Once Upon a Christmas


My love and I went to art college, way back in the late Neolithic.

Art college sounds, to those who have never attended, like a lark. Just sit around finger-painting and drinking cheap beer – amirite?

That’s the popular myth. Real art college is like a four year boot camp: up by six, to collect all you need for the day, drive to campus, because at nine you’ve got three hours of drawing, followed by an hour-and-a-half of art history lecture, then another three hours of drawing, and then four or five hours of trying to catch up on last week’s painting class assignment, plus a couple of hours in the library trying to write an English essay probably due tomorrow – five days a week, four weeks a months, eight months of the year – and interspersed with weekly critiques of you, your work, and why-are-you-even-here-wasting-space-?-sessions with your instructors and your fellow students.

In my second year, we emerged on December 18th, having minimal amounts of money and absolutely zero shopping done (and let’s face it, you cannot give everyone your September ceramics assignments for Christmas *every* year…) and some friends decided to go with us to the mall to start hunting for stuff to delight our family and friends on the 25th.

We felt, actually, like prisoners on day-release.

It was as if we’d been in a cave somewhere for the last four months, and suddenly, here we were: emerging from the darkness, blinking in delight at the sights and sounds of a world full of people and stuff.

Like small children, full of silly jokes and giggles, and in ecstasy when someone handed us free candy canes.

After the initial euphoria had worn off, we began to take in the rest of the environment .

We were still high on the joys of the season. We were still – like hicks from the sticks – amazed and awed by the colours and scents and sounds, and by the mountains of eclectic and outrageously tacky but amusing stuff on sale.

But bit by bit, we began to notice other people around us.

And we realized that most of those people did not seem to be filled with happiness, or even the spirit of giving.

In fact, they looked miserable, most of them, miserable and grumpy, when they weren’t actively furious.

Like this was a chore.

Like choosing a small object to give someone else a moment of pleasure was an imposition.

Now, I grant you, shopping malls in December are not places of peace and tranquility. The crowds, the noise levels, the competing smells from every kiosk and store, the riotous colours of the displays clashing against each other…it can be too much for some people, but surely, since it happens every year, some of the population should have become accustomed to it?

There was loud Christmas music in the background.

And suddenly, out of the blue, Pat grabbed me and began waltzing me down the open concourse, weaving between the crowds, and both of us singing along to whatever the carol was (I really don’t remember) like we were in some 1930’s musical with Fred and Ginger.

One of the friends later told us that it was a “freeze-frame” moment – that people around us just stopped – staring, open-mouthed, at these two little freaks in woolly sweaters from Goodwill, and crazily coloured toques that we’d bought from a girl in the Textiles Department at school.



Having a good time at Christmas.

When the strain gets to be too much, when you start to hate a season that places so many demands and expectations on you, try to remember this:

Christmas is only as good as you make it.

Never mind the tinsel, and the urge to spend money you don’t have. Lay aside those cares and focus on the joy.

It’s all that matters.



Christmases Past: an excerpt from “Flashbacks (an unreliable memoir of the 60s)”



Christmas was always a big deal for my family. My mother might not have believed in the God of the Catholic Church (or any other conventional definition of “god”, for that matter), but she knew what joy was and how to expand it, how to transmute it into a living thing. Any occasion would do, but Christmas made it easy.

Preparations began after Halloween (another favourite holiday) and inched its way through carefully orchestrated stages to a crescendo of barely-contained excitement and anticipation; a stringing together of traditional customs and zany, goofy rituals she created, into a seamless fabric of happiness.

There were coloured-paper and threaded popcorn-and-cranberry chains and handmade woolly socks in red and green that joined with Santa Claus traps[12], rewritten Christmas carols, and stories featuring our own imagined characters “The Christmas Piglets”[13].

There was the annual and always theatrically overdone production of whatever Shakespeare play, ancient fairy tale or historical event my mother felt inclined to that year, invitations to which evenings were much sought after by friends, and then it was strangely echoed by attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

There was the deliciousness of tortierre, sweet potato pudding and turkey with sage stuffing, the magic of Japanese oranges, the heady sweetness of chocolate Santas, the buzz of Secret Projects and the sudden arrivals of long-lost friends from parts unknown.

And then, there was The Day itself which never disappointed, and there were all the days leading up to it that created a sense of both chaos and order, equally amazing in their turn. It was, in short, the best time of the year because she made it so.



[12] These were mousetraps, carefully decorated with glitter and ribbon, and baited with bits of candy cane. When I was very small, my mother would spring the traps after I was in bed, and use my father’s galoshes to make ashy footprints leading from the fireplace to the tree and back again. Apparently, I went utterly insane with joy at the sight of this on Christmas morning.

[13] I can’t describe this. Trust me: they were loud, vulgar, lovable and occasionally sort of gross