The giving of gifts at Christmas is an indisputable part of the Christian tradition. Its only competition is the focus on food – a custom shared with many other religions. Reflecting upon past Christmases there is no question that my mother ensured that both conventions – gifts and food – were predominant. The absorption certainly surpassed any religious imperative. Only once do I recall having attended Midnight Mass at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Almonte. It was an odd occasion on which I was home alone on Christmas Eve (probably because my sister, her husband and young children where with my parents instead – likely staying overnight). I as probably gleefully used the opportunity to light the fire and then get lit too before walking to the Church in the snow.
Significantly it is the food which I recall in greater detail than the gifts. The only gift that comes immediately to mind is a brass wallhanging for residual candlesticks! My mother pointedly observed after I opened it on Christmas morning, “I said to myself when I left the antique store, You stupid bitch!” In early January I revisited the antique store on Rue de la Montagne in Montréal and switched the device for what proved to be an equally preposterous mahogany box containing playing cards and poker chips. I never used it other than as an ornament. It was one of the many things included in the auction when we downsized!
I shouldn’t laugh at my mother’s error. I made mistakes too (mine were normally cheap gifts which my parents had no need for whatsoever). As my sister and I matured, the stock gift to us from our parents transformed to a cheque, the theory being that we could buy what we wanted. When I say that our parents gave us gifts it was really just my mother. My father clung steadfastly to the theory that “every day is Christmas” a convenient illusion which he skilfully employed as a maxim by which to avoid having anything in particular to do with Christmas. One year however he succumbed to the vulgarity of gifts and spent Christmas Eve rolling dollar bills of varying denominations into scraps of Christmas paper and then proceeded to hang each of the coiled funds with a narrow ribbon throughout the ornamented Christmas tree in the drawing room. The following day there was a degree of mounting concern as we unwrapped other gifts and scattered the paper abroad that certain of father’s hanging endowments may have unintentionally fallen into the mess. We accordingly adopted the resolve to collect all debris before tossing it into the raging fireplace!
My father’s more predictable gift was an impassioned “family letter” which he invariably composed on Christmas Eve and then strategically read aloud from his armchair in front of the fireplace on Christmas morning. The letter was naturally addressed to us all and contained a summary of events which he chose to identify as illustrative of each of our achievements in the past year. It invariably included a more personalized summary of the fluctuations of the stock market and changing interest rates, matters which my mother, sister and I dutifully listened to with obvious courtesy and feigned intent while sipping fresh squeezed orange juice mixed with Champagne. My father didn’t drink so the slight would have been lost on him.
There were sometimes gifts to any one of us from someone outside the family. These gifts – which we intentionally delayed opening – always attracted attention as they usually reflected a calculated design such as handmade pottery mugs to my mother from one of her girlfriends. My sister inevitably ensured she did not open all her gifts without saving one for Christmas night because she didn’t want Christmas to end or the magic of the wrapping to vanish.