Thursday, December 15, 2011


by A. Lawrence Vaincourt

'Twas the night before Christmas back home on the farm
And the wood stove was roaring to keep the house warm.
Papa in his nightshirt and Maman in her hat
Had just wound up the clock and had put out the cat.

I had turned down the covers and was just sliding under
When someone knocked on the door and it sounded like thunder.
Papa looked out the window and I heard him swear,
Well "Sacre maudit, it's your big brother, Pierre."

"Should we let him in?" he asked of Maman.
"He's carrying gifts and some good whiskey blanc."
She opened the door up, but then Maman said,
"It's very late, Pierre, we're just going to bed."
Well uncle Pierre laughed and he said, "Yes, I know
But it's your turn this year to hold Reveillon.

"We would have held it but our house is small
While your house is big and there's room for us all.
Aunt Denise has the turkey, Maman the tortiere
And you'd better get dressed 'cause they're all coming here."

Well the first to arrive was our fat cousin, Rose
And she kissed all the family before wiping her nose.
She had the twins with her, which was not at all strange,
I could tell by the smell they both needed a change.

Then cousin Jean-Paul, who is just five foot two,
He brought the beer and it was all he could do
To carry two cases from the truck to the door,
He said, "If that's not enough I can go back for more."

Aunt Denise then came in with a turkey so big
That Papa remarked t'was the size of a pig.
She laughed, "We'll have time for some drinking and fun
Then we'll all eat well when the turkey is done."
Theophile had his fiddle, Aunt Claire had some spoons
And we knew we were in or some old-fashioned tunes.

Then came uncle Paul and his daughter, Celine
And I stopped feeling grouchy and started to grin.
She kissed all the family and that was real nice
And I felt pretty good, because me she kissed twice.
Theophile took his fiddle and started a tune
While Aunt Claire joined in with a couple of spoons.

Then uncle Pierre said, "That makes me want to dance,"
So he jumped to his feet and he started to prance.
Uncle Pierre's a big man and he has a large belly
That shook when he danced like a bowl full of jelly.
Then Maman cried out, "You know Pierre, you're not small
And you're shaking the pictures all down off the wall,"

Old Joe, he got drunk (he's the family disgrace)
Sneaked into the kitchen with a grin on his face
And Grandmere remarked, "A good thing I went in
He was basting the turkey with a bottle of gin."

Grandpere was playing with the kids, in the hall,
They were shouting and laughing and having a ball.
They were getting real noisy when I heard Maman yell
"What are you kids up to, what's that awful smell?"
I was going to tell her but before I could start
One kid laughed, "It's Grandpere, he just made a big fart."

It was a fine party, of that there's no doubt,
Because nobody left, although several passed out.
And we sang the old songs that we all knew so well,
We drank and we danced and raised all sorts of Hell.
We ate up the turkey and drank all the beer,
Wished each other "Bonne Fete,"
and said, "We'll see you next year."
And Celine remarked as she gave me a kiss,
"What a shame Les Anglais don't have parties like this."

Thursday, December 8, 2011


In honor of the holiday season, I hope you enjoy one of my father's well-loved Christmas stories.

Whoever was responsible for stoking up the fire in the little church that afternoon had miscalculated. They hadn't taken into account the fact that the church would be packed that night from front to back. As I sat there in my winter clothes, the heat was stifling.

My nostrils were assailed by a variety of scents: candle wax, the odor of kerosene lamps, the spicy smell of the freshly-cut Christmas tree in the corner; the kid on my right had a foot-odor problem which his heavy, woolen socks and winter boots were unable to mask and the elderly lady behind me had overdone it with the cheap perfume. The little boy in the next row had done something unmentionable and now sat, shoulders shaking with silent laughter while the kids on either side leaned as far away as possible.

We kids occupied the front rows, while behind us the church was packed to capacity with parents, grandparents, elder siblings and neighbors. This was "The Christmas Tree," the event for which we had been rehearsing these many weeks. The event that was, to us at least, the most important of the year.

Two little one-room schoolhouses, only a couple of miles apart but separated by the county line, had combined forces and their entire enrollment of 40 or thereabouts had come together at the little church that stood midway between, to provide a Christmas entertainment.

Behind me, the sound of many low voices blended into a wordless hum, reminding me of a hive full of bees; while we kids poked, giggled and did all the other devilment that kids do within the anonymity of a group. Wherever the teachers directed a stern look, the commotion would die down, only to break out at a fresh point.

Finally, a hush fell over the little church. The minister had stepped onto the improvised stage, a paper in his hand. Tonight he would be our Master of Ceremonies. We kids leaned forward expectantly; the show was about to begin. The teachers had done their work well. Every child, from the eldest to the youngest, had one or more parts to perform: a song, a recitation, a part in a skit - perhaps all three. There was a certain rivalry here. We were each of us watching for the kids from the other school to make a mistake.

