Most memorable Christmas gifts …

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“Maybe Christmas, he thought… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps…means a little bit more!”

–The Grinch.

^

What about those Christmas gifts that don’t come tied up in bow?

Discussing our ‘theme’ for this year’s Christmas edition of The Advocate, we settled on focusing on something more than the brightly coloured boxes sitting under the Christmas tree. Each year, we hear stories of Christmas gifts received that were so thoughtful they will never be forgotten. Gifts of time, gifts of talent, gifts from the heart…

That is what we decided to bring to you, our loyal readers — these stories of memorable gifts that may not have been tangible items, but are remembered all these years later, beginning with our own stories …

Jackie Jardine,

editor, The Advocate

I grew up with an older brother and a younger sister. When I was a kid we were a single-income family. My father was a steelworker, a proud steelworker. He was proud of the work he did for Hawker-Siddeley, as it was known when I was a child, then Lavalin, then Greenbrier and so forth. He walked to work every day carrying the familiar steel lunch can under his arm. Usually, tucked inside that battered old lunch can was the same thing: thermos filled with tea, an old plastic Bufferin bottle filled with milk for that tea, a sandwich of some sort, and something sweet. Always something sweet.

As a single-income family with three kids, “extra” money was a dream — as it was for most of our friends at that time. Yet somehow, every Christmas, Santa left toys for my siblings and I, our stockings were always stuffed and there were gifts from Mom and Dad under the Christmas tree. No matter Dad’s work situation, we always had a merry Christmas. We were more fortunate than a lot of our friends.

As I grew older I noticed there were fewer gifts under the tree for my parents, but always plenty for my brother, sister and I.

One Christmas in particular, I would have been around 13 or 14 years old, my father hadn’t worked in quite some time; either the union was on strike or my father had been laid off for a long time, I’m not sure of the particular circumstances. But I do recall the anxious, worried looks on my parents’ faces as Christmas drew nearer.

And I do recall a gift I received from my parents that year that I will treasure for the rest of my life: two wooden bowls with lids, hand-turned on the wood lathe my father built from scratch in the basement of our house in Trenton. The bowls were two different sizes — one smaller than the other. They were made of a beautiful light-coloured wood. My initials were on the lids. My little sister also received a set of bowls with her initials. The larger bowl was filled with dusting powder and a powder puff, the smaller bowl was to hold trinkets and other treasured girlie items.

I always loved to receive something handmade for Christmas, still do. But something handmade by my father, who worked so hard doing the dirty job of a steelworker in a grimy, cold steel plant was the frosting on the cake of life! Still is.

That Christmas, my father was out of work, but there were still gifts for us kids. And my most treasured gift of all came from the heart and not a box store.

Today, my father is long since retired and no longer has the lathe he made to turn wood; his craft today is hand carving and my mother, brother, sister, close friends and family members all treasure the hand carvings he has gifted to each of us. They are priceless …

Steve Goodwin,

reporter, The Advocate

Christmas is always a special time for me.

Once my wife Brenda and I built and occupied our new home in 1990, we no longer celebrated Christmas elsewhere — with one exception to share with you now.

It was 1999, shortly before Christmas, that the phone rang and it was my Uncle Barry in Bayfield, N.B. where he and my aunt Mary lived. We’d never had them phone us at home, but I knew this was important to them — most certainly to Uncle Barry. He was undergoing cancer treatment and the prognosis was not good. One could tell two things about his call: We were more than welcome to join them in Bayfield and it would likely be the last time.

The main course would be local goose, my favourite poultry of which I had not partaken since our first Christmas in our new house and which I have not had since. Duck is my next favourite and it’s accessible enough around here.

Visiting them in Bayfield was always a treat. They moved into the classic square, cottage-roofed dwelling more than a decade before from Sackville, N.B. after my uncle retired after working for many years at Mount Allison University.

The house needed work but it was otherwise gorgeous, with main and upper floor bay windows on two sides, in-laid cherry steps and banisters in the main stairway. The ceilings were dropping toward the top of the window frames. An engineer built the house of solid bedrock and had the good judgment not to disturb it. My aunt could not remember another place where the walls were so straight for lining up wallpaper.

