BY GAIL MURRAY
Copyright is held by the author.
PREVIOUSLY WE’D gathered at my maternal grandmother, Grandma Van’s. This year we were invited to my Aunt Ruth’s brand new home on Blaisdale Road in Scarborough — at that time a new subdivision. Sod had yet to be laid. Mud was everywhere. Being ten it was an adventure walking up the long wooden plank to her front door. It conjured up visions of Captain Hook In Peter Pan.
Aunt Ruth answered the door in her black skirt and red lace maternity top. Most of the cousins were wearing red — scarlet velvet, crimson corduroy, red plaid bow ties. Red was the unofficial Christmas colour in the fifties. My aunts wore glossy black taffeta or translucent nylon. My mother looked feminine in a taffeta dress with a pale blue bodice and black skirt accessorized with rhinestone earrings. I still have those delicate earrings in my jewel box — heirlooms — a remembrance of her.
As our extended family had grown we no longer had a sit down dinner but a scrumptious buffet with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, green salad, tomato aspic, ambrosia salad, a cheese and pickle tray and for dessert — fruitcake and shortbread cookies — a bevy of textures and flavours.
The best part of our celebration was the camaraderie and excitement in the air as Uncle Ralph got out his accordion.
“Let’s sing Jingle Bells for the kids,” he said.
Often this song is associated with the arrival of Santa. This set Cousin Margaret off. A lively toddler, she scrambled under the Christmas tree, tore open the first available present. It was a pair of oversized underpants slated for Grandma Van. Unfazed Margaret climbed into them hiking them up to her chin and continued searching through the gifts. Amid the laughter, Aunt Helen picked up her precocious youngster.
As Uncle Ralph played Silent Night the sisters locked arms swaying back and forth on the sofa.
“Play a Scottish ditty for Aunt Jean,” called Aunt Ruth.
We launched into “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond”:
Oh, ye’ll take the high road and
I’ll take the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye . . .
Aunt Jean danced a little highland fling as mom with flushed cheeks giggled on the couch sipping her glass of wine. We continued to sing more traditional carols — Away in a Manger, The First Noel and Joy to the World — accompanied by Uncle Tim on his harmonica.
Next came a rollicking, toe tapping rendition of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” The young cousins bounced about the large living room as we sang:
I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts
There they are all standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
Give them a twist, a flick of the wrist
That’s what the showman said.
“This next one’s for Gord and Ernie,” said Uncle Ralph and he played my favourite, the haunting “Tipperary.”
It’s a long way to Tipperary
It’s a long way to go
It’s a long way to Piccadilly
To the sweetest girl I know . . .
Most people associate this tune with Remembrance Day but it’s on my list of Top Ten Christmas Hits. For the longest time I believed that everyone sang these songs at Christmas. One day it dawned, our family was unique singing British pub songs and songs associated with the war. My Grandfather, Ernie, and his brother, Uncle Gord, had enlisted in 1914 to fight in World War I. My father and Uncle Tom were veterans of the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) stationed in Britain during World War II. Perhaps these melodies were tributes to their courage. They had made the ocean voyage from battlefields enriching our lives with colour and music. Now most of my aunts and uncles are gone, cousins grown and moved away. The music brings them back.
The first Christmas after my Aunt Ruth passed away, we gathered at her house. Her daughter, my cousin, Charlene arranged it. As adults we all cherished those early times together. Charlene had found the old home movies. As we gathered in the living room that had hosted so many Christmases, we connected with our younger selves and were once more in the company of dear relatives. Though there was no sound, I could hear the tunes.