit of training, I could probably go far with my talent. He was even prepared to teach me if I wanted to. I sometimes regret having declined his invitation. I was to shy plus opera was definitely not what I wanted to sing. The one and only time, I escorted my aunt Maggy to the Sainte Famille Christmas eve mass, Ronald was singing at the mass that evening. We were one of the last to walk into the classroom that was packed. Aunt Maggy was able to find a seat, while I stood in the back. Ronald had finished his first song as he also stood at the back. Just before the mass started, he came over and asked me how good was my Ave Maria. I didn’t know what to answer and found myself being pushed out into the hallway out of earshot from the parishioners. “Come on do me a favour and sing with me during the Eucharist.” To this day, I can’t believe I agreed. As the mass progressed, Ronald stood beside me, writing on a pad. Once communion started, he passed me the pad on which he had written phonetically the Ave Maria. I must admit that the song didn’t start off as a duet. Ronald had already begun the Ave Maria, before I managed to get in on the gracia bena. My voice was a little shaky at first, but as we sang I got more and more comfortable. I never did sing as loud as he did, but lout enough for all who attended to hear. When the mass was over, we got all kinds of praise as to how well we sang together. Even aunt Maggy, who seldom gave any praise, commented on how beautiful the Ave Maria sounded. Unlike the Christmas with the choir, there was no snow falling, the side walk was ice covered, but I felt that simple joy of having done something really special. It would be years before I would meet Ronald again. He got married that winter and moved from the area. In fact, I would be invited to his home several years later, only to hear him boast about how we had sung the Ave Maria that Christmas eve to all the people at the party.

These are some of the memories I have of Christmas in the Flats. There are a lot more and perhaps next year I will write down more of what happened at this time of year. I could probably say that it was a simpler time and even poorer time of my life, as my parents said of their Christmases, when they were young. Then again even today, Christmas is magical to me. I’m not saying that at times I don’t feel anxious or a little scared that I didn’t buy the right present or perhaps didn’t have the money to buy that special gift. I’m sure everyone feels the same way each year at this time. The gifts are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the feeling of joy, laughter, song that goes through you that really matter. It’s the smile on family and friends faces. It’s the shaking of hands, hugs, kisses as you wish Merry Christmas. That has really never changed. I guess it boils down to love and being able to share that love with those around you.

Merry Christmas and all my love to you.

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