Where’s Christmas?

Several years ago I spent Christmas eve and the following days in the local hospital. I’d been wrapping presents that eve and every time I got up off the floor I felt a little more dizzy, until, there I was sitting on the toilet feeling like I was going to pass out. I had no idea what was wrong, I figured it was my usual holiday stress, my habit of waiting until way past the last minute, but I told my partner I had to go to the hospital. There, at the hospital, I did faint. I had never fainted and thought I was on the way out for good, so, just before, I told Bernard, “you and Hugo have a good life.” It turned out the source of everything, blood loss, low iron etc., was ulcers. I needed a transfusion fairly immediately. Anyway that all got taken care of over the following days and months.

I was alone that Christmas eve in a near empty hospital ward, with a little TV by my bed. I wasn’t devastated––there was a ton of music on the little TV, choirs singing as I dozed, and it was the first time I ever heard Faith Hill sing Where Are You Christmas which, that evening had special meaning for me. What and where was Christmas? I lay in bed that night looking out at the lovely tree all lit up in front of the hospital, a light snow falling, wondering what was going on inside me. Mostly I remember the choirs all night long as I drifted in and out of sleep. The light from the tree outside reminded me of home, as a kid and seeing the reflection of lights from the eaves on the ceiling in my bedroom. Could a kid feel any more secure or hopeful?

Many of us have had our patterns and our traditions for those few days. Mine includes watching A Christmas Carol late at night and then indulging in festivities the following day. This was not to be, that particular year. The morning following my admittance I heard the familiar clickity click of dog’s toenails on linoleum and knew Bernard was on his way down the hall with Hugo. Soon I was sitting up and there was a large poodle making himself quite comfortable on my bed.

I am one of the lucky ones. I’ve said before that I know Christmas doesn’t necessarily hold nice memories for many, in fact it may not even hold a kind present as in the present tense as in the time right now. The world has an overbearing way of telling us how to pass Christmas, what our duties and obligations must be. Hence the stress I have felt over the years at not quite measuring up to an invented ideal or standard––clever wrapping, baking decorating, getting things into the mail on time.

I was at our local Christmas parade a few weeks ago, standing on Main street near the hospital as a matter of fact, and I saw among the crowd young families who don’t necessarily have the means to provide those storybook Christmases for their children. These are the families who can’t even “charge it” (since the days of actually paying for things are history for most Canadians). These are families, part of the growing number needing the resources of the local food bank.

I’m not sure if those numbers are dwindling here, but an influx of prosperous retirees and holiday rentals has diluted the view. There are more big homes and condos and fewer places available for low-wage earners to live. I would venture that they are becoming more invisible, the ones who can afford to stay, and the others are being elbowed out to cheaper parts of Ontario.

I caught the eye of one young mother before she looked away. It was obvious we were from different worlds––me an older guy with my dog–her with her children and a look of apprehension in her eyes––likely both invisible to the other at other times, but for a brief moment the veil was lifted and we were completely aware of the opposite ends of the spectrum from which we come. The image has stayed with me since the parade.

Christmas presents so much to think about––prosperity, excess, depression, joy. It can indeed be a bit of a pressure cooker. But there are parades, and there is music, hopefully free enough and without a price, and there are the lights out on the streets. For some there is family or friends or community. If we are lucky and have the strength, we can stand up to the tidal wave of “must be” and create Christmas as we would have it. It can be the best and worst of holidays. Another favourite song of mine is Amy Grant singing My Grown Up Christmas List. This is for that young mom I saw on Picton Main Street, who looked away when our eyes met. Maybe someday I can do something more for her. That will be my Christmas wish.

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