Give Christmas back to the kids!

In a memoir as clear and sharp as forst-ferns on a window, Bob recalls the spirit of Christmas past, before adults barged in and began to take over

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN December 20 1958

Give Christmas back to the kids!

In a memoir as clear and sharp as forst-ferns on a window, Bob recalls the spirit of Christmas past, before adults barged in and began to take over

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN December 20 1958

I notice that, more and more each year, Christmas is being taken over by adults. Kids seem to have been relegated to prowling along toy counters hopefully winding up things they shouldn't touch and looking so unlike little frosted angels that they get shooed off by salesclerks, while adults go after higher Christmas quotas, hold bigger parties, send out longer and more businesslike lists of cards, and urge one another to give more practical and expensive gifts. For Dad, a Three-Speed Power Tool Set!.... For Mother. Revlon’s Cosmic Moon Mist Skin-Atomizer in a Diamond-Studded World-of-Tomorrow Compact!.... Here’s Something to Keep the Man in Your Lite Happy, a New Set of Tubeless Tires!.... How Grandpa’s Eyes Will Light Up When He Sees This Four-Horsepower Anti-Torque Wheel Chair!.... A Power Mower tor Him!.... Gift Certificates for Her!.... “Open a New Savings Account tor the Whole Family!” some banker calls merrily from inside his vault.... This Christmas Show Her You Care With a New Concrete Driveway!

Christmas is beginning to sound as festive as a complete valve job in July and i think it’s time we gave it back to the kids. And I don’t mean that we should be sensible about it and give them things we’d have to buy them anyway, like clothes. Everybody knows you buy clothes some Saturday morning when you can't get out of it and get dragged downtown through those stores and stacks of shirts that smell like some kind of medicine. What kids want for Christmas is something like a book on how to make a tepee out of buffalo hide, and I think they should get it.

One thing we’d solve by turning Christmas over to the children again is that we could disconnect all those loudspeakers and stop playing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. The weather would look after itself. I never remember having anything but a white Christmas when I was a kid, probably because in those days snow didn’t just crystallize out of the atmosphere but out of imagination. We talked snow and thought snow and when we prowled through the forests of Christmas trees outside grocery stores we could smell all the snow from James Bay to Great Bear Lake. If any real snow happened to fall on top of all that psychological precipitation there'd be excited cries of "It’s snowing!” "It's covered the sidewalk!" "You can't see the front steps!"

And you wanted out. You knew other kids, your cronies, were going out, and were probably out already, and you wanted out too. Even fathers wanted out. You could hear the muffled sound of coal shovels scraping sidewalks while you were going through the agonizing delays and instructions. "Put your scarf on." "Wrap it around your neck.” "Now don't lose your mitts." Kids lost mitts regularly. A new snowfall was as full of mitts as a birthday cake full of pennies. You had to fish in cold snowdrifts for them, if you thought of them, but you usually didn't. Mothers pinned mitts to sleeves, shackled them with cords, tied them together, tied them around our necks, and looked into our eyes as if considering throttling us and said, "Now don't lose these!" But they still got lost. A lot of them got lost when we fell on our backs in the snow and waved our arms to make “angels." And you had to take them off to pack the kind of snowballs that felt like ice on the outside, but had a soft core and exploded like bombs when they hit the back of a toqued head. There’s never been anything quite as surprising as getting hit on the back of the head with a snowball. Most of the snowball fights were between boys. Sometimes girls would try to throw snowballs, their elbows waving, but more often they were targets. You'd see them walking down the street looking straight ahead when you were just missing them by the breadth of a snowflake. They had courage, those girls.

All this time you knew Christmas was actually only a few days away, with a lot of exciting things to come. There was the visit downtown to see Santa Claus, going up that long gangplank and the delightfully terrifying experience of coming right up to that incredible mountain of flannel, fur, moth balls, hair and red grease paint at the other end. My mother, who never knew that lying to children about Santa Claus was paving the way to insecurity, would tell me he had just arrived at Eaton's from the North Pole and that the one at Simpson's was the brother of the one at Eaton's, and if she needed new ones for any other stores she just kept bringing in Santa's helpers.

