Michael Dawe: Christmases past remembered

Robbin and Michael Dawe on Christmas Day in, 1956 in front of the fireplace in the old family home in Michener Hill. Contributed photo

Robbin and Michael Dawe on Christmas Day in, 1956 in front of the fireplace in the old family home in Michener Hill. Contributed photo

Christmas this year is going to be very different than in years past. Hence, for an older person such as myself, who has also made a career of being a historian, it is time when I find myself thinking back to my childhood Christmases.

I was very fortunate as a child to grow up in a beautiful old brick house that had been built by my grandfather in Red Deer’s Michener Hill subdivision in 1911. The house had two large brick fireplaces, complete with tall brick chimneys. One of those fireplaces was in the living room. The other was in a small adjacent den.

It was the living room fireplace that became the focal point for our family Christmases. The large wool stockings were carefully hung off the oak mantle. Since we had a real chimney and fireplace for Santa to use on Christmas Eve, our belief in the traditional Christmas stories became absolute.

The only glitch to the scene was the large piece of tin had been placed across the flue to cut off the cold winter drafts and the small natural gas heater had been inserted into the fireplace opening. We were always concerned that these would be obstacles for Santa. However, my father always promised that he would at least take that tin piece off before Santa arrived.

My father must have been true to his word because each Christmas morning – probably around 5 a.m. – we would rush downstairs to find our stockings bulging with the small gifts from Santa. There was always a mandarin orange, a candy cane, some pieces of chocolate and often a small toy and puzzle for our excited little hands to find.

Those were not the only things left for us by Santa. Next to the chimney, there was a large wooden window seat upon which my father placed our real live Christmas tree. Under that tree, there was a Christmas present from Santa for my brother Robbin, my sister Dorothy and myself. There were numerous other presents from our parents, my uncle Wellington and often other family and friends.

Christmas breakfast was always eaten in the kitchen, after we had opened our stockings, but before we were allowed to touch the main gifts. Christmas lunch was eaten in the dining room, which was an eastward extension of the living room.

After the morning’s excitement, we were bundled up for the trip to the family farm at Pine Lake where my mother’s parents lived. The trip to Pine Lake was often not an easy one. Highway 42 was not plowed as quickly as it is today after a blizzard. Consequently scoop shovels were put in the trunk in case my father and uncle Wellington had to dig us out of a drift.

Once we arrived at the old farmhouse, we were warmly greeted by my grandparents and all the other relatives who were joining us for Christmas. The old house had a coal furnace, but there was also a large Quebec heater in the living room to provide additional heat. The kitchen was never cold, because there was a large wood and coal cook stove. That was where my grandmother, assisted by my mother and aunts, used to cook the enormous Christmas dinner.

Before dinner, there were Christmas oranges, licorice allsorts and a large container of mixed nuts to snack upon. The nuts were particularly fascinating as there were metal nutcrackers and picks to use to get the eatable parts out.

Dinner always consisted of a huge turkey, together with the traditional mashed potatoes, dressing, turnips, salads, gravy, cranberry sauce and fresh baked buns. We always ate far more than we should have. Therefore, while there was the excitement of the post-dinner gift opening, by the small Christmas tree my grandfather had cut on the farm, there was also a drowsiness from being overfull.

As the evening drew to a close, we would head back to town. I always remember the wonder of the bright Christmas lights in the city, in contrast to the darkness around the farm. While the day had been full of excitement, as often as not, we had already fallen asleep before we arrived home.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.