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.



The Magic $20


If you are under the age of thirty, this is going to read like science fiction.


When I was in my teens and even into my early twenties, the minimum wage in Ontario was under $3/hr.

On Friday afternoon, I’d grab $20 out of my bank account, and go meet my friends at a bar (frequently the El Mocambo, but there were others) in time for Happy Hour, when glasses of draft beer were 15 cents. (This is not a typo.)

So we’d get happily gazoboed till they kicked us out at 2 a.m.

Saturday morning (well, around noon, to be scrupulously honest) I’d drag on some jeans and a t-shirt, and head down to Sam-the-Record-Man to buy a new LP, maybe hit a shop and buy a shirt or something, too.

Somewhere in that, a couple-three people would go in together on a nickel bag of pot (and it really was a nickel bag – the price was $5. This, too, is not a typo.) or a couple of hits of acid. If it was the pot, we’d probably buy some halvah or butter tarts for the munchies later on.

Someone would be having a house party somewhere…there always was one.

And then, on Sunday, I’d scrape together the last bits of that $20, and meet my friends for coffee and danishes at a Fran’s Restaurant.


Nowadays, you can’t order more than two drinks for that $20. I know. I know. That dollar amount on the minimum wage sounds like it offsets the worth of that twenty.


But you’re wrong.

My first one-bedroom apartment cost $60/month, everything but the phone included. The average house price in Toronto in 1970 was $30,426.

Bread was 30 cents a loaf (27 cents for “day-old”).

A pack of cigarettes was 25 cents. If memory serves, a case of 24 beer was under $5.

Do the math.


And stop complaining that “millenials” are entitled or spoiled. The shoe is on the other foot.