‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

This had been quite a year.  In mid-summer Dad moved Mom, Doris and me from the farm into Calgary.  They were determined that we were going to have a chance to get a good junior- and high-school education.  A suite was rented a half block from Haultain, a junior high, and a few blocks east of Central Collegiate Institution, a high school.  All of this produced major changes in our lives – urban living, rented suite instead of the comfortable farm home, large schools instead of a one-room school with a handful of students.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was familiar save our parents’ love, encouragement, and the belief they had embedded in us of the importance of “an education”.  It was a very steep learning curve, but we gradually became comfortable in our new life.

However, Christmas was almost here and we could hardly wait.  All our lives we had celebrated Christmas Eve with our neighbours.  We gathered at the home of Dagmar and George Nygaard, as did Emil and Hansene Dam, Chris Dam, and sometimes a few others.  Dagmar, Emil and Chris were siblings, so it was a close group.  The plan to attend was wonderful, but fate stepped in.  To our dismay Dad developed a flu/cold condition complete with a fever.  The doctor ordered him to go to bed and stay there until his temperature returned to normal.  Between worrying about Dad and trying not to show our disappointment, Doris and I were a sad pair.   

Mother sent the two of us to the store on an errand.  On our return Dad called us into the bedroom and informed us that he had called Chris Dam, who was spending the winter in Calgary.  Chris would drive our Hupmobile to the Nygaards on the morning of December 24th.  Hazel Nelson, also from the Standard area, would go with us to spend the evening with her family.  Mom would stay in Calgary and take care of her patient.  We were distressed that they would miss our Christmas Eve with the usual crowd, but delighted that we could go.

So it was that we once again were part of the festive day – watching the wonderful dinner take shape, doing some last decorating of the tree, seeing the usual guests arriving.  The old familiar pattern unfolded, eating all the special Danish foods, opening parcels, and playing games.  Finally the tree was moved to the centre of the room, and joining hands we circled around the tree singing carols as we went.  The last was always “Silent Night, Holy Night”, sung, of course, in Danish.

This ceremony finished, Chris announced that it was time we started back to Calgary.  Sadly we bundled up and said our goodbyes.  We picked up Hazel at an appointed place and off we went.  Chris was a somewhat nervous driver, conscious of his responsibilities, and speed he did not!  The weather was not too good, the wind blowing and a bit of snow falling.  We made it past Strathmore and Doris and I were dozing in the back seat when we were jarred awake.  Chris had misjudged where the road ended and the ditch started, and there we were – stuck in the deep snow.

Hazel took charge.  We had just passed a driveway into a farmyard.  “Look – someone’s up, there’s a light on.  We can’t stay here, we’ll go over there for help.”  The four of us clutched our coats around us and hurried from the car to the door of the house.  Chris pounded on it, and a man opened the door and stood looking at us.  Chris explained the predicament and asked if we could come in.  “Yes,” said our reluctant host, “but this is what you get for partying and travelling around when you should be home praying and honouring this Holy Day”.

So began the longest night I had experienced.  Our host turned out to be a fundamental, evangelical fanatic.  In quick succession we learned:

No, he would not pull out our car.  It was our punishment from on high to be in trouble.

No, there was no place for any of us to lie down.

No, he would not go to bed.  His task was to make us see the light.

To his credit he did, if reluctantly, let Chris phone our parents, tell them our situation and say we would get help in the morning and complete our journey.  He also told us that the “heathens” who owned a garage and filling station a quarter of a mile to the west were planning on opening up on Christmas morning.  That was the last of his cooperation.

So the night wore slowly on.  Doris and I tried to rest by pulling up to the kitchen table and using our rolled up coats for pillows for our heads.  Sleep seemed impossible against the drone of the ongoing conversation.  Actually it was more of a monologue than a conversation.  Our host continued his preaching.  Occasionally Hazel had enough and would take him on in debate, with Chris throwing in a few words in her support.  Soon, though, he withdrew from the fray and tried to doze in his chair.

Eventually morning came.  The snow storm was over, and Chris took off for the “heathens’” garage.  Hazel, Doris and I gathered our belongings, put on our coats and waited.  In an amazingly short time we heard a car honking.  There was Chris in the old Hupmobile, which was no worse for its night in the ditch.  As we piled into the car our grumpy host made his parting shot.  “I’ll pray for you,” he said.  Hazel stopped and thanked him for his help and his concern.  Then just as she was getting into the car she turned and said, “We’ll pray for you too.  Perhaps the Lord will help you see the light!”  With that she slammed the door and we were off.  I must admit the way we all laughed as we were heading down the road, was not the best of Christian reactions, but it was genuine.

We arrived home to anxious and relieved parents.  Chris gave a brief summary of events, and left for his abode.  Doris and I added news about the wonderful Christmas Eve at the Nygaards, and then everything caught up with us.  I flaked out on one couch and Doris on another.  Mom covered us with blankets where we lay, and Dad returned to his sick bed.  Several hours later the four of us gathered at our kitchen table.  Mom had prepared a simple meal of some of our favorite foods.  As we said grace I thought  – “All in all, this has been a very good Christmas”.

