Grace Scott, 10 years old, could not wipe the smile from her face that day. It was Christmas Eve and she was just headed home after a very important day. Earlier that morning her father had announced to her family that he was heading into Elmira to run some errands, and she had been invited to go with him, something which didn’t happen too often. As she rode along, she could see her warm breath form little clouds in the cold air in front of her as she clutched the new book in her hands, clean and crisp and treasured; her father had given her some money to buy herself a Christmas present during their day in town. Now, in the early evening, the lights of the main street were fading away and Grace sat quietly as their wheels tracked through the fresh snow towards her family’s farm, eight miles from Drayton and nine miles from Elmira. She began to think that this cold night must have been like the very first Christmas – it was so beautiful.
“That day was really something because when you were a little girl out in the country like that, you didn’t get to go into town.”
Although it’s been some eight decades since that day, Scott recalls it vividly from her current home at Chateau Gardens Assisted Living Centre in Elmira.
“Last night I looked out my window and it reminded me of the very first Christmas I can remember. The snow was just the same.”
For some of the other residents there, Christmas evokes memories just as vivid, each proving that the holiday holds a special place in each of their hearts to this day.
Sitting next to Scott in the activity room at Chateau Gardens is Isabel Campbell, who just recently celebrated the “third anniversary of her 25th birthday” and who has a very different tale of the first Christmas she can remember.
Years ago, in Campbell’s Georgetown home, her parents brought their Christmas tree into the house, stood it up in the living room, but did not decorate their tree at all until Christmas Eve. Her parents had told her six-year-old sister, who was a decade younger than she, not to worry about putting up the decorations before going to bed, that Santa Claus would do the decorating overnight when he came to deliver the presents. Each year, a little while after her sister had gone to bed, Campbell would sneak into the living room and hang the ornaments one by one, very quietly.
“That year I was wearing a red sweater with a white collar – a big heavy sweater as it was always cold in our old farmhouse. So here I am, lit only by the light of the Christmas tree, and I am putting on the decorations. [My sister] was in her bed, with the door open just a trifle and she could see this big red sweater going around the tree. She was sure – until then she didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore – that she had seen him decorating the tree that night. I didn’t tell her anything otherwise,” she says with a smile. Years later, Campbell told her own children that Santa was really the spirit of Christmas, how you felt about each other, rather than the man who brings presents to their house each year.
Fellow resident Erma Gingrich’s family of Old Order Mennonites did not include Santa Claus in their celebrations, and she explained that they knew that their gifts were from their parents.
“Christmas was never really about Santa, or the gifts for us, although we did get a stocking.”
Scott however, maintains that she believed in St. Nick and had no doubts about it.
“There was one boy in my public school who didn’t believe in Santa. He used to make fun of me for believing, but the more he did that, the more I believed in Santa Claus,” she explains with a smile. “He and I used to fight about everything so I figured he must be wrong.”
And for some, alongside the food, eggnog and mistletoe, the holiday season brings back memories that are bittersweet for one reason or another. Gingrich recalls one holiday season several years back when her husband passed away on New Year’s Day, shortly after her family had left their home following a big meal.
“It sure is the time of year for a lot of thinking and recalling good times and then there are the times that aren’t so good,” says Gingrich. “I am sure it is that way for many people around this time.”
And for others, Christmas as it is celebrated today by their grandchildren and great grandchildren, has changed significantly since the days of their own childhood traditions. Far from the commercialized ideals of today, the crowded shopping malls with frenzied last-minute shoppers and the Griswold-style lighting arrangements, Scott remembers a time when Christmas was a much simpler affair, an uncomplicated day of celebration with her family.
Even the gifts reflected the times.
“Every year, each one of us got an orange in our stocking and a bit of candy which were something wonderful,” says Gingrich of Christmas morning with her six other siblings. “Oranges were hard to come by in that time, so that was the only orange I got all year, just that one at Christmastime.”
Each recalled their stockings being full on Christmas morning, by Santa or otherwise, and each had their own orange.
“I would eat the whole orange, peel and all,” said Scott. “Oranges were expensive and scarce and so to get one in your stocking was a real treat.”
Another common thread running through the stories of the season is what the ladies consider to be the very best and most important part about Christmas to this day.
“It’s simply the part about ‘Goodwill towards all men,’” says Campbell. “You meet people on the street and you can say ‘Merry Christmas!’”
“People seem to put aside what is bugging them, and they treat each other nicely,” notes Gingrich. “That means a whole lot when you can walk up to someone who might not normally be so friendly and say hello, because it’s Christmas! It makes a difference.”
Scott mentions now that she, like many others she has talked to, tends to get frustrated when she is required to say ‘Season’s Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ and is concerned that Christmas is not quite “what it used to be.”
“It seems as though we are all so afraid of offending people that we lose part of what makes the holidays so special, for everyone in their own individual way,” she explains. “I don’t want to stop celebrating Christmas just because someone else does not, and I don’t want them to stop celebrating on account of me and what I believe” – a sentiment echoed by the others.
“I think it’s a bit like that song. ‘You go to your church, and I go to mine, but let’s all walk along together,” adds Gingrich.
Visiting with people who have a long list of Christmas memories, it’s easy to see just how the holidays have changed with time, and which parts – kindness, fellowship, generosity and love – have stayed just the same.
In recognition of Christmas’ enduring appeal, Campbell smiles and recites a line from a song residents sang recently at a holiday party at the centre, “It would be nice if it could be Christmas all year round.”