One could always count on a wonderful meal at the Cawdles, like the time I was returning from P.E.I. one fall afternoon and stopped by. Supper was offered — modest, but filling and very much from the land. First was a serving, then another, of stewed mushrooms that he had picked in a farm field after a rain. Dessert was plum preserves from a nearby tree.

Brenda and I arrived mid-morning. My uncle was working on part of the dessert — homemade ice cream, which used to be a staple at Christmas for us growing up.

In my childhood on the farm where my mother grew up near Bayfield, the children were kept away from the ice cream making and the copious liquid refreshment that was shared between turns cranking the ice cream. Such drink was not served during dining.

By now the ice cream bucket was nearing its last, like my uncle. We agreed we could alternate holding everything together while we cranked the brine, ice and cream into the delicacy we always remembered fondly.

We shared no gifts under the Christmas tree that day. What we shared was us, while we all could.

To say it was a special Christmas is an understatement. Nothing would be the same.

Signposts of finality appeared quickly after that. My aunt and uncle soon sold the house and moved to Port Elgin, N.B. she into a seniors residence and he into a long-term care facility before he passed in the late spring. He was 80.

All the memories of times with them arise with reverence — the times picking berries of all kinds, depending on the season. Topping them all was that one last Christmas with my Uncle Barry.

Michelle Davey,

curator, McCulloch Heritage Centre

When I made a conscious effort to think about all of the gifts that I have received over the years, it was difficult to pick out one or two that stood out for me and why.

Ever since meeting my husband, I have found that giving the perfect gift is far much better than receiving. I really like taking the time to think about what it is that someone really wants or needs, usually something they’ve mentioned in a previous conversation, and then seeing their surprise when they realized that someone was listening.

One of the most memorable Christmas’s that I have is from the year that my husband was diagnosed with metastatic cancer at the age of 35. It was a very worrisome and stressful time, and he was scheduled to have surgery mid-December. Our daughter was five years old and we had spent the most part of that month in the hospital with him. The night of her first Christmas concert, we drove to Halifax for surgery the next morning. The closer it got to Christmas, we were wondering if we would be celebrating in the hospital or at home. Finally, on December 21 he was well enough to come home, but in a wheelchair and back brace — and it was a difficult transition for everyone.

By this time most of the Christmas shopping that I had done was at the hospital gift shop. Going home meant that I had to find a tree, decorate, shop, cook and wrap in three days. We were more concerned about having a ‘normal’ Christmas for our daughter than anything else. Money was tight after spending the most part of the previous two months either in the hospital or driving to and from Halifax on a regular basis. This was a time in our lives in which I had to learn how to do many of the everyday things that I had relied on my husband to do, from shoveling snow to hanging Christmas lights. Most importantly, we didn’t want our daughter to know the struggles we were having making the holidays perfect for her.

What happened over the next few days embodied the real Christmas spirit. We had friends and family show up to help put up outdoor lights. Offers to babysit. Deliveries of treats and baked goods. Someone plowed our driveway. The holiday stress magnified with health worries were being lightened every day because of those close to us.

Looking back, when I ask our daughter about her favorite Christmas or Christmas memory – she keeps repeating the same thing year after year. Her favorite memories are the times we sat around the table and told jokes, laughed, teased and ate lots of treats. Every year the best gift is being able to unwind, unplug and enjoy the best gift of all — time.

Nicole LeBlanc,

communications director for Central Nova MP Sean Fraser

My grandmother, Rosalie, was a talented crafter, with exceptional skills in quilting, cross stitching and sewing. She found much joy in sharing her craft with her grandchildren, family and friends. Though she passed in 2006, I have many of her beautifully stitched goods in my home that I treasure.

One particular item I cherish is our family’s Beary Merry Christmas calendar. Crafters may be familiar with panel projects, where you visit the fabric store, and on a bolt of fabric are pre-printed projects. They could be pillows, stuffed toys or a wall hanging, such as this calendar is.

My grandmother was so talented, making handmade quilts for all of the grandchildren when they were born, and later matching quilts made from scraps from her fabric stash. Her cross stitches were stunning as well, and while I shared that skill with her, I always had to ask her to help me with my French knots.