Starting the show off with the smallest child was probably an error. The first little girl up, a first grader, stood before her audience, head hanging, toes turned in, twisting the front of her skirt, and refused to say a word. From behind the stage curtain, the teacher prompted her first line. The head hung lower, the skirt twisted higher, then suddenly she burst into tears and ran off the stage. The kid with the smelly feet snickered, "I'll bet she wet her pants." The second little girl did better, reciting her lines flawlessly, although with a few lisps and whistles, caused, no doubt, by her lack of two front teeth.

The show went on, some kids performing well, others poorly. The church organist accompanied the singing on the church's little foot-powered organ. She sat at the organ, back ramrod straight, hair drawn back in a severe bun, hat held atop it by a large hatpin; she could have been a model for a Norman Rockwell painting.

The asthmatic wheezing of the organ's bellows provided a counterpoint to the music and also much merriment to us kids. It was discovered at the last moment that both schools planned to sing "Away in a Manger," so it was decided that we would do it together - the end result was slightly less than melodic.

Finally we kids were finished. Now, we sat back to enjoy the performance of the older teenagers and the adults. A tall young man, who was later to become a lifelong friend of mine, played his guitar and sang. My stepfather brought a roar of laughter when, at a point in the script where he was supposed to wipe his fountain pen on his handkerchief, he hauled an indescribably filthy bandana from his pocket and adlibbed to the audience, "Maw didn't know I had this."

The show was winding down now and we were waiting for the big event of the evening - the arrival of Santa Claus. Just prior to this event each year, a half dozen men at the back of the church would slip quietly out the door, while everyone's attention was fixed upon the stage. When Santa arrived a few moments later, we were never quite certain whose father or brother was beneath that red suit and all the padding. Nor were we ever certain whether it was true that Santa Claus was usually fortified with a couple of pulls from a bottle before making his entrance.

That night as applause for the last performance died down, we heard the jingle of sleigh bells outside and we swiveled round in our seats. The doors burst open with a crash and Santa, bag over his shoulder, came bounding down the aisle with a resounding HO, HO, HO. Had the pull from the bottle affected his judgement? Did the bag over his shoulder upset his balance? We will never know the reason, but as Santa attempted to gain the stage with one great leap, his foot hit the edge and he rebounded from it and landed on his back, with a crash that shook the little church.

The smaller children looked on in horror and we older ones howled with uncontrollable laughter. The minister and one teacher rushed forward and helped Santa to his feet. Apparently unhurt, he went about his duties of unloading the Christmas tree and presenting the gifts to the children. Then wishing us all a Merry Christmas, he left in a more sedate manner.

That night, as we gathered after the show in groups, the white expanse of the little churchyard, surrounded by snowladen evergreens and lit by a brilliant full moon, looked like a picture on a Christmas card. Young people slipped off quietly to dark spots, in pairs. Our elders went about shaking hands and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. We kids gathered together, arguing loudly as to whose father it had been inside the Santa Claus costume. I took no part in the discussion, although I knew whose father I had seen rubbing his backside tenderly, when he thought no one was looking.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Of all the months in the calendar December has always been my favourite. As a child it meant the imminent arrival of absolutely the best day of the year: Christmas Day. I don’t remember how old I was when I first became aware of Christmas but I certainly recall my initial amazement at discovering that presents had somehow magically arrived as I slept.

I was so taken with this marvel that every morning for the next few weeks I would wake up and tiptoe into our living room, cautiously optimistic that whatever magic had worked this miracle during the early hours of December 25th would somehow repeat itself.

Each Christmas of my childhood came replete with its unique memories and anecdotes. The year our youngest brother was no more than 4 and decided to give us each the only present he could afford: a box of Chiclets. Or the year our dog apparently thought, “What a fabulous convenience! An indoor tree!” Thank goodness for store exchange policies or I never would have been able to wear that sweater from Mom.

Of all those holidays at home though, the one that immediately springs to mind was the year of the great “Turkey Tragedy.” As she had done so many times before, our mother purchased a huge, plump bird several weeks in advance and put it away carefully in the freezer. On Christmas Eve it was removed and allowed to defrost in anticipation of its ultimate roasting the next day.

First thing Christmas morning it was lovingly stuffed, seasoned and put into the oven. Ah, the aromas that we anticipated – the mouthwatering succulence of that first slice danced in our heads. Just like the goose eventually enjoyed by the Cratchit family in “A Christmas Carol,” our turkey would be something to remember for months to come. Off we went to frolic in the Christmas snow in joyful anticipation of our coming feast.

Now I may be wrong, but I don’t believe the overwhelming stench that greeted our noses upon returning from a walk in the crisp winter air was ever mentioned in Mr. Dickens’ book. At first we hoped that perhaps something had just fallen on the element inside the oven and the smell would soon vanish. Hours passed but no amount of evergreen, peppermint stick or wishful thinking could conceal the unfortunate truth that something was terribly wrong with Mr. Turkey.

We carefully extracted him from the oven, lifted the lid off the pan and tried in vain not to gag. Delicately a slice was cut off one side and offered up as a holiday treat to our dog, who took one sniff and refused to touch it. Undaunted (what do dogs know?) we cut off two more pieces and my father and I did what even the dog had the good sense not to do – we tasted the turkey.

