I still distinctly remember the smell of cow manure, or horse poop, that one faithful Christmas. I was young and didn’t really know how to distinguish between the two.
But oh do I remember the smell.
See one wonderful Christmas when I was a young boy, my family cooked up the wonderful idea to attend a Christmas church service on a farm, in our rural Ontario town.
That meant sitting on hay bails, with straw poking into your freshly ironed dress pants that only made it out of the closet once a year for traditions like this.
I don’t remember how long the service was, what songs we sang or why we even decided to attend that service in the first place. But the smell that Christmas, for us non-farm folks, is still talked about around the Christmas dinner table.
From what I do remember, we were Christmas service free agents back in my childhood days. My mom and dad both attended church regularly as children and were members of a church before we moved towns when I was three. We didn’t attend church much outside of Christmas– my parents blame sports for taking over most weekends, which is probably a valid excuse.
In our new town, my parents, along with our old neighbours that moved in next door around the same time, searched out a church that would have us vagabonds for their service on Christmas.
Beyond the farm service, there was an absolute marathon service at a catholic church. Maybe I’m eggaerating because I was an antsy kid, but this service must have lasted three hours. Our neighbour, a former RCMP officer, who had a similar attention span to me, even caught a few zzzzz’s during the service.
I don’t remember what year we found it, but one year in my teens we found the golden goose of church services on Christmas.
It was a kid’s service in a small church, it maybe held 75 people. The service was tailored towards youngsters who couldn’t sit still. It also got a lot of kids involved in the process, with off-key singing and child-like shenanigans from the performers. It was a riot, and best of all, it was only 30 minutes long. They held them between 4 and 7 p.m., every half hour.
Sing a couple of hymns, laugh at the kids, light a candle and be back home to devour some turkey or whatever feast our neighbours and my parents had cooked up that evening.
This led to a few late nights for my parents and due to some alcohol consumption, meant late-night wrapping. One year I even caught my dad wrapping a present and the label said, to Byron, from Santa. As an adult, it’s easy to see now how that happened. Don’t ever let your guard down parents.
In the last number of years, I haven’t made it home all that often on Christmas, but you can best believe we went to that same service and it brought all the same laughs from all those years ago.
Isn’t it funny how distinctly Christmas traditions stick in our head?
When the Christmas music starts playing or the tree goes up, those memories come flooding back. There was one particular Christmas, where we decided to do a gift exchange with my extended family.
My dad, being the prankster that he was, decided to duck tape a golf club he had bought for my cousins. My cousins were always joking around, so Dad thought he would bring a little Christmas cheer with duct tape. We howled laughing as my cousins opened the present, I don’t remember what I got for Christmas that year or what anyone else got, just how hard I laughed at unwrapping a duct tape present.
(Don’t worry, the next year my cousins duct-taped individual golf balls and gave them to my dad and it was just as funny.)
As much as I remember the gifts, I remember the traditions. Visiting my cousins and begging them to play with whatever toy I got for Christmas, only to be bored of it by March. (Unless it was hockey related and then I wore the heck out of it.)
My sister and I got to open one present on Christmas Eve, it was always pajama pants, that either she or my mom had made, or they bought, but they had to match. It never got old.
When I was younger, another of my favourite traditions was waking my sister up at a god-forsaken hour (she is seven years older) and asking her if it was time to open presents yet. I would do this religiously and beg and beg until she relented and let me go down and open a few items from my stockings. The extra couple hours of sleep she provided my parents in those days must have been a godsend.
Christmas in our family also wasn’t complete without two other traditions in our family. Watching the World Juniors and playing in a hockey tournament.
It seems weird looking back but in Ontario its very much commonplace for tournaments to start on Boxing Day. Or start on Christmas Eve, go on hold for Christmas Day and start back up on Boxing Day. We were almost guaranteed to be in a rink at some point over the Christmas holidays.
I don’t remember a lot of those tournaments, but I remember one where I missed a penalty shot and I felt like I let the whole world down. I think I was 10 or 12. Oh how things stick with you.
Watching the World Juniors was always a tradition between my Grandpa and I.
In those days, it seemed like the tournament was always in Europe and Canada played at some ungodly hour. My Grandpa would be up and my dad would shake me out of my stooper. I watched on the edge of my seat, or sometimes with a blanket and a pillow, but we always watched.
My Grandpa would tell me about the players he had watched on the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds that year, and give his thoughts on who he figured would be the next big thing in the NHL. He loved Joe Thornton, a star with the Greyhounds and when he went first overall, my Grandpa bought me a Thornton Boston Bruins jersey. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it, as a Leafs fan, beyond wearing it that Christmas morning, as he watched proudly when I put it on.
It’s funny that one day out of the year, can take up so much of our collective memories. You learn quickly as you grow older, it’s not about the gifts, but those moments together with your family that make it all so special.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family.
Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.