God rest ye cash-strapped Canadians. If for the holidays you’re up against the wall financially, just remember there’s plenty of joy to be found ‘round the hearth without racking up oodles of credit card debt or stretching your monthly budget. If you’re a parent like me with two growing kids, search your feelings – and your memories. What comes to mind most when you think of Christmases past? The laughter or the larder? The friendship or the freight? The warmth or the wardrobe? I took some time this week to recollect the season, reviewing memories of a family upbringing where money was tight come the Yuletide. My memories might be instructive not only to those who celebrate Christmas but to all who celebrate special holidays and rituals around this time. These are times when preparations and gift giving can bring worries of overspending and debt. But you know, it’s the same old story for Christmas. The best times don’t depend on how many presents are stacked beneath a tree. The spirit of the season is just that – the heart we bring to the time we share with family and friends. Maybe that involves making a conscious effort to share more special time with others. And maybe it involves a bit of extra creativity on our part. But it costs us little – if anything - and it can bring a lot of pleasure. I know, because I come from a home where plenty of good times were had in very frugal circumstances. Not that we were poor, mind you, or for that matter rich. My parents simply were penny pinchers by nature (today, with the Canadian penny gone, I guess you’d call them nickel pinchers). That said, I cherish many of the memories I hold of the Christmases I experienced as a child. I offer seven such memories here - for the rich at heart.
1) Great, cheap ingredients. They say that of all the human senses, smell is the best for arousing memories. I believe it. Whenever I take in the aroma of freshly baked cookies, I am reminded of the days of my youth when me, my mother, and my three sisters got together at Christmas to bake sugar cookies, usually in the shape of Santa and his reindeer. The ingredients didn’t cost much – no dents here from credit card debt or budget problems – but it was a rich experience, offering lots of enjoyment. At times, you’d think mayhem had broken out in our kitchen, with cookie dough and colourful icing covering floors, walls, clothes, faces. I remember our kitchen resembling the famous chocolate factory scene from the 1950s TV show “I Love Lucy”, which I think is still broadcast in reruns. In the episode, Lucy and her best friend Ethel take jobs as sorters behind a conveyor belt at a chocolate factory. All hell hilariously breaks loose when the two can’t keep up with the never-ending flow of chocolates. The candy ends up in heaps – or in stuffed, chocolate-smeared cheeks – just as our cookies often ended up in a jumbled chaos of cookie cutter parts boasting mountains of decorative icing. However frightful our cookies ended up looking, though, many friends and neighbours stopped by our place to gobble the goodies down, enjoying the treats as much as the stories behind their making. There was always plenty to share.
2) Seeing the light. Just about everyone in Canada can identify with the experience of hopping into a car to take in an evening tour of Christmas light displays, be they in neighbourhoods or in extravagant shows usually set up at landmark locations. In my youth, Christmas fun didn’t come much cheaper than this since spending was mostly limited to just a bit of fuel for the drive. In the town of Sault Ste. Marie where I grew up (set on the banks of St. Mary’s River in northern Ontario), going to see the lights was always a big event for me, my sisters, and my parents. The six of us would pile into my dad’s old station wagon to experience the beauty and magic of the dazzling light shows. As a wee one, I perceived something deeply alluring and mysterious in the shining, blinking filigrees draped over houses, buildings, and rooftops, or on outdoor trees and throughout yards. Lighted three-D displays – particularly depicting mangers – also fascinated me. Sharing the experience elbow to elbow with my family left me feeling warm and fuzzy all over - feelings that I carry with me to this day whenever I view Christmas light displays.
3) Life’s a snowball. Come the holiday season, Sault Ste. Marie always fulfilled expectations for the weather in a country known as The Great White North. By late December, there was plenty of snow on the ground and – kids being kids – my sisters and I and our circle of friends made the most of the fluffy stuff. In fact, during the holidays, we couldn’t wait to get outside to frolic. We’d spend all day building snow forts and snowmen – and snowball fights (including a cracked window or two) could break out at the drop of a toque. But we were also little angels inasmuch as we would lay down in the snow and flap our arms to create the impression of winged creatures. Total cost for a full day of fun? Zero dollars and zero cents (and sometimes sub-zero noses).
4) Christmas, for a song. Yes, we’d flub our lines. Yes, we’d be off key. But when my family got together to sing Christmas carols, it was always heavenly music to my ears. And it cost nothing save for the pain from stomach cramps that accompanied occasional fits of laughter. I hold dear memories of times when my mother and grandmother would sit down at the piano to lead the family in Christmas sing alongs. Some of us knew some of the songs off by heart. If not, we had old, torn music sheets to read from. Did we ever come close to sounding like members of the Tabernacle Choir? Well, hardly. In fact, if memory serves, our dog Ginger frequently dropped her ears and ran to the kitchen to hide under the table. I believe even our version of Silent Night annoyed her. But we rejoiced.
5) Food for thought. My mother is a charitable soul. Certainly her charitable leanings influenced my decision later in life to pursue a professional career in not-for-profit credit counselling, a field in which I now serve as CEO of Credit Canada. When I was a child, my mother often spoke about the importance of helping others in need. But the wisdom of her words didn’t really hit home until I became a teenager. One Christmas, she invited me and my sisters to join her to help out as a volunteer at a soup kitchen in Sault Ste. Marie. Like many teenagers, I was wary about the undertaking at first, but once I got to the soup kitchen and came to know the people, hear their stories, and understand their circumstances, I completely warmed to the experience. For the first time, I fully comprehended what the term empathy meant. I was able to put myself in the shoes of those less fortunate than myself, and it changed me. To this day, that Christmas stands as one of the most memorable, heartfelt experiences of my life. Feasts after all, do not come only in the form of the things we eat; there is also food for the spirit and soul. Seeing the joy volunteers brought to those whose only family could be found in that soup kitchen was a gift far better than anything I could possibly have received in pretty wrapping. So it is that today I’m encouraging my own teenage kids to pursue volunteer work, with the understanding that spending time with others in worthwhile ways at Christmas is more important than material concerns.
6) The view from here. I remember that simple pleasures used to abound during the Christmas season. Back in my day as a kid, only a couple of TV channels were available for viewing in Sault Ste. Marie, and computers as we know them today were little more than a futuristic fantasy. But oh how my sisters and I exulted in those two measly stations. Item by item, we scanned the TV guide to find and earmark the shows we most wanted to watch. And when the time came to watch them, it was a major event in the household. Nothing could tear us away from taking in the likes of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as we munched on freshly buttered popcorn, our eyes glued to the screen. The viewing choices were so limited compared to today. Now, many households boast several TV and computer screens – with literally hundreds of channels, and many thousands of Web sites, to choose from. Under the circumstances, I can hardly sympathize with anyone who says that there’s little to see and do during Christmas that doesn’t cost a lot of money.
7) Imagine that. Creativity played a big role in the Christmases of my youth. As I say, my parents were very frugal. They didn’t spend on baubles and trinkets, including virtually all forms of Christmas decorations. So me, my mother, and my sisters made our own decorations based mostly on materials we found kicking around the house. This process necessitated some degree of imagination and craftsmanship, and I’ve plenty of fond memories about the ideas we put to work – and the good times we shared – to decorate our Christmas tree and bring festive imagery to our surroundings. The materials we worked with included everything from popcorn, toilet rolls, and glass jars, to tinfoil, paper, and macaroni – among other stuff. With the aid of scissors, spray paint, string, sparkles, what have you, we created quite a lovely assortment of decorations at a fraction of the cost of store-bought items. All told in retrospect, they were very merry times.