Born and raised in a remote, sparsely populated area of rural Manitoba, my Mom had to share Christmas with 13 siblings. Large
families were common at that time. With so many to provide for, my grandma and grandpa Funk had little money to buy gifts. On the morning of December 25th, each child awoke to a plate of hard candies, several varieties of nuts, home made cookies and possibly an orange. After chores and breakfast, if there wasn’t a raging blizzard, grandpa and the older boys hitched horses to the sleigh.
With heated rocks and heavy blankets to warm them, they’d set off to a small Mennonite church. Usually a shortage of space on the sleigh required the hardy older boys to run behind in the snow. Later the girls would help grandmother prepare a simple, nourishing meal. If a stranger knocked on their door requesting food or a place to sleep, grandpa always said, “come in. My boys will put your horses in the barn and feed them.”
This simple upbringing and the example of sharing out of meagre resources instilled in the children a deep appreciation for Christmas. I’m convinced that for Mom, Christmas had a magical quality. I believe it approached on tiptoes, like an elf carrying a mystical gift. Even in her senior years her excitement soared as December drew near. She anticipated the season with the exuberance and infectious delight of a dancing 5 year old.
After I had grown up, Mom’s enthusiasm for Christmas at times astonished me. One year, at the beginning of December she announced, “this month Dad and I are going to celebrate Christmas every day. I have casseroles in the freezer. I have baked dozens of white buns, squares, three kinds of pies and lots of sugar cookies. My freezer is full. There isn’t room for even one more cookie” To us it was a novel concept but we certainly didn’t doubt that Mom and Dad would celebrate every day.
Each day that December she phoned someone and said, “come for lunch or dinner.” She reached out to single people living alone. If they went to the home of friends, she brought food.
Mom’s celebration reached its climax on Christmas Eve. My sisters and I, and our families joined Mom and Dad at a neighbourhood church. The lights were turned down and a skit depicted the story of the infant Jesus lying in a manger, attended by Mary and Joseph. There were shepherds with canes, the 3 Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Angels sang “Silent Night.” The hour in church was a welcome reprieve from the intense commercial atmosphere dominating society even then.
In Mom and Dad’s home after the program, there was inevitably one discordant note. Mom always invited a retired couple whose company my sisters and I, and our families didn’t enjoy. These people had money, but they had learned only to take, not to give. Never did they bring a gift for Mom, even though she had devoted many hours to preparing for this evening. Their lives apparently had been mainly about the acquisition of wealth. They seemed not to understand the deep satisfaction that comes from genuine friendship. Fortunately Mom’s cheer and good will and Dad’s quiet positive demeanour lifted our spirits. The couple ate hurriedly and then, in spite of Mom’s urging to stay, rushed out with the haste of fire fighters off to douse a 7 alarm blaze.
I didn’t comprehend at that time why Mom wanted them at the table with her family, especially on Christmas Eve. I wasn’t prepared to take responsibility for their unwillingness to give time to developing friendships. But Mom had grown up in a remote area where people were valued and a stranger was never turned away from the door of her family’s home. Only later did I understand she took seriously the angels’ refrain about “good will toward men.” She chose to love people and to bless them with the warmth of friendship. It was her gift to them, and the example was a wonderful gift to her children and grand children. She showed us how to celebrate Christmas with joy.