There was the big moment of bringing the Christmas tree into the house, and comparing notes with other kids on how much of your tree curled against the living-room ceiling. That was the real test of a tree. Some of today's dispirited two-dollar trees would have had our lips hanging out far enough to hang a cup on. We got a bucket of coal from the cellar and planted the tree in it and camouflaged the bucket with tissue paper. Then we made a trip into our attic for last year's Christmas decorations, an event that in itself was almost enough to make Christmas the highlight of the year.

The attic in our old, narrow, high house was not only a long way up from the living room, but was as far from everything dull and ordinary as Christmas itself. There were books on diamond cutting, boxes of granulated cork, a chunk of quartz, a fencing foil and mask, a pile of old violin music and catalogues of ribbons, and a big dusty block of close-grained pine that my father said was a beautiful piece of wood without a knot in it. We'd examine it every year for knots and never find any.

We’d gradually work our way toward the big flimsy boxes of Christmas decorations—paper bells, glass balls, tinsel stars, red and green paper ropes, and a kind of decoration I haven’t seen for years, paper streamers that, folded, were about the size of a pack of playing cards, but which pulled out into long jiggling decorations something like those strings of figures kids used to cut out of their arithmetic books. And there was the final thrill of carrying the boxes to the trap door, balancing on joists two inches wide, knowing that if we stepped between them we’d arrive in a cloud of plaster on top of my father who was reading on the upstairs couch.

Things around the house would begin coming to a climax once we’d decorated the Christmas tree. The living-room fireplace would be lit most of the time, and we’d have our annual visit from a close but vague family connection I never knew by any other name than Aunt Daw, an old woman with one yellow tooth. She’d arrive somewhere inside yards of black rustling cloth, ribbons and frills bringing my brother and me one neatly wrapped Burgess Bedtime Story Book each (she kept a list of the ones she had given us previous years and never gave us one we already had) and flounce down in a corner of the kitchen like a black tent somebody had pulled the pole out of, and read the whole evening paper aloud to anybody who happened to be listening.

By the time we went to bed Christmas Eve we’d be wound up as tight as tops thinking of the strange thing that was about to take place in the living room, the magic that would have crystallized into something strange and solid by morning, like frost on a window. My older brother was a bit knowing and mysterious about it all, but I remember that one time someone who sounded curiously like my grandfather, who ordinarily was asleep under the Sunday papers, came in the front door, blew his nose, stamped the snow off his feet and went "Ho! Ho! Ho!’’ just after my brother and I had got nicely to sleep, and someone who was either Mrs. Claus or my grandmother said, "For Heaven’s sake, Billy, what’s the matter with you!" and my brother and I sat up in bed, our faces drained of color, even my brother not quite sure whether he had heard reindeer or not.

But no matter what we believed or didn’t believe, or just half believed, a sort of magic settled over the land by the time we woke up at 4.30 a.m. Christmas day. scraped a little hole through the jungle of ferns of frost on the window with our fingernails, getting a fine cold spray on our faces, and looked out at the outside world and saw the black morning lying strange and foreign over the wooden garages and the bare branches of the snowball bush and perhaps a lone sparrow rocking on the clothesline, its feathers blown backward by the sharp wind, or a milkman working in the glow of his coal-oil lamp on the street behind us. No moon visitor will look out on anything more mysterious. Nor will he experience less gravitation than we did when we started hopping up and down in the dark trying to get our slippers on, shouting in whispers, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” not quite able to see whether the other was still waiting or had sneaked down into the smell of oranges, balsam and mystery.