Now nothing would give me greater joy than to tell you of the Christmas miracle that happened next; that the turkey was delicious and we all sat around the dinner table popping Christmas crackers and toasting the holiday. The unfortunate truth is the turkey was so rancid we had to throw it away, and Dad and I spent an hour driving around town trying to find an open store to buy something else for dinner.

At the beginning of “A Christmas Carol” we are supposed to feel pity for the Cratchit family because they have just a small goose to feed their household on Christmas Day. If only we had been so fortunate as to have that pathetic little bird on our table! It would have seemed like a feast compared to the one pound of sliced turkey loaf we eventually scrounged up to go along with our mashed potatoes and canned gravy that day.

Ultimately it didn’t matter; in fact it’s given us yet another story to tell every Christmas at the dinner table. For as we all know the holiday is about more than just a delicious dinner. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the rush and festivities that sometimes it’s a good idea to take a moment and recall the simplicity of the original event that inspired it all.

As long as you have friends and family gathered together in good cheer, nothing else is really important. But you might want to take a holiday tip from my mother who now keeps a backup roast in the freezer…just in case.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


What would Christmas be without a tree? Although some of the modern artificial types come pretty close, there is just no substitute for the traditional evergreen. Along with the aroma of roasting turkey and the scent of cinnamon sticks, there is no fragrance that better defines the holiday season.

As I grew up we always had a real Christmas tree in our house, so for my first Christmas away from home I decided that I needed to continue the tradition. Although I had a good-sized apartment in Montreal with adequate space for a tree, my building did not allow real ones as they were considered a potential fire hazard.

This trifling matter presented no obstacle. I was certain the superintendent would appreciate my need for a real tree to properly celebrate the holidays; but just in case he didn’t I planned to sneak it into the building under cover of darkness.

I had no car so I recruited my brother to go to the tree lot with me and make my purchase. Now if Charlie Brown reruns have taught me anything, it’s that Christmas tree lots often contain many oddball evergreens that can only be called “trees” under the broadest of definitions. Part of the tradition of finding the perfect tree is the willingness to dig through some of these more dubious examples until you find the right pine needle in this haystack.

Much laughter and many scrawny trees later, we finally found the ideal one. Seven feet tall, full, round and aromatic, it radiated the spirit of the season. Carrying the tree horizontally between the two of us we struggled down the street, every step either sending the trunk into my backside or the top of the tree into my brother’s face.

Like incompetent cat burglars we scoured the hallways of the building to make sure no one was around then made a hurried, if hilariously awkward, run for the apartment. If ever they make a Winter Olympic event out of clumsily running through hallways while carrying a 7-foot evergreen, I’m prepared.

I was so excited about this tree that I failed to notice, at least for the first few days, that it was expanding. Now all trees open up a bit once they’re indoors and in a container of water, so I didn’t pay much attention to this. However by Day 3 the branches were beginning to spread wide enough that they hit the sofa.

A day later the television was obstructed. Pretty soon we had to climb around the tree to get through the kitchen door; it was threatening to dominate the entire living room.

We nicknamed the tree “Audrey,” in honor of the evil plant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors that keeps getting bigger until it finally takes over the world.

Each morning I dutifully watered the ever-expanding Audrey, and gazed lovingly at her twinkling lights and tinsel. I’ve always believed that the tree should remain standing for the entire 12 Days of Christmas; I mean, we sing the song every year so why not respect the tradition?

However nature never intended trees to be cut off at the trunk, stuck in a pail of water and left inside a warm house for several weeks, so naturally the tree soon began to drop a rather large amount of needles on the floor. Suddenly the exhilaration we had felt while sneaking it into the building met with the realization that taking it OUT was going to be an entirely different, and potentially untidy, affair.

I knew that if we dragged this enormous tree through the hallway, down the stairs and out the lobby, we’d leave an obvious trail of dead needles throughout the building; it wouldn’t take Hansel and Gretel to find the path back to my door.

So when the day finally came to return Audrey to the outdoors, I came up with a brilliant solution. I figured if we simply pounded the tree up and down on the floor awhile, we could cause all the needles to shed right there in my living room, then we could simply take the bare tree out and no one would be any the wiser.

Half an hour later, as the mountain of needles grew to ankle-height, I began to suspect that I had not really thought this plan through completely. Clearly I was not going to be able to vacuum up this mess; we were heading into shovel territory here.

And before anyone decides to replicate this strategy, let me assure you that no matter how barren a tree appears, there are always 1,000 more needles just waiting to drop.

The near-naked tree was a truly pathetic sight to behold, yet there was still no way of getting it out of the building without drawing attention to its existence. So I did the only logical thing one could do in this situation – I threw the tree out the window.

Several stories down it fell, into the backyard. I assumed that it would eventually disintegrate and go back into the earth, and prided myself on being eco-friendly.

However two years later as I left that apartment for the final time, I looked out the window to see that stark tree, still covered with a small amount of needles, standing in the backyard like a lonely sentinel. I like to think that it stands there still, dreaming of its glory days as a Christmas tree.

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