Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas A Long Time Ago

Manger Scene (Pinterest)
Manger Scene (Pinterest)

Walking by the elaborate colourful Christmas displays in Rona’s Penticton store last week, I became aware of how differently the season was celebrated by my family when I was a kid. Until I was 5, we lived in a remote, sparsely populated village in rural Manitoba. My maternal grandparents, Abram and Susana Funk lived at the centre. Scattered around them on small acreages were their 14 offspring and numerous grandchildren.

The actual village, Barkfield, consisted of only about half a dozen houses. The road through the community was little more than a dirt trail, wide enough for one vehicle. The Funks travelled mostly on horseback or by horse drawn buggy or sleigh.

Having access to no more than a rudimentary education, the Funks lived uncomplicated lives. Most owned a small flock of chickens, a few cows, several pigs, and one or two horses. They relied on gardens for much of their food. The men, out of necessity, became expert hunters and spent many frigid winter days on horseback, hoping to shoot a deer or moose to feed their families. They were skilled with axes and saws and worked in the bush, making cordwood to sell. The women cooked, baked, tended their garden and raised large families. Without exception their hair was as black as any Mohawk or Cree, and because they worked outdoors so much, their skin was deeply tanned.

Although they possessed little, Grandpa and Grandma Funk gave the children an example of unreserved hospitality, especially in winter when it was most needed. Frequently a traveling peddler knocked on their door, hoping for a bed and a meal, plus hay and water for their horse. These were always gladly supplied.

The lives of the Funks, like many rural Manitobans in the 1930’s and 40’s, were uncluttered by an abundance of income or possessions. There wasn’t much to give. I was about age 3 when I first became aware of Christmas. Mom’s brother and family stayed in our home the night of December 24. Because there were few beds, my cousin Eddy and I slept on the floor. In the morning we were astonished and delighted to discover beside each of us a small metal truck with wheels of pressed paper. Compared to what our grandchildren will receive on the night of the 24th this year it was meager, but it did not occur to us that we were deprived.

Later Mom secretly placed home made cookies, decorated with icing and sparkles, on the snow around our home. We whooped happily each time we found one. Mom, like her siblings, loved snow, family and Christmas. Already as a young boy I sensed her awe and excitement for the season.

For Mom and her siblings, there seemed to be a mystique around Christmas, a magic usually only experienced by children. As a child I caught this for a time but when we moved from Barkfield and the Funk clan to B.C., it began to recede. Now, after many years I’ve become aware of a void in my inner being during this season.

Reflecting back on those early years, I wonder if the Funk family’s excitement and joy at Christmas was possible because they were not exposed to the prosperity and sophistication prevailing in our time. Did this allow for a willingness to embrace the miraculous account of a Messiah born in a stable in Bethlehem, surrounded by sheep and other livestock? For them it was not a great stretch to believe that angels appeared to shepherds tending their flocks in the fields and proclaiming this child was the son of God.

This was all part of my Mennonite upbringing and I recall Christmas Eve scenes depicting Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus in the stable. The Magi presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There were always angels proclaiming, “glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to all men.”

It seems an unlikely narrative. However, the stylized box store reindeer and unrealistic silver Christmas trees have no power to inspire a sense of wonder in me. Knowing something about the excitement and awe experienced by my forebears, the Funk family, I’m inclined toward the supernatural manger scene account.

A Telephone Call At Christmas

Actor Marc Lawrence as a gangster, a role model for Shefield (photo Wikipedia)
Actor Marc Lawrence as a gangster, a role model for Shefield (photo Wikipedia)

I was doing research into inmate culture at Matsqui Institution for a fourth year Sociology course at SFU. On this day Shefield and I were sitting on stiff backed wooden chairs in a cramped interview room. About 35, with an unsmiling face that was prematurely lined, he seemed a man who would never enter into a conversation with a prison guard or counsellor. After observing me a few minutes, he seemed to decide I could be trusted. Much like a penitent sinner who feels compelled to tell all in a confessional, he began talking about memories from his dark past.