We never got a sensible gift in our lives that I remember. We didn't get what we should get; we got what we wanted. Snowshoes, shoe packs, tins of Dubbin to keep out the Arctic ice, toy farms that gave you the feeling of being able to bring under control the sprawling stuff of the adult world. (You would put a fence around a toy farm and by some trick of the imagination that I’ve apparently lost with the farm, get right inside it with the cows and horses.) And mechanical toys, Sandy Andy's, with plenty of clean white sand to load and unload, big sets of building blocks. Erector sets. Right now I wouldn’t mind getting an erector set for Christmas. But if you’re getting me one, I don't want a Constructo Set, or Buildo Set or a plastic Atomo Set. I want an erector set, with nuts, washers, a wrench and a screwdriver, pulleys, ropes and cranks. And I want one with two of those flat platforms you build derricks on and one of those wedge-shaped platforms too. I never could figure out what you do with those wedge-shaped ones, but they always looked as if you could do something with them.

Or if you want to go a little higher, I want a brass steam engine, with a red fly wheel. You get a little cube of jelly soaked in alcohol with it, and put a match to it under the boiler and pretty soon a brass valve on top lifts up and starts to steam and spit and scald you and looks as if it’s going to blow up. But instead the wheel starts to move and pretty soon the whole thing is running on alcohol about the way I run on alcohol today, going faster and faster and coming apart before breakfast. But while it lasts it’s about the most exciting thing you’ll ever see.

If you can't find one of those, I want a train. I don’t want an electric train with tunnels and stations that will set you back about two hundred bucks, and put me in the same league as the presidents of oil corporations who are just boys at heart and have a thousand dollars’ worth of toy trains and just sit there yawning and switching. I want one that goes around a small oval track, throwing cabooses, boxcars and flatcars off at every turn so that you have to follow it on your hands and knees putting it back on the track and prying orange peels out of its works.

And, incidentally, if you give me a sleigh I don’t want one with open metal runners and varnished slats and a handle bar that you steer with. These were latecomers and girls sit on them. A sleigh is an all-wooden object with solid sides with openings for your mitts, and you run with it held out in front of you, reach for the sidewalk, do a belly-flopper and coast along with the snow passing about two inches under your chin at a speed that hasn’t been attained yet with rocket fuel.

We used to hang up two of my brother’s stockings so that there wouldn’t be any beefing about capacity, and my mother would fill them with a peculiar mixture of love and cynicism, mixing in with the packages of Plasticine, crayons, lead Coldstream Guards, walnuts and mouth organs, things that would not only help fill the stockings but remind us that life wouldn't always be stuffed with toys. One time she put an orange in one stocking and a turnip in the other. I remember leaping with a hoarse cry of greed for the one with the biggest lump and getting the turnip, a lesson that I often recall whenever I'm tempted to buy a car with higher tail fins or go to a movie with the biggest roundest advertising budget.

Books were as much a part of Christmas as cranberries, pudding boiled in cheesecloth and cards falling off the mantelpiece, but we didn’t get any of those scientific educational books on The Fun of Being Born, or Why Daddy Pays Income Tax, or What It Means to Johnny to Vote, or Why Peter is Glad we Have a Prime Minister. We got books about a lynx tearing a moose apart or a wolf tearing a lynx apart, or Indians making moccasins out of the both of them. White Fang. Silvertip the Grizzly. Slaughter the Wolverine. Stabber the Fisher. Books that gave you instructions on how to knock out bullies. We read them before our parents came downstairs in their dressing gowns, and no books will ever be like them again.

A while ago in Florida I was talking about Christmas to a Toronto speculator with a new eighty-five-thousand-dollar Florida home, who looked out past his alarm-clock sprinklers, swimming pool and electrically operated garage door, and described what evidently remains to this day his idea of fulfillment—sitting downstairs at dawn in a house on Carlaw Avenue eating candy canes and reading Chums Annual. I gathered from a few remarks he made later that he still has more faith in the things he read in Chums than in the things he now reads in the stock-market reports, which keep assuring him he’ll be able to keep his swimming pool.