I went to the farm this summer.  The highway is now excellent, built up and with wide shoulders.  Much has changed along the way.  The heathens’ garage is long gone, but on the south side of the highway I can still pick out the house where we sought shelter.  It is very old and no longer lived in – an abandoned relic of the past – but it still stirs memories of a Christmas Eve 74 years ago.  Merry Christmas to all.


Filed under Prairie Childhood

12 Responses to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

  1. Jim Taylor

    Dear Marjorie,

    Your story about the fundamentalist who lectured you, rather than helping you, reminds me of the memorial service I attended a few years ago where one of the eulogists patted himself on the back for persuading some dying people to accept Jesus as their savior with what turned out to be their dying breaths. Far from rejoicing, I felt incensed — that someone could take advantage of a person in a weakened and vulnerable state to pressure them into doing something they didn’t want to do. I don’t think it “saved” them at all; I think they went to their deaths in a state of impotent anger.

    Jim Taylor

    • Marjorie

      Merry Christmas Jim! I agree with your distaste about that individual’s comments. People may mean well, but somehow their actions really don’t make sense. At this point I could make quite a booklet of unhelpful, overworked sayings I have received which I know, were meant to comfort me in my loss. I remind myself that the intention was good – and that is really the saving grace.

  2. Why is it that Christianists (like your non-helpful “savior”) are so unChristian?
    Theirs seems to be a deep disdain for non-believers, those not in their “tribe”, and that their god doesn’t love these non-believers — so anything done to them is justified? Just asking.

    There also seems to be a new Aetheist emergence — now that gay rights have been pretty much dealt with, religious rights are next — the right to not have any god-bothering beliefs. People don’t need religious instruction to be moral, decent & good.

    • Marjorie

      Happy Day Before Christmas, Barbara and John. I was interested in your comment. It has been my belief for some time that our current brand of atheism is just another form of extreme religion. Agnostics are another breed – they usually seem content to “live and let live”, and are happier people. I enjoy them.

      • Merry Christmas, Marjorie! Your kind goodwill is an inspiration. It has been a pleasure to meet you (and get to know you through your blog) and hope your next year is filled with a bunch of good things, but I think they naturally and rightly flow to you. But as wise old folks, we know that “bad” thing are only that until we see the opportunities in them.

        Happy New Year!

        • Marjorie

          Barbara – And the best to you and John too! I was out of town for a few days, hence my tardy reply. My next year will be host to major changes but I believe I am on the right track so will try to follow your suggestion and look for the positive everywhere. Your support is much appreciated.

  3. Leone Jobson

    Merry Christmas Marjorie.
    As always, I enjoyed this bit of remembering. Thank you for helping to make this Christmas special for me!
    I wonder what memories my children cherish! For me the most special is being gathered Christmas Eve for a festive meal, attending Strathearn United where the Nativity story was sung in carols then coming home to open one present …all with my nearest and dearest. Sadly, from my point of view, our expansive theology at Southminster doesn’t evoke the same special feelings in me.

    • Marjorie

      Ah, perhaps the new outlook doesn’t evoke the same feeling for you, but what about your offspring? Each generation seems to build its own catalogue of memories and feelings and then, forty years from now will be regretting the loss of their memories to the current new outlook! I have reached the stage where I cherish my memories, enjoying (most) of the modern additions, and ignore what does not sit well with me. That’s the freedom age brings! Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  4. Eveline Goodall

    Happy Christmas Marjorie. I hope you day has been very pleasant. What an adventure that was. Imagine running into such an inhospitable man on Christmas Eve! Lessons in the varieties of Christianity! and a lesson from your Aunt in dealing with it too. Good to get home to the warmth of you own home/apartment in the city. I admire your parents search for “the best education” and think of all the ways so many parents do that. And I think too of how your good education and inquiring mind has broadened and enlivened you life. And made you the interesting woman you are.
    We attended the tiny United Church in Canmore on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Story was read from the King James version and the minister suggested we close our eyes and indulge earlier Christmas memories. It did have a wonderful poetic and nostalgic ring to it.
    Eveline and Bruce

    • Marjorie

      Eveline – Sorry to be so late in responding, but I had a quick trip to Edmonton to see family. Yes – it was an exposure to an intolerant interpretation of Christianity which shocked and surprised me. Made me realize that people could hold very different views, and the whole business made me more aware of what for me were the important messages of the Holy Season. Perhaps all in all the whole experience influenced me more than I realized at the time.

  5. Norma Wheeler

    Hello Marjorie;
    Thank you for the fun story. You bring the memory to life. I trust you had a lovely Christmas and may God bless you in the New Year. Love Norma and Steve.

    • Marjorie

      Norma – and a Happy New Year to you two too! Glad you enjoyed the story – it was more fun telling it than experiencing it! Not that it was ever scary -just amazing, then a boring and very tiring episode. It also was a real education for two young girls exposed for the first time to the extremist point of view. MMG