What’d you get?
“Hi. Is Glenn there?”
“Merry Christmas Billy!”
“Uh, Merry Christmas Auntie Flo. Is Glenn there?”
Christmas morning followed the same pattern for many years. Glenn would occasionally make the call, but more often I would call first, anxious to find out what he got for Christmas. Then with permission, we’d trot across the street to check out each other’s haul.
Glenn was my best friend; 2 years my senior, and though not an only child, he wasn’t one of five. The resulting math gave him a distinct advantage in the early years. I recall his Christmas presents more than my own; Strombecker race car set, Meccano Erector Set, ping pong table… He had the knack of making me feel like my presents didn’t measure up. It didn’t really matter; most of our toys required at least 2 to play. But it was a competition, and though we were happy for each other there was pride in winning the day.
1960s Peters family Christmases were officially underway with the Bethel Mennonite Christmas Eve church service. Opened with cringe-worthy piano solos by kids whose feet dangled above the pedals, through to the teenage prodigies (I particularly remember the Kroeker boys); participants equally elicited the pride of their respective parents. Then carol singing in both official languages of the Mennonites, English and German, the latter sung phonetically (by the youth, anyway) from the words printed in the hymnal. Though it took years to master the proper pronunciation, I never did understand much of what I was singing…
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht…
Back then, loudly singing “highly gay nacht” might have been met with suspicion; rather the opposite from the elders who assumed we were swept up in the moment (still makes me snicker). The sermon that followed was rendered insufferably long by the one-liner in the program - “Goodie bags will be distributed immediately after the service for those aged 12 and under”. Candy canes, leftover Halloween caramels, licorice and assorted hard candy, weighted with a real Mandarin orange… I have such fond memories of trading with Bonnie and Bob in the cold back seat of the car on the ride home.
We opened our gifts on arrival, or at least after mom got out some desserts and made coffee. Then we’d take our places near the Christmas tree. Never the best one on the lot (or even from a lot), and certainly not a Douglas Fir, but a hand-cut, volume underestimated, bad-side-to-the-wall, Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Lovingly decorated with cards, popcorn strings, and school-made red/green paper chains, frosted with spray snow, finished with tinsel, and topped with a lighted plastic angel, it was transformed into the best tree ever. The tinsel was later discontinued when we found a strand dangling from the cat’s rear end.
My parents always kept one present back so that we’d have something from “Santa” to open Christmas morning. Whoever woke up first would wake the others, then knock on mom and dad’s bedroom door to ask if we could open our “big gifts”. Then we’d scramble to the living room to see what had been placed there, mysteriously, over night. Once again, Mom would test the little patience we had by making coffee. After we tore open our gifts, Dad always asked if we’d had a good Christmas. I don’t think I ever really appreciated how much an enthusiastic “Yes!” meant to him. There were banner years (1973, brand new set of blue sparkle Coronet drums) and bleak years (late 60s, used puzzles with missing pieces) and the usual clothes, pyjamas, and socks. Toblerones and assorted nuts in the Christmas stockings. And the stuff I miss most… hugs from Auntie Kay, family laughter, playing Rumoli on the kitchen table, even the same box of Pot of Gold chocolates received from Uncle Isaac.
Shortly after a quick breakfast, we’d be off to Grandma Peters’ house in Plum Coulee, where some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins would gather. As I recall, we were not allowed to bring our new toys to play with, so the cousins would just hang out until faspa was served, listening to Dad and the uncles argue (they always argued) while Mom and the aunts would assist Grandma in the kitchen. After faspa, we entertained ourselves by exploring Grandma’s closets (still full of Grandpa’s clothes), the attic, and the basement replete with cistern, scary early 1900s pictures of long-dead relatives, and dusty preserves. I loved my Grandmother dearly, but when it was time to leave we were more than ready to go. But not home.
The next stop was Auntie Kay’s house for Christmas dinner. In stark contrast to the Peters uncles, visits to Auntie Kay’s were laid back and fun. Time with Grandpa Robb, who died when I was 13, was precious. After he passed away the tradition moved to our house. A turkey dinner with all the trimmings - cranberry sauce, turnips, mashed potatoes with gravy, pierogies with fried onions and sour cream, cabbage rolls, tomato jelly from a fish mold, … all on a beautifully decorated table, with a glass of tomato juice and a party “cracker” at each Johnson Brothers “The Friendly Village” china setting. How I took those times for granted. To this day I think of those who have passed; whose loving presence or loud low-German arguments, then tolerated, are now treasured memories.
My family all know I am a big fan of the tv series “The Curse of Oak Island”, where, despite millions of dollars in excavating equipment, the best finds have been unearthed by metal detection expert Gary Drayton. And so I was particularly excited one recent Christmas morning to receive a metal detector! Like my dad, Roula looked right at me to guage my happiness. It was very thoughtful; perfect, in fact. Once again we’d had a wonderful Christmas, blessed with family, food, and fellowship.
I just wish I could have called Glenn to ask “What’d you get?”, but in 2016 he passed into memory along with my Dad, Auntie Kay, Grandpa Robb, Grandma Peters, and many of the aunts and uncles. God Bless their memories, especially at Christmas.