I have fond memories of our Beary Merry Christmas calendar from a young age, as my brother, sister and I would take turns moving the stuffed bear around the map of his house, each day on a quest to find Christmas. If you looked at the calendar, you might think, this project seems pretty simple perhaps in comparison to handmade quilts, and you would be right. The calendar was simple, with a well-stuffed bear with a loop on his back that’s attached to buttons corresponding to each date telling you where he’s looking for Christmas. A testament to my grandmother’s skills is how each thread is still intact, though the bear has moved around for over 20 years now, and early on was done so by not-so-delicate little hands who knew who was coming when the calendar was finished for another year.

I remember with great excitement each year as the bear reached the space under the stairs, which meant it was my father’s birthday. We often offered to let him move the bear, but he was always fine with us placing it for him. Two weeks later I was even more excited when he reached the kitchen table, as it meant it was my birthday. In the end, the bear reaches the living room, and finds his family around the Christmas tree.

My mother gifted me this special calendar last year, knowing how much it meant to me. While to someone else it may look like an outdated 80s Christmas decoration, which it very much is, it is something I treasure, and very much love to take out, each year on November 30th. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received, and wherever you are today reading this, know that I’m smiling moving the little bear around, anticipating his trip around his home, looking for Christmas.

Beth Henderson,

Pictou Historical Photograph Society

Growing up on a small mixed farm in the early 1950s ensured there was no steady income. Each fall my father would butcher a heifer, pay off the Eaton’s account, and my mother would order our winter clothes. Then the budget was used for our main Christmas gifts. One year I yearned for a typewriter that I had circled in the catalogue. Never expecting to find it under the tree sticks in my mind as being a particularly special Christmas. Not every year brought large store-bought gifts. Looking back now the dark green sweater with the intricate cable stitch design she crafted was equally special. Over the years some of her gifts were in the form of crocheted Christmas tree ornaments, ceramics and fruit cakes. Mom had passed away not too long before Christmas which, at that time, made me aware of how these traditions would be no more. But we have learned that if one door closes another opens. Good friends then become more special in your life. A very thoughtful friend arrived unexpectedly at the house with two unique arrangements she made which, for the past 14 years, are carefully unwrapped and form part of our Christmas tradition. These and Mom’s crocheted stars, bells and angels continue to be my gifts from the heart.

Kimberly Dickson,

former communications director, Town of New Glasgow

As a child my favourite Christmas gift was not those found in Sears or Eaton’s wish list catalogue or on the shelves of big department stores. Instead it arrived in a brown paper package wrapped up with strings every year from Newcastle, England. The box would be about half the size of a shoe box. This gift came from people who I had never met but from the time I was five until I finished high school I was always on their Christmas list so similar boxes arrived each holiday season. My grandmother was born and raised in this British mining town and it was her brother’s family who would faithfully send me the gifts. My grandmother was my mother’s stepmother and married my grandfather when my mother was 16. My mother’s mother had died when my mother was only a toddler. This petite woman with a strong British accent was a widow with two girls a bit younger than my Mom and she and my Papa, a coal miner, joined their families. She was kind, selfless, loving, strong, creative and good to the core and became the mother my mother had longed to have and a storybook grandmother. As the youngest of Granny’s grandchildren, I was chosen to receive these treasures. Each year I would open the box with great anticipation. These gifts introduced different corners of the world to me in the most beautiful way. Each parcel would be a lovely little collectable doll representing a specific country — Scotland, England, Ireland, France, China, Germany, Jamaica, Russia, Japan, Canada, India… The dolls have delicately painted faces and hair colours that include brunettes, blondes, redheads and everything in between dressed in intricate clothing representative of each one’s nationality. On Christmas Day I could not wait to show Granny which doll had arrived. The excitement of their delivery never wavered as I grew. The summer of my 19th year, my grandmother passed away and dolls stopped. These gems are a symbol, not only of my childhood, but of my roots. My grandmother was one of the most important people in my life. Her little mining company house was more magical than any castle as she created the warmest and most welcoming of homes. The dolls always remind me of her and the power of families to extend beyond time and distance. Next summer my husband, son and I plan to travel to her hometown as her memory still compels me to uncover this important part of my heritage while her love stays firmly embedded in my heart.

Margie Grant-Walsh,

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pictou County

I recall one Christmas when I was around 7. How much I wanted a tea set to have tea parties with my dolls. My father was a coal miner, so certainly not much money floating around; in fact, we were always surprised to see chocolates in our stocking as it rarely happened. My mom told me that Santa may not be able to fulfill my wish as there were more little girls before me. I remember seeing one gift under the tree and was beyond excited to get the tea set I had longed for. After 50 years I still have that set that sits in my China cabinet and brings back such fond thoughts of Christmas.

