Dad’s favourite Christmas

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • December 14, 2007

{mosimage}Christmas does not bring out the best in the popular press. Every December we have to slog through articles about the commercialization of Christmas, sly digs against Christians and tips on how to avoid the tyranny of the Christian Christmas. Then, when we move to the Life sections, we see colour photographs of gift ideas, beginning at $100. Worse, though, are the articles of the alternative press accusing Christmas of miserable memories of unhappy families or impoverished childhoods. Snide remarks are made at the expense of the happy.

I have a happy family. We are not rich. We are not saintly. We are not hip. We are not even good at hugging. We often treat each other with a polite reserve that shocks our friends. Our dinner table rattles guests with its formality. We have had family dinner almost every day for almost 35 years. We dine off stoneware, but we do not eat until my father sits down and leads grace. The "children" are silent when another is speaking — only my parents are allowed to interrupt, and they do, often, especially to censor. ("Dorothy, NOT in front of your SISTER.") Though meals are small, we linger over coffee to chat. We are, despite these collective eccentricities and our own personal faults, a happy family. And we love Christmas.

My brothers and sisters and I love Christmas because my parents, bless them, have always given us a merry one. Some are merrier than others. My only uncle died during Advent when I was nine. I wept silently during the Christmas assembly at school; my grandmother wept silently at Midnight Mass. But Christmas, with its traditional food, tree, popcorn stringing, presents and genuine family happiness, still came that year. Christmas, which proclaims that death is not the end of life, could not be defeated by death. My grandmothers, my dad and my mum would not allow it.

We were no longer kids the Advent my mum had a massive stroke. I was in my late 20s; the youngest was in her mid-teens. My mum, who had always enjoyed good health, was not much older than 50. The family was stunned. It was arguably the greatest crisis we had ever faced. It took a while for that to sink in, though, because my terrified father veered between protecting "the kids" from the truth and being annoyed because we didn't understand how serious it was.

Not understanding how serious it was, I fretted about the Christmas baking. With mum in the hospital, who would begin the Christmas baking? The fruitcake was already enjoying its rum-soaked gestation period, but surely mum would want me to start the cookies? What about the cookies? Dad got quite cross at this, and only then did I realize that mum was past caring about the cookies. And that meant mum was dying.

It is fashionable to make fun of the Stiff Upper Lip. Even the English have given up on it, choosing instead to confess all on talk shows and weep loudly for deceased celebrities. But at my house, the Stiff Upper Lip is the rule. In a crisis, we do not cry (in public). We do not fall apart (openly). We bark orders. We mobilize. We protect the youngest.

The youngest, after learning from a stranger over the phone that her mother was to have a brain operation, complained (without crying), "I wish you people would tell me things." And on the night that brain operation was performed, my father (without crying) suggested that we children pray. So we prayed (without crying). And when the doctors reported that the operation had been a success, my father came home and (instead of crying) handed round shots of whisky. Mock the Stiff Upper Lip if you dare.

Mum came home two or three weeks later. She immediately began the Christmas baking. It took a little longer than usual, but it got done in time for Christmas. Eventually she recovered. She does crossword puzzles more quickly than ever and scolds us kids whenever she likes. And of course she spends the last weeks of Advent baking up a storm.

The crisis of mum's stroke seems like decades ago. Who needs to ponder past frights? But it all came back one Christmas night, when I asked, "Dad, what was your favourite Christmas?" I thought he would mention some episode from his childhood. He had a grand one, full of now legendary uncles and aunts. I imagined favourite toys, a radio set or a fire truck. Maybe my grandmother's lavish German-American cooking. But my father said, "My favourite Christmas was the one after your mother came home from the hospital."

Mine, too. Merry Christmas.

(Cummings is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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