I wasn't a Chums man myself—I was an Ernest Thompson Seton man—but I knew what he meant. Sitting by the fireplace Christmas morning, listening to the cannel coal gurgle and pop. turning the pages of a creaking new hard-covered book that, since the previous July, I’d been reading, smelling and feeling in Eaton’s until salesgirls would lean over the counter and ask me if it wasn’t time for supper, was an experience that I’ve rarely topped since. Give me some of those trips I took as a kid with Rolph in the Woods, the haughty Indian Quonab and his dog Skookum, and you can have all the shocking things that have happened from Peyton Place to Ten North Frederick.

We used to get sent outside with our sleighs and skates and snowshoes at about 10.30 so we’d stay in a sort of deep freeze until dinner was ready. Up and down the street other kids would appear, blinking into the bright wintry day, looking a bit lonely and stunned with good fortune. We’d labor away with our new presents, struggling hip-deep through old drifts or sparkling new snow on our snowshoes, occasionally getting faint whiff’s of roast turkey, lifting our heads like deer, licking some cold, flat-tasting snow off our lips and dragging our sleighs right up onto the veranda and in the front door and getting sent out again.

When we were let in, my mother would get us doing things like mashing the potatoes just to keep us from blocking her way to the turkey which then was in sight on the open oven door, and we’d go at the job with such enthusiasm, hoping to speed things up, that my father would stop us and ask why the Sam Hill we always had to do things like lunatics or not do anything at all. He’d take over in a maddeningly level-headed way, which he’d keep up after the turkey had been brought to the table and we'd all pulled our Christmas crackers and sat there with paper hats on. He’d sharpen his knife and slowly and deliberately cut strings while I counted the number of processes I had to sit through before I actually tasted the first forkful of slick, dark meat—getting the turnips, the potatoes and the gravy without being rude and grabbing them or butting someone with my head for them.

Whenever I visit my father, who still lives in the same house, it's hard to see that little box of a dining room as the brilliantly lit banquet hall of my boyhood. with its expanse of white gleaming tablecloth and red streamers, and the blue glass walking cane that my grandfather had won at the Chicago World’s Fair and the brown stein of a coachman in a cocked hat looking down from the plate rail. We’d sit there until the sun was yellow on the brick wall in the alleyway talking of such mysteries as how the Chinese knew things thousands of years ago that we were just finding out now, how famous British generals had put foreign armies into laughable positions, how you hunt lions in Africa, how you trap wolverines, while my mother gave incredulous little shakes of her head and poured more tea, content to be told anything as long as she didn’t have to cook another dinner.

I don’t know just when Christmas ended for me. I think it was around the time I stopped thinking of events, like having my own trap line on Hudson Bay, and became aware of people and their complicated relationship. I remember beginning to notice aunts give their husbands long, searching looks when they took the wraps off teapots and electric irons and warm wool shawls, instead of bottles of perfume and shameless lingerie, and to notice uncles sitting very calmly beside Christmas trees with Eaton's Bulldog tires hung over their knees and their eyes not quite in focus. Gradually, mixed with the old clear-cut feelings about Christmas were feelings that everything wasn't as simple as building a tepee, and strange sensations and glimpses into the mystery of time and succession and growing older, of our ultimate individuality and aloneness. I remember I felt this with great intensity about the time Lionel Barrymore began giving his radio readings of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. We’d all sit there surrounded by filbert and almond shells and the smoke from my father’s cigar, my mother with a faint, far-off smile, my father’s face getting more and more slack with concentration, and I'd get a sense of the mystery underlying the scene, behind it and extending out beyond it, with just this little tip of time lit up and revealed. The dining room would begin to look like a sort of stage, stiff, formal, wooden and a bit terrifying. I'd get wondering who are these people, who am I. what are we all doing here? And I'd have a longing for the day after the holidays, the clamor of garbage cans being dropped from wagons, drivers yelling "Back, you!” to their horses, and even school with its graph paper and snap of looseleaf binders, and knowledge, perhaps the only permanent thing after all.

All of which was part of the experience of growing up, which is perhaps as good a reason as any why kids should have their Christmas.