Speaking out the side of his mouth with the wary mannerisms of a gangster in a movie he said, “You’re my first visit here. I’m doing a lot of time. Shot a cop in the leg in an armed robbery.” He paused and I sensed he was assessing my reaction to this revelation. I waited. “Last time I saw my parents was in the Stony Mountain Penn in Manitoba, 6 years ago. They gave us 45 minutes. The folks had come from Ontario.” His watchful eyes glanced about uneasily, as though suspecting a hidden microphone.

My life changed big time playing poker with some guys I met in a bar one night,” he said. “Got behind real bad. When my money was gone, I threw my house on the table. I knew it was a mistake, but I wasn’t going to walk out a loser. Luck wasn’t with me. Those guys cleaned me out.”

He ran a hand through his thinning black hair, then in scarcely a whisper said, “I had to go home and tell my old lady and 2 young boys we were moving. She told me she’d had enough of my crazy life. She and the boys would move out on their own and I could go to hell or anywhere I wanted.”

He shifted uneasily in his chair. “I was a fool,” he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. “Wanted to get everything back in a hurry. That’s how the armed robbery happened. A witness picked me out in a line up. The judge wasn’t joking when he said he was giving me a lot of time to think about my life. Never saw the old lady or the kids again.” We talked further and when our allotted hour was up, a guard pushed open the door, jangled his keys and told Shefield to move out.

When I completed my interviews with inmates and staff 2 weeks later, the conversation with Shefield lingered in my mind. After handing in my final assignment, I began visiting him. In time a measure of trust developed between us and when he became eligible for citizen escorted absences, I brought him home several times.

A few weeks before Christmas, Linda and I asked Shefield if he wanted to go with us to a program in a local church on the 24th, then stay in our home over night. He was apprehensive about being in a crowd of strangers, but decided it would be preferable to staying inside the prison walls.

At the church on Christmas Eve, he became anxious so I took him downstairs where a few others were hanging out. Shefield quickly got into a discussion with Willie, a man I’d known many years. When he realized Willie was a Calgary City police officer, he became agitated and argumentative. After a few minutes I explained to Willie that Shefield was an inmate at Matsqui. Willie was as hardened against criminals as Shefield was against authority. He never spoke to me again.

Shefield slept on our couch that night and the next morning I said, “Shefield, I’m sure it would be very special for your parents to hear from you. Our Christmas present to you is a telephone call to them.”

We were able to obtain a number from Directory Assistance and as he was dialing, I left the room. From the adjacent room I could hear his voice but not understand the words. When the conversation ended I returned to the kitchen. Shefield was unashamedly dabbing at his eyes with a hankie. He seemed surprised. In a shaky voice he said, “I guess that proves I’m human after all.”

For each of us, Christmas can be a time when we reach out, reconnect, and recommit to relationships that were once precious to us.

A Treasured Christmas Memory

Christmas-Tree-In-House-With-Presents-ideas

Domination of the holiday season by the corporate world appears to have doomed to obscurity the concept of the Christmas Spirit. Even a jovial mall Santa and brightly wrapped gifts under a tinsel bedecked evergreen cannot conjure up the deep joy and inner excitement many of us hope will enter our lives during this special season.

Linda and I were early in our dating relationship when we were gifted with a Christmas Spirit inducing memory. I was 19 and she was 16. It was the middle of December when the seed of the memory was sown on a road in a remote, heavily forested area behind Mission B.C.

I recall with great clarity the dark cloud that moved in rapidly and unexpectedly unleashed a drenching downpour. The windshield wipers could scarcely cope with the deluge. In the distance a grey figure became discernible, bumping in our direction beside the road. I slowed the car as we passed by. It was an elderly woman, her sodden coat wrapped tightly about her. Face toward the ground and shoulders slumping forward, she appeared feeble, miserable and utterly dejected.

Linda gasped and said, “she needs help!” I turned the car around and pulled alongside her. “Would you like a ride?” I asked. She nodded wearily, relief and gratitude on her disconsolate, lined face. I opened the rear door and, encumbered by her heavy wet coat, she clambered in awkwardly.

