Short memories of urban Christmas Eves in the 1950s

Dec 24th, 2014 | By | Category: In Brief

I remember the Christmas Eves on Cardigan Avenue in the 1950s — from 1950, say, when my grandfather died, to 1957, when we moved to the suburbs.

Later I understood that my father’s family had big parties because they were immigrants. Friends and acquaintances recruited from similar backgrounds in the city mixed with the children of the original two migrant brothers of the early 20th century. It all gave the illusion of a large, supportive family : the kind of thing that had in fact been left behind in the old country.

For me at the time (I was five years old in 1950) a big party was just what Christmas Eve was all about. We lived in my grandparent’s house. Even after my grandfather died, my grandmother was still mistress of the house. And she loved big parties.

Over the few weeks before Christmas she would even invite the deliverymen who brought fresh bread and milk and department store purchases to your front door in for a drink, to celebrate the season. (And, believe it or not, even in the early 1950s, in the city I lived in, they sometimes still did their work in horse-drawn vehicles!)

My own strongest early childhood memory of Christmas (which may reach back into the late 1940s, when my grandfather was still alive, and my very great friend) is of the dishes of nuts and candy that would suddenly appear all over the house on the afternoon of December 24.

The adults were all so busy. We children had pretty much the run of the nut and candy dishes —  so long as we took care not to let any one dish go absolutely empty, in a way that might attract adult attention.

We didn’t really have much for dinner either, as I recall, in deference to the vast quantities of food that would appear, buffet style, later in the evening.

In any case, not long after whatever did pass for dinner the guests would start to arrive. And they included various cousins and children of adult friends, to reinforce the youngest generation.

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Local writer Hugh Garner : not a party guest, but ...

Soon enough there was great confusion and high times, and many people of various ages. Drinks were poured. The big record player in the living room was hard at work.

Again, so long as you of the youngest generation didn’t draw attention to yourself, you could do pretty much whatever you liked, roaming all over the house, watching the adults at play.

In the dining room the rug was taken up and some furniture moved, to make way for dancing. At some point one of my uncles would tell we children about the Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix — no longer in any of the movies we saw in the neighbourhood theatre around the corner.

Then “So long it’s been good to know ya” would come on the big record player . And the vivacious French Canadian lady from across the street would say it was her handsome, wandering, jet-black-haired husband’s favourite song.

The party wouldn’t end until well after midnight. My brothers and I would go to bed even a little later, in the confusion of an initial hasty clean-up by the adults of the more or less immediate family. Then it was only a short nap before the legend of Santa Claus would cough up pay dirt.

None of this seemed to work as well when we moved to the suburbs. For one thing my grandmother stayed in the old city, moving down by the lake, where she shared an apartment with an older friend of my father’s sister.

My father became responsible for Christmas Eve all by himself. And he did his best to play the part (ably assisted by my remarkable mother, of course). But somehow our new ranch-style bungalow in the suburbs, with ceilings that followed the slanting roof lines, just didn’t seem to properly welcome Christmas Eve.

There was a bit of a revival when we moved back to an older house in the city, midway through my high-school years. And then when I started a family of my own, down by the lake in the city, near my grandmother’s, I tried to take over the big-party family Christmas Eve myself.

But the numbers of available guests had dwindled. Many of the children of my generation had moved to other places. It was a different world, in so many ways.

Yet what happens to us when we are very young does seem to cut very deep grooves in our minds. It stays with us forever. When I think of Christmas Eve I still think of a big party, with dishes of nuts and candy all over the house.

This year I am as happy as I can manage to spend a much quieter night of December 24 with the human company I value most. I am getting so old now, apparently, that I think I can almost make some sense of what went on over the 10 years from 1948 to 1957, at least in the city where I lived.  At any rate I can say I have no regrets at all about how Christmas Eve on Cardigan Avenue during this time somehow set the stage for almost everything I would later become!

And I can only say to you, whoever you may be from whatever part of the world, and whatever religion you are (or whether you celebrate Christmas or just Santa Claus or not — I’m not sure I really do myself any more, in either case!), Happy Holiday 2014.

May your own childhood memories live on, wherever you may finally land, and whoever or whatever you may finally choose to believe in. Or not!

As the poet has said : “Quis hic locus, quae / regio, quae mundi plaga … What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands / What water lapping the bow … Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat. / I made this, I have forgotten / And remember … Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own … Living to live in … The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships” …

Anyway again, all the best for 2015 too, X.

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