As convenient as it is to mock the keenness which surrounds Christmas, there is no denying the gusto that precedes the day. Something there is that ignites sentimentality and often unparalleled generosity. That the eagerness begins to soar in early December is perfectly tolerable because once Christmas Day arrives, it’s a speedy downhill ride! Though I dislike those hard-bitten observations that the kick of Christmas is its wishful hopefulness, the child-like conjectures and dreamy visions of a tinselled tree and roaring fireplace, it is precisely those intangibles that enflame the event.
The two poles of Christmas are family and the disadvantaged, both meaningful and worthy, yet both often miles apart. It is notable that during the year we are customarily overtaken by motives and ambitions which are intended to preserve ourselves. The magnanimity which visits the holiday season is proof of the adage about giving and receiving. As a young man newly entered into my career, it was my unqualified privilege to give something of value to my parents at Christmas. There were occasions that my choices of gifts were preposterous – as indeed at times were those of my mother to me. Once for example she purchased my “main gift “ (translation: expensive) from a snooty antique dealer who started on Rue de la Montaigne in Montréal and who shifted to the upper floor of Ogilvy’s high-end department store where I once treated myself to exceptional sweaters by Paul & Shark (a company de la France no less ). What mother so famously bought for me was an ancient brass container for hanging on the wall of one’s staircase in which to deposit the dwindled candles or tapers used to alight the passage to one’s bedroom! I eventually returned to the antiquarian after Christmas and swapped the absurdity for an equally useless mahogany case for poker chips and playing cards. I did nothing other than peel the plastic wrapping from one of the decks of cards. Otherwise the lot sat immobile and unused on an antique mahogany commode in the corner of the ‘drawing room – that is until we downsized and seised the opportunity to lighten the load of questionable acquisitions. My father – who clung to the rule that “every day is Christmas” – preserved himself from a similar embarrassment by judiciously confining his beneficence to small white envelopes with a cheque inside. He at least appeared to appreciate the impossibility of knowing what someone wants or needs. For his part my father claimed that he wished for nothing more than “peace and quiet“. This intangible ejaculation was I believe a product of the many unspoken chimera arising from 9 hours in the North Atlantic in a dinghy after being torpedoed in their bomber by a German submarine in WW II. Three of his mates died from exposure. No one ever speculated about the fate of the young German sailors. Characteristically my father never mentioned the event. I read about it in historical reports by others. If death is a dreadful subject then war is an abhorrence.
Now with both parents gone – albeit at tolerably advanced ages (each in their nineties) – and the pandemic dissolving any other family rendezvous, there remains only the wreath and coloured lights to signify the wassail. My heart goes out to people living alone. Certainly there are some who consider they alone are the best company but I have forever held to the poetic belief that communion with others is mandatory. The few times I’ve had to carry on alone were marred by alcohol and commercial alliances too lascivious to account. Those dalliances never rose to the satisfaction of time with family and friends. Possibly my erstwhile confederates profited suitably from the occasion. The clubbing and late night overtones never competed with the oddly acceptable alcoholic stimulation which preceded midnight mass at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Brougham Street in Almonte along the frozen Mississippi River. Dr. William Mostyn (an Irish born physician) was the first Master of Mississippi Masonic Lodge No. 147 which in about 1863 laid the corner stone of the church that was effectively bankrolled by Bennett Rosamond of the local woollen mill fame. Mostyn and his assistant drowned one wintery evening en route by skiff from the Village of Appleton after attending a sickly patient. Mostyn wore a full-length racoon coat and didn’t stand a chance of survival when he fell into the frozen River.
Yesterday as is our custom we bicycled along the erstwhile railway right-of-way from Bridge Street across the bridge on Little Bridge Street to Martin St N and back, a distance of exactly 10 kms. The old rail line borders the Mississippi River from Carleton Place to Arnprior. It is significant to note that the bridge constructed over so-called Little Bridge Street and then across the Mississippi River before it heads downriver to the Village of Blakeney is an incomparable production. There is reason to believe that the Rosamond family were connected with those on the board of directors of the National Railway headquartered in Montréal. The speculation is that the Rosamond family and its thriving woollen industry held more than sufficient truck with the Montréal crowd to sanction the extortionate expense of building bridges over dips and rivers to satisfy the needs of a quaint village such as Almonte then called variously Waterford, Shipman’s Falls and finally Almonte named after then heralded Generalissimo Almonte from Mexico. Interestingly until the development of synthetics, Almonte had eight hotels to accommodate the entertainment of the local woollen industry.
Juan Nepomuceno Almonte (May 15, 1803 – March 21, 1869) was a 19th-century Mexican official, soldier and diplomat, the natural son of Fr. José María Morelos. He was a veteran of the Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. Almonte was also a leader of Mexico’s Conservatives in the 1860s and served as regent after the Second Mexican Empire was established by Napoleon III of France.
I cannot but think how remarkable it is almost 200 years afterwards that so unsuitable a soldier as myself should revel in the success of such pioneering spirit in this once vast and peculiar continent thanks to the incalculable efforts, capital and ingenuity of those ancestors.