When I was a child, Christmas always held a special magic for me. I would get a warm feeling of anticipation near the beginning of December, dreaming of the good things to come – the Christmas tree, the presents, the fruit-filled cakes and puddings. The very air seemed to twinkle with possibility, the house ready and waiting with an expectant feeling. Everything would be waxed and polished — I loved that smell of floor polish; it spoke of order in a chaotic world.
When I was 11, chaos visited.
We lived then in a small mining town in the East Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. It was a good life – people were making a lot of money and it was easy come, easy go – that was B.C. in the latter half of the 1950s.
My parents were young and full of hope for a wonderful life. We were a tight knit family of eight, with six kids.
Then, in early November, my father was in a car accident and broke his ribs. He contracted an infection, followed by a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics that put him in the hospital for several weeks. In those days, there was little to back up a family of six when the dad was off work, so things were not easy. To make matters much worse, just when he was ready to go back to work in early December, there was a massive layoff at the mine. By the time Christmas drew near; we were very, very short of money. No Christmas tree, this year, said my mom. And my heart sank. I didn’t care too much about the presents or the cakes and puddings, but I did care about that magic tree. And I believed in its magic.
Mom did her best: the house was clean and polished; it smelled of floor wax and expectation, but as the last few days of school passed and nothing changed, I sank into a pit of gloom. My pessimism may have been abetted by the fact that there was not a lot to eat – a deer my dad had shot in the fall was nearly all gone – we had been living on deer meat and porridge, a dreary diet, but it would be even drearier when the meat ran out.
Still suffering the pain of slowly healing ribs, Dad was out every day looking for odd jobs, but the whole town was depressed with so many out of work and there was really very little to be had.
The last day of school before the Christmas break, I was given the task of taking down the class Christmas tree. As I lifted off the ornaments, I got an idea and, even though I suffered terribly from shyness, I mustered the courage to ask the teacher, “What are you going to do with that tree?” I waited for her answer with my heart throbbing in my throat.
“Throw it out,” she replied. “It’ll be all dried out before we get back to school.”
“Can I have it?” I asked. I thought I would faint before she answered.
She looked at me dubiously, but shrugged and said, “Sure. If you want.”
I dragged that skinny little thing home in the darkening day, tugging it up the hilly streets to our house in Upper Blarchmont, the new subdivision where we were the proud owners of a brand new, but Spartanly furnished, house. At last I was at our front door, shouting for my mom to show her my prize. It didn’t occur to me that we were surrounded by evergreens – the mountainsides were full of them for the taking with a saw and a bit of energy.
She came to the door and hid her look of dismay. I remember her hesitation before she smiled and helped me bring it in. “But,” she said gently, “we don’t have any decorations.”
She must have seen my face fall, because she got that look of concentration she assumed when she was problem solving and then she said, “But let’s see what we can do.”
My mother was a creative and resourceful person. She made some paste out of a bit of flour and water and then we tore old magazine pages into strips which we fastened into round circles to make chains. The chains were a blend of interesting bits of story mixed with the jewel-like colours from the photo spreads. The more we worked – all the kids got into the act — the more enthused we became and soon we were laughing and having fun, coming up with other magazine paper designs for our tree. Mom even pasted together a star for the top.
It was a beautiful tree. For the next several nights, I sat in front of it, gazing into its depths, discovering possibilities and miracles that only I could see. At last it was Christmas Eve. Dad had explored every avenue to make a little money, but there was simply nothing to be found. Every door was closed. We went to bed that night, a gnawing in our stomachs that came from more than just the tiny dinner we had eaten.
Christmas morning dawned, very white and cold. The furnace was coal-fired but it would burn wood, a good thing since there was a whole world of wood outside, but the fire had died down in the night. I remember shivering under the covers when my sister and I woke, listening to Dad downstairs stoking up the coals. “Stay in bed till it warms up,” he shouted, and when he had it roaring, he bounded upstairs and back into bed himself. We were only too glad to obey.
Suddenly, there was a mighty banging on the front door. Terror froze my heart. Who could it be? All sort of evil possibilities presented themselves. I cowered under the covers beside my sister, listening to Dad go to the door.
Then we heard it. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” The voices were ringing, a smile hidden in the sound. There were happy, stomping feet. There was the noise of things being carried in.
“What a beautiful tree,” said a female voice. “Bring that in here, John.” We didn’t need Dad to invite us to come and see. My sister and I crept downstairs and what we saw was quite wonderful: gaily wrapped presents under the tree. Boxes full of something on the kitchen table. Two warmly dressed people just leaving, saying again, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”
We felt Mom’s presence behind us. She wrapped her arms around our shoulders and together we went into the kitchen where dad was standing, looking stunned. We’d all forgotten to be cold. On the table were two huge boxes stuffed with food – and the prize was a giant turkey. But there were practical things, too: sugar and flour and potatoes and cabbage and carrots and lovely, thoughtful things: syrup and a big tin of Malkin’s strawberry jam. The list went on.
At the very bottom of the box was an envelope that said, “Merry Christmas from the Ladies of the Purple Heart”.
“They should call themselves Ladies of the Golden Heart,” said Dad in a wobbling voice. Mom simply wept, silent tears that she wiped away with the sleeve of her bathrobe.
I don’t remember the presents. My sister and I were just glad that the little kids: my six-year-old brother, five-year-old sister and the three-year-old twins, found those gifts under the tree when they came downstairs.
I was filled with a boundless joy that day. It seemed to me to be a miracle – we had not asked for help – had not told anyone of our need, but somehow, they had known and responded.
I gave the credit to the tree.
We learned later that the ladies were part of an auxiliary to the local Elks lodge. They gave up their own Christmas morning to go from one house to another, filling the Christmas wishes of all the families that had been hit by the layoff.
Knowing this didn’t spoil the magic for me, though. What mattered was their kindness and the cheerful, matter-of fact way they dealt out their charity. They will live forever in my mind as the Ladies of the Golden Heart.
And I still believe it was the tree that told them.