In a quiet, slightly quavering voice, she directed me to an obscure gravelled road. “There,” she said, “that’s where I live.” I pulled the car into a barely discernible driveway and opened the door for her. “Thank you,” she said, “I didn‘t think I’d get here.” Her teeth chattered but she declined my offer to assist her to the door of her shack.

I forgot about the woman, but Linda didn’t. The evening of December 24th, an almost full moon shining overhead, we drove again to the elderly woman’s home. Pale light shone through the only 2 windows. Walking toward the house, holding hands, we heard a dog bark inside. I knocked on the door, and the dog barked again. After waiting a long minute in the chill night air, I knocked a second time, more vigorously. Still no answer, so I made a fist and banged with considerable force. Excited barking suggested there might be more than one dog.

Sounds emanated from inside, as though the shack was shifting. Finally the door opened just enough to reveal the woman’s wispy face and uncombed hair. It was evident she wasn’t accustomed to company, especially two strangers after darkness had set in. She peered warily through the barely open door.

“Hello,” Linda said. “We picked you up a few weeks ago when it rained so hard. We’re here to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Reassured, she stepped out onto the porch, clad in a flimsy house coat. “I’d invite you in,” she said apologetically, “but I have 17 dogs in there.”

She glanced up at the nearly full moon, then asked, “is it Christmas?” In the light of the moon a wistful expression on her lined face was clearly visible. “When I was a child my grandparents took me to church with them one Christmas Eve,” she said. “There was a manger and shepherds with sheep. A baby lay in the manger. They said it was Jesus. That was many years ago. I had forgotten.”

nativity scene 3

We talked for about 5 minutes, then saw she was shivering in the December air. Linda presented her with a small gift and we bade her farewell. She followed us to the car. As I backed onto the road, she stood clearly silhouetted in the light of the moon. Waving vigorously, she called, “Au revoir! Au revoir!” I turned down the car window, waved, and responded “auf wieder sehen!” As we drove away, she continued to wave and call out “au revoir!”

In time, Linda and I were married, adopted 2 wonderful children and pursued careers. I rarely thought about the little lady living alone with 17 dogs in an unpainted shack. A few years ago, just before Christmas I thought of her standing alone in the moonlight, waving with great fervour and calling “au revoir!”

Now each year, the memory rekindles the Christmas Spirit that otherwise might lie dormant within me. It’s a reminder that when I bring joy into someone’s life, I also receive joy.

Only A Child, Only At Christmas

Taegert, B.C. 1979. It was Christmas Eve in Taegert, a small remote former gold mining community in northern B.C. Snow had begun IMG_0742falling steadily the previous night and the mountains surrounding our little town were now bedecked with a soft white mantel. Through the still falling snow plumes of grey wood smoke streamed upward from chimneys into the dark sky.

My wife and I leaned forward, pressing into the chill north wind flinging snow into our cold faces. Not far ahead snow laden figures loomed out of the whiteness of the night. We were all hurrying, adults and children, to get a good seat at the Christmas Eve celebration in the community hall.

We arrived to find the hall already packed with a boisterous crowd. The only place was along the back wall with other stragglers. Outside, cold snow hurled itself at the hall, but inside it was toasty. The ancient pot bellied wood stove was working its magic. In one corner an enormous fir tree, with lights, ornaments and tinsel encouraged a holiday spirit.

The program MC, Marty Dyke, slipped from behind a curtain at the left end of the stage. She was a robust woman, something her loose, bright red dress could not hide. With a hearty laugh and booming voice, she said, “ Welcome to our community’s 38th Christmas concert.” Then she turned to the side of the stage where she had entered. “ Without further adieu, let’s put our hands together and bring on the famous Jones family!” There was clapping, hollering and stamping of feet.

The Jones clan came hustling on stage with guitars, fiddles, harmonicas and a banjo. Grandpa Jones began belting out the tunes and his whole lusty clan backed him up like they were on stage at Nashville, Tennessee. Pretty quick folks were smiling and singing along. A few pretty young girls in bright dresses danced in the aisles. It was a Christmas hootenanny. Marty always introduced them first because they knew how to stir up the crowd’s Christmas spirit.

