Think about the acts of kindness

When I was five, Christmas was the most magical time of the year.  There was the thrill and anticipation of Santa and his reindeer, the Christmas concert at school, the Christmas pageant at church, and the Christmas tree which never went up until the night before Christmas.  Then, there were plenty of visitors, the turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and Japanese mandarin oranges which came wrapped in tissue and packed in crates.  I guarantee we were always giddy with excitement and anticipation.

Christmas morning we couldn’t wait to get dressed in the chill bedrooms, giggling and hurrying in our haste to see the gifts under the tree downstairs.  Presents never appeared until Christmas morning.  There were six of us kids then, ranging in age from three to twelve.  My mom always got up and made coffee and my dad always reached under the tree and brought out the gifts, handing them out so that each child had a gift to open.  Then, while we played with the toys, Mom would be out in the kitchen basting the turkey, which usually weighed 20-25 pounds, filling the house with a wonderful smell.  We’d eat breakfast, our eyes still fastened on our gifts, then we’d go to church and there would be a Christmas Day service with Baby Jesus in His manger.  We’d sing Christmas carols and exchange greetings with people after the service, and there were always plenty of other children to talk to and to play with.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we’d have Christmas dinner.  There would be heaps of mashed potatoes, homemade dressing, cranberry sauce, plates of turkey, mashed turnip or carrots, and lashings of gravy.  We might have friends or relatives to dinner, which always was a challenge because the table was never quite big enough, but everybody managed to squeeze in.

Recently, my husband and I visited St. John’s.  I think, in future, I will always think of St. John’s as the city where A River Runs Through It, because there were literally rivers of water flowing across roadways and waterfalls cascading down the Southside Hills.  But, the amazing thing is, it didn’t dampen the ardor of the Christmas shoppers at the Avalon Mall.  The parking lot was full, even though shoppers were forced to leap across streams of water to get into the mall.  As I sat at the food court with Len, we watched the shoppers go by in droves–and a stream of water falling from the ceiling to a bucket on the floor–and I pondered the meaning of Christmas just as I do every year.

What is the meaning of Christmas?  Is it the presents, the school concerts, the story of the birth of Jesus, the snow, or the tree all aglitter with ornaments and lights?  Or does the spirit of Christmas reside only in the hearts of children?

If we were to take away the gifts and the tree, would Christmas still be Christmas?

While we were in St. John’s we phoned our son James in Winnipeg and while he and I were talking he had to put down the phone to answer the door.  When he returned to the phone he told me a cadet had come to the door selling chocolate bars.  “I bought the whole box,” he laughed.  James was remembering a time almost fifteen years before when he was a child selling chocolate bars, and it had not been an easy task trudging through the snow selling chocolate bars in a city where doors were often closed in his face.  But that day, at the end of the block he knocked on a door and a man answered.  When James asked him if he’d like to buy a bar to support the school, the man bought the whole box, and I’ll never forget the joy on James’s face when he came home with an empty box and a handful of money.  He never forgot that man’s kindness.

I imagine if I asked James what gift he was given for Christmas fifteen years ago, he’d be hard-pressed to remember, but James had no trouble remembering a random act of kindness, and fifteen years later, he was able to return that kindness to a child in the same situation.

So, perhaps Christmas is more about small acts of kindness and mercy, rather than the glittering gifts under the tree.  Perhaps the meaning of Christmas is wrapped up in relationships, and fastened with memories of a simpler, kinder time.

Enjoying toutons and a good yarn

Queen Elizabeth may think tea and crumpets at the Palace is tasty, but she probably hasn’t tasted tea and toutons, poor dear.  All my life I’ve measured how civilized a social gathering ought to be, by comparing it to Tea with the Queen, but no more!  If Queen Elizabeth hasn’t tasted toutons,  more’s the pity!

My love affair with these delectable morsels began not long ago when a lovely lady by the name of Rose invited me to tea.  As I at down at the table she took the toutons from a sizzling cast iron frying pan and stacked them on a plate.  When the kettle boiled she poured steaming hot cups of tea and placed them on the table along with a tin of Carnation and a bowl of sugar.  On the platter, next to the toutons, were crisp fried pieces of salt pork.

“Just butter the toutons and drizzle molasses over them,” she said, pushing the containers nearer to me.  I helped myself to a touton—buttered it and drizzled the molasses over it—then took a bite.  If there was a heaven on earth, it was in Rose’s kitchen that morning!

When I first set foot in Newfoundland in ‘77, Len took me to see his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Newton in Kelligrews.  Never in my life had I seen anybody just walk into someone’s house without knocking, but that’s what Len did.  Where I grew up—in the city—you phoned ahead to arrange a visit, then you knocked on the door and waited for it to be opened.  Walking into someone’s house without knocking was a culture shock for me!  That evening Aunt Mamie cooked up a scoff of Fish ‘n’ brewis; something I had never heard of.  As I ate, I wondered how someone could take pieces of hard bread—like hockey pucks—and turn them into something so good; but she did, and the scrunchions and onions complimented the delicious meal!

My first sit-down meal at the home of my future in-laws was also a bit of a culture shock. The kitchen was full of visitors, young and old, and the table couldn’t accommodate everybody so the men sat down to eat first.  I was a visitor—and didn’t have a clue what to do in the kitchen anyway—so I was told to sit down with the men.  I didn’t understand much of what they were saying to each other, so I sat quietly and hoped nobody would notice me.  Platters of fish and potatoes, vegetables, salads and soups were passed around, and if I didn’t want something, I passed it along.

Suddenly, Len’s mom handed me a loaf of fresh-baked bread and a knife.  I had been away from my home in Vancouver for a couple of years, and hadn’t seen homemade bread in ages.  I looked at the loaf in my hands, then at my plate heaped with food, and decided I didn’t want any bread.

“No thanks,” I said, and passed the loaf along.  The table of men—and the women standing around the table—erupted into laughter.  I looked at their laughing faces in total confusion.  What had I done?

Len’s mother took the loaf and the knife and held the bread to her bosom, cutting slices skilfully and handing them to the men.  Len explained, “You’re the woman, you’re supposed to cut the bread.”

Fresh from the oven...
Fresh from the oven…

Tea in Newfoundland, especially in the outports, remains a ‘homely’ way for friends to get together.  In the city, having tea with a friend is more of a formal occasion.  When you invite someone over, you arrange a date and time and your friend arrives at the designated hour, and woe betide if you show up early or late.But in the outports, it’s a gentler life, which goes without saying, really.

All things considered, when it comes to having tea, I think Queen Elizabeth and I might agree that tea and toutons in Rose’s kitchen exemplifies the age-old adage, “Life’s simple pleasures are the best.”