Henderson Paris,

former town councillor, New Glasgow

Christmas is that time of the year that is celebrated around the world by so many people of various cultures and religions who, depending on their circumstances or personal beliefs, might have many interesting thoughts and traditions as to how they will spend or think about this all-important day and event.

Hopefully, many will think about Christmas Day for the real religious reason and that is the birth of Jesus. However, we know that there is so much emphasis focused primarily on the commercialization side of businesses leading up to this day, that the most meaningful reason is most often forgotten or gets lost in the demands and stress which quite regularly accompanies this season. Maybe some time will be given in all our homes to remember the reason for the season.

Christmas, as all adults know, brings much joy and happiness to all children who are fortunate to experience what Santa and family members have gotten them. The smiles on their precious faces tell it all.

For me, growing up in a household where I was the youngest of 10 children certainly brings back many wonderful memories. Some of my brothers and sisters said that perhaps I was a little spoiled because I was the youngest. I didn’t see it that way! Well, maybe I did, but I never admitted that to them.

Some things I do remember from growing up and leading up to Christmas was that of my Mom’s baking, which was to die for. Our house most days always had that wonderful aroma of fresh baked goods such as bread, rolls and cookies flowing through the air and you could hardly wait to taste them once again. However, with the thoughts of Christmas fast approaching, my mother began what she called her Christmas baking. That involved my favourites, molasses cookies, scotch cookies with the dash of icing on top. Off course there was another of my favourites, apple pie and a variety of other mouth-watering ones as well. This tradition continued all through my years growing up at home.

Amazingly enough, even when we had our own homes and family our mother would still continue to surprise us all with a phone call a few days before Christmas and tell us to come and pick up some of her fresh Christmas baked goods. This act of love and kindness lasted for many years.

There are numerous heartfelt memories I have this time of the year that cause me to feel somewhat overwhelmed, happy, sad, thankful and indeed very grateful to have been born into such an amazing family. As you could imagine, there were so many special memories over the years that one’s mind keeps going back to that brings a huge smile to your face and a complete warmness to your heart. Christmas — no matter what you have or don’t have — causes one to look deep inside of yourself, to hopefully find peace of heart.

My oldest sister Mary, whose birthday just happened to be December 25, worked in Halifax and was always unable to be home for Christmas day. However, she would come home on Boxing Day and we were always so excited to see her and to celebrate Christmas all over again with her as her gifts were still under the tree. As we watched her open her gifts we could see her smiles of happiness. Needless to say we, the younger ones, could hardly wait to open the presents she had for us as there seemed to so many large bags she carried as she came in the door. To us, Christmas had come again! She brought such sheer joy to us every time she came home and not just at Christmas!

Sadly, our dear sister Mary, who I called an angel, passed away in 1971 at 36 years of age. She is always in our hearts.

Another cherished reflection I will always hold dearly is of when Carol and I built our home and were hoping to be in it for Christmas that year. Time was going by and it now looked like we could move in on December 24 that year. As you can well imagine there was a lot to do to make that happen. My mother, who was a beacon of strength and determination, worked with us the whole day and helped with everything, even helping Carol with the tree. Night time had arrived and we were all done and ready to start the next journey of our lives in our new home. Christmas that year was even more special to us.

As I look back on those Christmases of years gone by with such fondness, I am all the more thankful for all the love, hard work that both my mother who dedicated her life to us and as well to my father who worked two jobs in order to provide for us all so that we could have what we did. Their sacrifices they so graciously provided more than prepared us all for when we had families of our own. I will forever carry their memories in my heart and especially at this time of the year.

Now with our own grown adult children and grandchildren it is my hope that someday they also will be able to look back with pleasant memories they shared with us and how it has helped mold their lives as to who they are.

Christmas should be about the real story, the story you make in life and the story you pass onto family members to remember and share. It should not just be about the gifts but about memories made and the loved ones who made them possible. It’s about caring for all people!

