Here’s to life and every joy it brings,
Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams,
May all your storms be weathered,
And all that’s good get better,
Here’s to life,
Here’s to love,
Here’s to you.
(Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary)
A Traditional Christmas
It is the end of November and we are approaching the season when tradition abounds. Indeed, the word “traditional” and the word “Christmas” probably exist together more than many other combinations of words. ‘Traditional’ is not, however, a word I would ever use to describe my family.
A little background so that you may have some context: In the 1960’s, my blond-haired, green-eyed mother met, fell in love with and married my Jamaican father.
This was probably cause for some consternation in Ontario where they were at the time, but nothing compared to the reaction I am sure they received when they moved to Prince George, B.C. in 1969.
To add to the challenge, my parents decided to buy property in Red Rock – a small rural community 30 kilometres outside of Prince George– and build a house. My mom, dad, sister and I lived in a camper for a year on the property while this happened. Some of my very fondest memories are of this time.
My father was a French and Spanish teacher at the College and my mother was a home economics teacher. We always found this funny since Dad did all the cooking. Eventually, Dad quit his job at the college to dig his own ‘official’ lake (complete with island and bridge) on our property and start a fish farm.
But our unconventional family did have traditions!!
Our family had a tradition of making up words for ordinary things that no one else knew. Unfortunately, these words were ones that my sister and I had no idea didn’t exist outside our small family unit until we used them with “typical” people. Gradually, the looks of confusion became the signal that we had, once again, stumbled upon a word unique to the Girvan tribe and needed to do some quick covering of tracks.
Our family had a tradition of singing every day in our Jeep during the ½ hour drive into Prince George to attend school. We had an almost inexhaustible repertoire of songs and would take turns requesting our favorites to be sung lustily in 4 part harmony as the lodgepole pines flew past our windows and the smell of the ever-present pulp mill filled our nostrils more with each passing mile.
But the year-round traditions are diaphanous creatures in my recollection as compared to the substantial, dazzling traditions at Christmas!!
At Christmas, the fish pond was transformed into an ice rink where we would skate. There would be a bonfire on the island and when our legs wore out, or our noses froze, we would sit as close to the flames as we dared and watch the sparks fly upward to meet the sky even as the clouds contemplated returning the favor in an elemental exchange: frozen water in place of flame.
At Christmas, our singing on the way into town would be carols. We would practice our set of seasonal tunes each day leading up to Christmas Eve. Then we would drive to our neighbors’ houses, pile out of the Jeep, and sing to our dear friends – some who first suspected, then tolerated and finally loved our family.
At Christmas, we would soak bulrushes in gasoline, and after the caroling was over, the torches would be planted down the hill at the side of our property and we would gather to have a torch-lit toboggan run.
At Christmas, Dad would make at least 100 of his world-famous empanadas, which were a hybrid of a Spanish meat pie and a Jamaican patty. They were always the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.
At Christmas, my sister and I would raise the simple act of gift-wrapping to high art. We would wrap the most insignificant or mundane of gifts as if they were rare treasures. We would wrap things so beautifully that the recipient would be rendered speechless and refuse to open the gift out of respect for the brilliance of the packaging.
But probably the most memorable tradition at Christmas was the annual shooting of the Christmas tree.
You see, Mom and Dad knew that choosing a young evergreen would mean the death of the tree and they noticed that the tops of well-established trees were, by and large, fuller and more symmetric. My parents decided that it would be better to try to remove the crown of the larger trees than cause the demise of a young, small one.
How, you may ask? Well, it just so happens that my pretty, blond-haired, home-ec teaching mom was a deadeye with a rifle, and at Christmas time, this implement used to scare away lynx from the chicken coop was transformed into an instrument of celestial harvest.
The four of us would traipse to the back of our property. My sister and I, in snowsuits we were always quickly outgrowing, with snow cresting over our boot tops and into the gap between footwear and too-short pantleg would pray for a suitable coniferous candidate sooner rather than later.
Our 4 pairs of eyes would gaze heavenward searching for the perfect seasonal icon. Several contenders were dismissed in the early moments of the search – too sparse, too curved, too thin – but it is remarkable how the standard for perfection lowers in direct proportion to the lack of feeling in one’s toes. Soon they were all looking good and we would settle on the closest to a utopian version of Christmas tree that we could see at that particular moment with our frozen eyeballs.
My mom would raise the rifle to her shoulder and take aim at the top of the forest…
Truthfully, I don’t have much recollection of the details of “the shooting”, but in my memory clouded by youth, romance, wonder and frostbite, the tree was at least 100 feet tall and there was the crack of only one shot before the top 6 feet of the giant gently bowed to us and its branches like wings carried it down to our snow-covered feet.
Having completed our mission, we would follow our own tracks back through the bush with our angel tree pulled behind us sweeping all traces of our boot prints away – a pine-scented eraser for the forest floor.
Once we were back home and all of us had somewhat thawed, we would put our tree into a bucket of sand, put Bing Crosby on the record player, and alternate sips of warm eggnog with choosing the perfect decoration for exactly the right place.
My sister and I each have families of our own now, with our own traditions involving slightly less firearms, but without a doubt, we have been shaped by our wonderful, non-traditional, childhood and gifted by our parents with an ability to find the magic in singing, food, friends, family, fire and even occasionally, snow.
Gallery of a Red Rock Christmas:
Post Cards From a Distant Past:
On our private playground,
Click on photo to start Carousel