Monday, December 21, 2009


My father once wrote, “When I was a child I counted the years of my life not in birthdays, but in Christmases.” There’s a wonderful logic to that idea; birthdays are a solitary concept, whereas Christmas is meant to be shared with everyone. It’s a much more inclusive celebration and lasts far longer than just one day. In fact I’ve always maintained that it’s proper to celebrate the entire 12 Days of Christmas, and I have a real problem with friends who insist on taking down their tree on the 26th because, “Christmas is over.” I am proud of the fact that, should a friend of the Eastern Orthodox faith ever drop by my house in early January, my tree will still be there.

My parents both grew up on farms during the Depression. Neither of them ever mentioned anything about only receiving “a pencil and an orange” in their Christmas stocking, but I’ve heard others tell that story often enough over the years that I know Christmas was a bit different back then. Of course as the annual orgy of holiday spending seems to grow exponentially each year, telling today’s kids that for my generation the biggest Christmas decision was whether to ask Santa for Hot Wheels or a GI Joe with Kung Fu grip probably sounds rather quaint.

When I was a kid it always felt like Christmas couldn’t come soon enough. The annual ritual of selecting a tree, participating in the Christmas pageant, carolling; it was my favourite time of the entire year. The arrival of Santa at our local mall was always a memorable experience, because for some reason our Santa eschewed the traditional sleigh in favour of flying in by helicopter, which I always found odd. I suppose it could have been stranger – I have since seen him arrive, over the years, by parachute and surfboard.

Growing up in Quebec added an additional element to the Santa paradox, because I never quite understood why Santa always spoke with a heavy French accent. Of course no kid is going to worry about such inconsistencies very long when the guy’s handing out candy canes.

Each year the decorating of our home was a major undertaking. The job of stringing the lights on our tree always fell to the older members of our family. As we grew up, each of us would eventually take on part of the merciless task of untangling that mess of lights; but oh, the wonder of colours when they were plugged in! At some point far back, and for a reason I cannot remember, I began the annual custom of lying underneath our tree and looking up through the branches. The mixture of the wonderful evergreen fragrance and twinkling colours was intoxicating; I wanted to live in that magical world completely surrounded by branches, tinsel and decorations.

Back then Christmas lights glowed at a temperature that could actually burn your fingers. And our lights didn’t flash on and off in a long string; oh no, they twinkled, each one separately - some even bubbled. Today’s new LED versions just don’t seem to provide the same experience, although they no doubt create less of a fire hazard.

Each Christmas I try to do one thing that will make the holiday memorable; something that I can look back on and say, “That was the Christmas of...” For many years while growing up I read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” every December. As a teenager I dressed up in a Santa suit and visited younger kids in my neighbourhood. In my 20’s I recorded a selection of Christmas songs.

Then in 1993 I was hired to compose the score for a huge Christmas stage extravaganza in Toronto. Modelled on New York’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular, it was meant to be the first of an annual tradition. Unfortunately it went on to become an enormous financial disaster. I recall sitting in the theatre’s balcony with my brother, waiting to enjoy a matinee, when the entire orchestra suddenly walked out because their paycheques hadn’t arrived. Somehow the wonder of Christmas was a little less evident to me that day, even less so the next day when we had to sneak back into the theatre and rescue my sheet music from the orchestra pit. Memorable does not always equal good.

This year I will be enjoying Toronto’s wonderful Santa Claus parade from the comfort of a second story window in a 19th century mansion along the parade route, then watching a Christmas pageant complete with live camels and donkeys. Quite a distance from the farmhouses of my parents’ youth.

Each year my father gave the same toast at Christmas dinner; he was thankful that we were all able to celebrate one more holiday together. He was blessed to enjoy 85 Christmases, all of them (with the exception of his time overseas during the war) with family. For over two decades he only ever missed writing his Christmas column for these pages one time, when I filled in for him.

This year as we all raise a glass and toast Christmas, I’ll be reflecting on the past 12 months. Hopefully I’ve lived them well, but just to be sure I’m doing it right from now on I vow to measure my life not in birthdays, but in Christmases.