I think most Canadians would agree that Christmas is a special time of the year. The family usually gets together and they are surrounded by love. Food is plentiful and gifts are exchanged. With such festivities going on, life seems to be more cheerful.
When I have lived in other countries, I have tried to recreate this experience as closely as possible. This can often be difficult. I can’t expect other places to be just like Canada. Also, my circumstances have sometimes made it difficult to replicate the celebration. That hasn’t stopped me from trying, though. Such was the case for my first Christmas in England.
Late in one October long ago, I strode into the CBC on Great Titchfield Street in London, England with my résumé looking for work. Marie and I had left Canada to try our good fortune elsewhere, casting our fates to the wind. They say timing is everything. When I arrived, they informed me that a job had been created that very day and I seemed to fit it perfectly. That was good. I was almost broke, so penniless in fact that I had to convince the CBC to start me in November because I wouldn’t have had enough money to last until December 1, as they proposed.
As Christmas approached, Marie and I looked at our funds and decided that we would put a cap on our Christmas gifts at ₤10 each, which at that time was about $20.00.
There was a small toyshop full of unusual items near where I worked. It became the source of my gifts. I decided to go with quantity rather than quality.
Marie took a different route. Winter was coming on, so she decided to get me a toque. She wandered from store to store asking for one. Time and time again she was told that there were none. Finally, somebody at one store asked, “What’s a toque?” She stated that it was a woolly hat. “Oh, we have plenty of those,” replied the salesperson. Thus, I was able to keep my head warm the rest of the winter.
We didn’t know many people. Those we did had plans with their families. We decided it was best to find a pub that was open and have our Christmas meal surrounded by others who wanted to celebrate without all the preparation. There were no establishments near us that had something special for the day, but there were a few closer to central London.
At work two days before Christmas, a colleague told me of her Christmas plans and politely asked me of mine. I told her about planning to go to a pub.
“What pub are you planning on going to?” she asked. I told her about one in the west end of London.
“How are you going to get there?” Public transit was my matter-of-fact reply. Travelling by tube (the subway) and bus was all we could afford.
“You can only take a taxi. Do you know the whole public transit system is completely shut down on Christmas Day?” I didn’t and I felt like a huge stone had been dropped on my heart. The thought of tucking into a roasted turkey with all the trimmings suddenly changed to a grilled cheese sandwich with some fries. I felt like crying.
A few minutes later, my boss wandered by.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I wailed.
“Oh, then come and spend it with us,” he chirped.
“But you live on the other side of London and I can’t afford the cab fare,” I countered.
“No problem. I’ll come and pick you up. What’s your address?” he replied.
How could I say no to such a kind offer? I rushed home to tell Marie our change of plans and our good fortune.
I don’t know what it is, but I am always amazed at the calmness on Christmas morning. It’s just like the words in the carol, Silent Night.
Marie and I exchanged our gifts. My toque sat proudly on my head. My assortment of gifts created some laughter, but few memories, because I have no recollection now of what I gave Marie. Neither does she. Then we got ready and waited for my boss to arrive.
If you know anyone who works in television, time is important. My boss arrived precisely at the appointed time and we were whisked away to his home.
When we arrived, the door opened to a home that was decked out with all the trimmings of Christmas. His wife, two daughters and father welcomed us with open arms. We gave them the plant we had bought. What surprised us was that they provided gifts for us.
Laughter filled the room as we sat down to lunch. Marie skimmed the cream off of the tops of several milk bottles in an attempt to make eggnog. But the festivities were just beginning. With Christmas music wafting in the background, we swapped stories from past years and digested the sumptuous food.
Soon it was time for the Christmas dinner. It was a feast indeed. Everything was just the way it is in Canada. We were having a true Canadian Christmas in England.
After tucking away more than I should have eaten, I sunk into a comfortable chair in the living room with everyone else who had done the same. Soon it was time to play the parlour games that some associate with the holiday, including charades. I still remember my boss’s father trying to get us to guess, “Come into the Garden, Maud,” obviously a song that hasn’t passed the test of time.
As the evening wore down, cobwebs started to form in our eyes. We were in a position where we didn’t want to leave, but it was impractical to think otherwise. We put on our jackets and my boss drove us home. All of us were satisfied with this special Christmas we had shared together.
There is one important detail that I haven’t told you about in this story. In order to pick us up on Christmas day, my boss had to drive 45 minutes to pick us up, then 45 minutes to return home. He did that twice. That’s three hours of driving on Christmas Day! He could have been relaxing in his home enjoying time with his family, but he chose to give us the precious gift of his and his family’s love.
I haven’t forgotten his kindness and the special gift he gave us that year. It wasn’t something that I could hold in my hands, but it was something I will hold in my heart forever. It wasn’t something that I opened, but it was love that was opened and given to me. Through the years I have received many presents at Christmas, but it was the unselfish act of my boss that has been one of my most cherished gifts of all time.