Debbie Ratcliffe,

MARSA (Merigomish and Area Recreation and Social Association) volunteer

Not all Christmas gifts come wrapped in bright paper and tied with a sparkly bow. After 11 years of marriage I found myself on my own with my three children, aged 10, 7 and 4 just two weeks before Christmas. My mom was a big help but I couldn’t ask her to drop everything and be at my beck and call. It was overwhelming to manage with all the emotion and turmoil going on.

I had always been involved with our elementary school’s Home and School and had made some great friends among the moms there. Several of us had created a Babysitting Co-Op, whereby we would exchange sitting hours with each other to avoid babysitting costs.

When an envelope appeared in my mailbox, I expected a Christmas card.

What I found instead was the best gift I could have imagined.

The moms of the Co-Op had all signed on to give me an open account for child minding whenever I needed it, without worrying about paying back the hours. It was the most kind, generous and thoughtful gift given with love and care at a difficult time in my life.

To know that I could depend on these moms to care for my children during this stressful time was a relief and blessing beyond belief.

It was a special gift from caring people — the most thoughtful Christmas gift … one that I shall remember always.

John Ashton,

author, Ashton Creative Design

Growing up, older brothers can be a hazard to one’s health, especially when there are only two male siblings in one family. To elder brothers, their youngers seem like pests, irritants and lost puppies, always looking for attention and/or approval. At times these family relationships can get somewhat tolerant, especially when the younger catches on to use his cunning ability to ask for a fee or favour to disappear, vanish or just find something else to do, well away from the older brother.

Christmas memories were always cordial and warm in our home. Up until my older brother’s waning belief in Santa, he always seemed to be of good behaviour and shockingly almost excited to be around me. It seemed to be a stand off, each believing that somehow St. Nick was watching every move and respectful or rude action we took as children. Each year, through our mother’s encouragement, we made lists of what we wished for on Christmas morning. We brothers knew, we had been perfect angels without a mean look or nary a fight over who got more of Grandma’s homemade apple pie. These times were magical.

As Christmas remembrances fade and time moves on and as most siblings do, they leave the family nest and set out on their own. In September of 1969 and at 17 years old, my elder brother made the jump. He enlisted in the Canadian Coast Guard Officer training program in Cape Breton. This is a life changing moment for all. And I as the younger brother thought, “Wow, I am free of the brotherly yoke, free from the teasing and I now will get all the attention.” For some reason and beyond then, what I could understand, I missed my older brother.

Daily life in our family home was not the same; there was a void, there was silence. I opened the door to my brother’s empty room where most of the time I was never permitted to enter. He left behind many of his treasures and trinkets, his beloved Toronto Maple Leaf team photos and collectables, personal items and many things that started to build his character and personality in my young mind. Was this a human being that I never recognized or appreciated before?

The months were long as I waited for my brother to return home for Christmas. And I did something that I was not forced to do. As soon as he was in my sight, I gave him a big guy hug and said, “Welcome home big brother, I missed you!”

Heather Brimicombe,

reporter, The Advocate

One of the most memorable and thoughtful Christmas gifts I remember receiving was from a Christmas quite a few years back. My little brother, who would have been between 5 and 8 years old at the time, making me 8-11 years old, gave me a present for Christmas and it had always struck me as something very thoughtful for a boy that age to do.

Growing up with two brothers we were like most siblings and would cause trouble with each other and give each other a hard time. We also enjoy messing with each other’s Christmas presents and pranking each other by doing things like covering every centimetre of the gift in tape, wrapping a present with more than 20 layers of wrapping paper or filling giant boxes with newspaper so they have to dig to the bottom to find the tiny thing taped inside. This Christmas, however, my brother decided to make me something, with a bit of help.

I remember getting a little box and thought it might be a toy or something like that inside but as I opened the box I recall finding, on a bed of tissue paper, a small handmade necklace held together with tape and coloured with crayons.

The necklace had thin red wrapping ribbon that you usually curl on gifts as the chain. It went through a hole-punched hole of a paper heart scribbled in red with crayons. But this wasn’t just a piece of paper in the shape of a heart, it was two crayon-coloured pieces of paper held together on the edges with scotch tape and stuffed with cotton balls to make it puffy and big.

I remember seeing the thought that went into it from him and how excited he was to see me open it. I told him I loved it and I put it on.

Later on I snuck it away and put it somewhere safe. Today I am 25 and I still have my little paper heart necklace. I can’t say I’ve worn it much since putting it away, but that’s only to protect it.

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