Month: December 2020

Christmas – with Empty Chairs and Treasured Memories

It was quiet in the kitchen. Warm from the friendly glow of the kitchen stove as it nursed a kettle to boiling for the first brew-up of Christmas Day, 1938.

The wall clock’s pendulum flashed with reflected light from the miracle of electricity, installed only months earlier to replace gas in the row houses of an English industrial town.

The “tick-tock” keeping time with the pendulum could always be heard above normal conversation, but this Christmas Day, it sounded crisper. Not louder. Just more precise, like a call to attention in addition to recording the passage of time.

Four people were listening. A husband and wife and their two children – a daughter,17, and son two days shy of his 15th birthday, sitting around the scrubbed-white kitchen table waiting for the kettle to boil, the brewed tea signalling that it was time to open presents.

There was a vacant chair at the table.

The family was observing, with slight modification, a decades-old routine governed by mother’s rule that her husband and the children remain upstairs on Christmas morning until the ceremonial tea was brewed. The change in 1938 allowed us to be downstairs for the final few minutes waiting for the tea – and time to think about the vacant chair.

On the table, Christmas gifts nestled in four small piles; two very small piles for mother and father; and two, not much larger, for son and daughter. In the latter would be one or two luxuries like a small box of chocolates or small bottle of perfume to please a teenage daughter.

The bulk of the children’s gifts consisted of clothes. Warm underwear, socks and decent footwear were more important for survival than coveted baubles.

The metronomic beat of the wall clock relentlessly measured time as it moved from past to present. A year earlier on Christmas Day, there had been five mini-mounds of presents and a mother and father waiting for the kettle to boil with a daughter and two sons.

I was one of the sons. The other was my older brother Tom, 18; my mentor, protector and hero. In April of 1938, he collapsed at work, was rushed to hospital, diagnosed with peritonitis following a ruptured appendix. Tom died on May 17th

Some years ago, I wrote how every Christmas Day morning we threw open our back-bedroom window and sang the first two verses of “Christian’s awake, salute the happy morn …” Tom never told me what sparked the idea, but seven- or eight-year-olds never question the leadership of their 11 or 12-year-old brother.

So, we sang every Christmas morning for six or seven years until 1938 when just before dawn, I opened the bedroom window and tried to sing but could only weep.

There will be more tears before this Christmas Day is over as unbelievable thousands will see an empty chair – and remember what was – and dream of what might have been.

Let There Be Light

A bulletin following a brief comforting encounter with British Columbia’s health care system in the midst of a pandemic:

It wasn’t my intent to add to Medicare woes by losing the sight in my left eye five or six months ago just as COVID-19 launched its full fury on the world. It just happened that an artificial lens installed in 2004 had slipped its moorings and needed replacement.

Let me emphasize any following descriptions are pedestrian personal, not medical textbook. Just adequate enough to relate a procession of “please don’t blink” eye exams from my family doctor (yes, I know I’m lucky to have one) and eye specialists.

It was roughly six months later that I was requested to present myself to “Surgical Daycare, Royal Jubilee Hospital, a few minutes before 7 a.m. on December 14th.”

I was advised several times by phone and by text that the times were not chiselled in stone and “may be adjusted” if COVID-19 got too unruly.

An anxious time, but last Monday morning, December 14th, my youngest son Nic juggled his shifts as a paramedic and picked me up at the Berwick Royal Oak senior’s retirement residence shortly after 6 a.m. He delivered me to RJH, where he chatted with surgeons and nurses with the familiarity only veteran front-line health care workers can have – and picked me up a few hours later to get me home to Berwick.

Ever accommodating, Berwick had placed a single bed in my living room, a mandatory requirement from Dr. Daniel Warder, the vitreoretinal specialist who had been up before dawn with a small army of nurses and technicians to take care of me and a multitude of others. The extra bed was for my driver – just in case I needed post-op help.

I can’t clearly remember the comings and goings. I can say I was well attended with explanations as to what was happening and why. After the surgeon arrived, I had a little nap, woke up with a bandaged left eye, a sporty white eye patch and a list of advisories noted by my paramedic guardian.

We came home to Berwick to dine on home-cooked shepherd’s pie courtesy of Nic’s partner Anna – who is also a paramedic. The pie and other goodies were stashed in an insulated backpack. And, courtesy of microwave technology, the pie was perfect, served hot as we dined late Monday afternoon.

Tuesday was a post-op checkup day. Everything looking good. Eye drops every four hours until December 23rd and the next post-op check. I’ll let you know how it plays out. For now, BC Health Services get gold stars all-around for efficiency, courtesy, and confidence-boosting helpfulness.

Thank you!

Direct to Heaven…or The Other Way?

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens who has ventured beyond Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol will recognize the opening quote as the first words of “A Tale of Two Cities” and as an accurate description of the world as it was as it shivered in the dark ferocity of the French Revolution – and of the world we live in today.

As we stumble toward the end of 2020, we realize those opening words sound like a nervous echo from the 1700s. History books would describe the brutally violent re-birth of France as a Republic as “The Terror.”

True, we don’t have murderous mobs ranging through neighbouring city streets seeking to replace a government by force, but we have been made aware in recent months how close we have come; and how close we remain to an armed revolt by factions who believe it the best way to solve problems.