Everyone settled down when 11 year old Susie Thomas began telling about the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. “It happened in a stable,” she said, “and there were probably sheep and donkeys watching. And shepherds came from taking care of their flocks in the fields.” She seemed awed by the event. Susie was followed by Mrs. Brown reading her latest Christmas poem.

Everyone was having a grand time. Everyone except me, that is. Just before the program started, Marty Dyke had whispered to me, “I’ve asked your friend J.K. Barnabas to bring his guitar and sing two or three tunes at the end. Be a fine way to wrap up the evening, don’t you think?” It was too late to change things, so I remained silent.

I was concerned because J.K.’s a black man. A big old white haired blues singer who used to perform in bars in cities like Winnipeg, Vancouver and Seattle. Not that anyone in Taegert would object to him singing blues, or to him being black. No one that is, except Gerhardt Gruber. And, in a way, old Gruber had a pretty good reason for not liking black men. He had nothing against black women.

In the big war back in the forties, he and his son were in the same company in the German Wehrmacht. In close combat, a black Yankee soldier shot the son dead right in front of Gruber. He’s been bitter against black men since that day.

That’s why I was troubled about J.K. Barnabas getting in front of this crowd. Gruber might have a flashback. What if he did something crazy? J.K. isn’t a well man. He doesn’t need that.

While my mind was thinking about these things, the evening was flying by. Now Marty called on J.K. He walked to the front slowly and sat down on a hard wooden bench. After taking a moment to adjust the guitar strings, he grinned at the children in the front row and launched into a frisky rendition of Frosty the Snowman. Next he pleased the crowd with Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer. Everyone cheered when he was done, but not Gruber.

Then the raucous, buoyant mood was gone and he seemed to forget we were there. He drifted into a tune I was sure he had written himself.

“I woke up this mornin’ and the sun, it didn’t shine,
Was sittin’ in my room all alone, didn’t have one friend I could say was mine.
Too many nights in the bars, too many days on the road, now this body’s gettin’ old.
Snow’s fallin’ and I’m feelin’ mighty low, oh yes, I’m feelin’ mighty low.
My little baby’s gone.
She’s grown up big, don’t come to her daddy no more to play.
Sure has broke this old man’s heart.
Oh Yeah, sure has broke this old man’s heart.”

Then he was quiet, still sitting on the bench, a lonely old blues man. A single tear rolled slowly down one cheek.

A hush fell over the hall, and no one cheered or moved. It seemed everyone was expecting something to happen.

I heard the rustle of a dress and I looked to my left where old Gruber was sitting, arms crossed over his chest and face hard as the barrel of a German army rifle. Before he could stop her, his pretty little granddaughter had slipped off his lap and was running to where the white haired J.K. Barnabas was sitting.

Gruber's granddaughter offering her baby to Mr. JK
Gruber’s granddaughter offering her baby to Mr. JK

“Here, Mr. J.K.” she said, holding a little blond doll toward him. “Take my baby. She’ll make you happy. I have more babies at home.”

I think everyone stopped breathing and looked at old Gruber. His stiff white Wehrmacht moustache made him look real serious.

And then it happened. Gruber got up. Using his cane, he walked unsteadily to where his granddaughter and JK. were. He sat down on the bench next to J.K. and lifted the little girl onto the black man’s lap. Although he wasn’t a religious man, far as I knew, he began singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” in his native German, his sweet tenor carrying the words throughout the hall. After hesitating a moment, the old blues man joined his deep baritone to Gruber’s tenor.

“Silent night. Holy night. All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Then everyone was singing, and when the song was done, I saw men and women laughing and crying, shaking hands and embracing. At the front of the room, I saw the old black man and the old German army officer rise and embrace.

Taegert was never quite the same again. There was more of a sense of peace. And that’s why I say, “Only a child could have accomplished what happened in our little town that night. And only at Christmas.”

Mom’s Love of Christmas

Born and raised in a remote, sparsely populated area of rural Manitoba, my Mom had to share Christmas with 13 siblings. Large

Mom Celebrated Christmas With Joy
Mom Celebrated Christmas With Joy

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.