If concern about a peaceful resolution of our neighbour’s recent presidential election was all we had to worry about, it would be enough. Unfortunately, it is just an addition to a list that has as its number-one threat a monster named COVID-19 that so clearly indicates where Canada and the world stand with 2021 just around the corner. A few days ago, it was estimated COVID-19 had claimed the lives of thousands of Canadians but hard on its heels came the promise of a new vaccine. The news filled us with cautious hope, but not for long. As Dickens wrote about other troubled times, dark clouds often obscure the sun.

So, a vaccine is on the way – but it may take some time before it gets down to plain folks like you and me. There can be no complaint about the decision to provide the first protective shields to frontline workers who have stayed at their dangerous posts to provide care to the stricken and extended protection to the rest of us.

News of vaccines fill those of us who believe in science with hope, but we must have the courage to accept that, in the immediate future, the vaccine’s promise comes with days of waiting, each one a little harder to bear than the last.

What about those who oppose vaccinations of any kind? A tough question. Conscientious objection should certainly be tolerated in a truly free democracy. But, do we tolerate the objector when a proven defence against this deadly pandemic is rejected, and the denier provides lethal transmission to others?

I think I shall opt gratefully for vaccination if/when the choice is offered, although I suffer qualms about its protection being offered to 90-year-olds before much younger parents. At 97 two days after Christmas I’m not yet anxious to end my run, but if it ever comes to a triage choice we old guys should be more than willing to give way to those young enough to survive Covid 19 and lead the world to happier times.   

It wasn’t the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, it was the Christians. Good Christians, too, firm in their faith and determined to rid the world of the evils of mince pies and merry making.

Oliver Cromwell gets most of the historic blame for the 1640’s official shut down of activities designed to bring Christmas joy to the masses, but the real villain was the English parliament which solemnly enacted the law banning all Christmas celebrations.                                     

Cromwell was certainly in favour. Having had what was called a “religious experience” as young man he supported all measures to move mankind closer to Godliness as he and other Puritans perceived Godliness. When, shortly after the Christmas ban became law, he assumed the role of Dictator (he preferred Lord Protector) he embraced and enforced the ban.

It was a no-joy-law and in perception frighteningly similar to today’s Muslim Taliban version of what is holy. Women were banned from wearing make-up or colourful clothes and squads from Cromwell’s army roamed the streets searching for violators. They would give a woman an on-site face scrub if they judged her make-up overdone. The dress code for women was Taliban-Puritan strict – a long black dress covering neck to toes, a white apron with her hair bunched up behind a large white headscarf or black hat.

Men were ordered to wear black, keep their hair short and go straight home from work to lead the family in prayer and bible reading. To make the route home easy Cromwell ordered many taverns shut and the closing of all theatres.

The roving patrols stayed alert on Christmas Day seeking the smell of a goose being cooked or minced pies being baked. Fines could be imposed and the goose and pies confiscated. The enforcers kept their eyes open for sprigs of holly and other ungodly decorations, and their ears open for anyone cussing the new laws. Swearing was punishable by immediate fine with repeated offences resulting in jail.

To make sure the populace understood that the banning of Christmas (and Easter and Whitsun celebrations) was only part of a grand plan to bring the nation closer to God, Sunday’s were proclaimed to be special days, and one day in every month was designated a fast day. Women observed doing “unnecessary” work on a Sunday could be placed in the stocks, boys caught kicking a ball around or engaging in any other sporting activity could be whipped on the spot – and just going for a walk unless it was to church could result in a fine.

The clampdown on Christmas, while shocking when it came, was not unexpected. Over decades the festival that had morphed over the centuries from pagan bacchanal to Christian celebration had grown wild. By the late 1500’s Christmas was being described as the time when “ more mischief is committed than in all the year beside….what dicing, carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used…to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.”

Debauchery had become the way of Christmas and Lord Protector Cromwell – who wasn’t above a little banquet style celebration himself in the privacy of his home – strongly supported any move to curb public festivities. Any opportunity for him to spin his anti-Catholic paranoia was to be seized. After all, he argued, good Christian Protestants should never celebrate a Christ-mass with Catholic mass overtones. They even tried to cultivate a new name – Christmas-tide.

The Puritan’s ban on Christmas lasted a quarter of a century with shopkeepers fined for closing their stores on December 25. It wasn’t until 1660 – with Charles II back on the throne  that Christmas was reinstated. To make sure people understood Cromwellian laws were now as dead as the enforcer the King had Cromwell’s body exhumed, the corpse decapitated and the Lord Protector’s head hung on a spike in Westminster Hall.

By then Puritans, who years early had fled England to start building the United States of America, were establishing old beliefs in the new land. After their second Christmas in America they ruled “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or in any other way….shall pay for every such offence five shillings as a fine….”

The ban lasted only 22-years but it wasn’t until 1856 that Christmas Day became an official holiday in Boston. Scotland took even longer. It was 1958 before Christmas was declared an official holiday north of the River Tweed thus ending the 400 year old ban promoted by firebrand preacher John Knox in the late 1500’s.

The Scots hadn’t chafed under their Christmas ban. They just moved the celebrations back a week and called it Hogmanay then, little more than 50-years ago, realizing English workers were getting two year-end holidays to their one, graciously agreed Christmas could again be celebrated.

Now, stop complaining about face masks. Think about Christmas under Cromwell. But go easy on the egg nog,