The following was first published by Hamilton design firm, factor[e] design initiative, as part of a holiday-giving campaign in 2012. The short book, illustrated by Chelsea Peters, edited and laid out by the factor[e] team, and authored by myself, was written in the style of the classic Dylan Thomas prose, A Child's Christmas in Wales. In addition to the charitable aspect of the project, it was a wonderful project to work on for the importance of making your stories your own, and telling tales about the place you live.
Hamilton Christmases of my youth blaze in the warm details of where dinner was eaten and what toys Santa brought. Though Christmas now is no less aglow, those Yule memories have begun to blur together like strings of bright lights seen at a distance. Colourful and merry, they adorn a nostalgia that predates the days in which friends and I might have instead wandered the lower north-west streets, unscrewing and smashing them in early-evening fits of adolescent mischief.
As Dylan Thomas wrote, “one Christmas was so much like another,” back then in our bayside mini-metropolis. It could have been on the fifth day of the week and I was six, or on the sixth day of the week and I was five. Regardless, it was Christmas Eve as I waited for the bus with my Mom, who had me capped and coated, anxious and excited, wondrously restless for the whimsy of a plump bearded man who would soon be crossing over Burlington’s waters to park on our Inchbury roof and climb down the chimney.
Jackson Square, in my late 80’s childhood, was located on 34th Street, or at least, it might as well have been. To me downtown was a bustle like any other big city, as at the time, I didn’t know any other big city. For all I knew Ebenezer Scrooge had just, that morning, walked to work at his counting house located on Main St. East, and later that evening George Bailey might be found running through Westdale, screaming Merry Christmas at the top of his lungs.
One thing I was sure of was that the glowing garlands that always hung under the fluorescent ceiling lights in the labyrinth halls of Jackson Square quickened my excitement for Santa’s impending evening visit. And still did in later years, and still do today.
With awe I stared up at them and at the store windows all around as I accompanied my Mom on a last minute Christmas shopping trip. The loudspeaker music, the hordes of people, all a part of this holiday hypnosis, all stoking my exhilaration, all except for moments in the dungeon-like elevators of the old Eaton’s, at which point I’d bury my face in Mom's coat, waiting for the operator to announce the floor.
Back in the mall, and dragged from the Eaton’s toy aisle - after failing in negotiations for a Green Lantern action figure - I would manage to persuade Mom to take me by the North Pole one more time, which in those days was in no fear of global warming, but actually existed rather comfortably in the south-west halls near Druxy’s. My heart pounded as I caught the scent of chlorine from the indoor waterfall of the Standard Life building, for in those days, it too was located in the North Pole. Passing the McDonald's I’d see the snow, plush and cotton, surrounding Santa’s triumphant throne, fake brick and beautiful, plunked in the middle of what was a fountain during the rest of the year. He HoHoHo’d for the kids, asked those on his lap what they wanted him to bring that evening, and waved at the ones who could only stand by and watch. He was less a sight than an experience, awash in the endless ovation of the crashing waterfall opposite him.
We walked through the Stelco Tower lobby under an enormous wreath forcibly flattened against the wall and out the amusement park ride of an exit that are its revolving doors. Out on King St. we waited for the York 8 bus as snow drifted down, gently but persistently seeking to cover white the grey-brown paste that had been made of its past fallen flakes.
The bus' arrival was heralded by a shower of sparks from the overhead connection line, miniature fireworks that sizzled as they met the layer of snow that had fallen “deep, and crisp, and even.”
The door jerked open and the ruddy-cheeked driver grinned at us. We stepped on, we found our seats, the chrome-yellow bus jerked forward, and we made our way down Bay, dashing through the snow in our electric-cabled open sleigh.
I studied and sized up our fellow riders, watching as they tugged the string for each stop. On the edge of my seat I awaited Inchbury and York, my left hand braced against the window’s glass, my right reaching for the bell’s wire, steadfastly staring down any fellow patron that would dare ding the bell that my Mom had so clearly given me permission to pull.
An old man at the back of the bus, plastic A&P bag in hand, mind absent-mindedly out the window, reached upwards as we moved west past Locke. His raised hand slowly moved closer to the cord, knotted knuckles unfolding long, crooked fingers that extended ever nearer to crushing every promise that the moment held. My eyes welled in preparation for a tearful protest.
“You can ring it now, honey,” said Mom.
With untold speed and dexterity my mittened hand shot upwards. I grabbed hold and yanked down.
Unphased, his gnarled hand dropped to his lap like a falling tree branch and looked forward to find me standing in my seat, defiantly staring as still I drew on the cord. His wood-carved, weathered face creased in a smile and he nodded, accepting my victory in our silent duel.
After dinner but before Alastair Sim was taught his business of charity, mercy and forbearance, my brother and I were allowed one gift to tide over our excitement. We tore open the wrapping paper that always concealed action figures and played on the carpet in front of the TV until it was time to be brought to our bunks. Here we made our annual, conviction-filled commitments to stay awake and catch Santa in the act of stuffing the stockings that hung at the ends of our beds.
But we never did, and still never have.
Friends had stories, and family too had tales of times when they had almost caught him. Perhaps it was footprints stamped into snow covered rooftops, perhaps it was the sight of a red-coated back, quickly moving down a hallway to a sibling’s room, gift-sack slung over a shoulder. Nevertheless, real, eye-witness evidence always remained tantalizingly out of reach.
We knew it though, that he would come, that he did come, that he will always come. We knew from our joy and his merriness, the elation in our hearts rising like his sleigh soaring over the Skyway Bridge, his magnificent reindeer running on the cold, Ontario night air, careening above and across Burlington bay. The fires at Stelco and Dofasco blazed bigger and brighter than ever before, extending the warm welcome of our city, and illuminating it with the goodness and generosity that he brought. The jolly old elf coasted in, rocketing over the moon and into the dreams of children and those adults with the hearts of children. With a magic brush, the city was painted red, white, and jubilant. It was Christmas. It had come to Hamilton. We knew it would, it did, and it will always. We knew it.
In spite of our solemn vows, my brother and I, as always, failed in our commitment to catch the elusive elf. Alas, the sugar plums in our heads proved too enticing for us to be roused by the stomping and snorting of reindeer on our roof, the gift-filled sack scraping down our chimney, or the soot-covered boots padding down the hallways of our home as he set our living room alight with the big, red, merry ball of holidays.
But as the wintry morning’s light reflected brightly off the blindingly new blanket of white beyond the window, we awakened. Instantly, the knowledge of the date would dawn on us, a day more dazzling than even the morning outside. Christmas! At the foot of our beds our stockings were stuffed, brimmed and bulging with treats and trinkets, courtesy of that jolly embodiment of generosity who, like Polkaroo, we had missed again!
Springing from our bunks, we would race down the hall and bound up the attic stairs to our parent’s bedroom.
“It’s Christmas!” we would cry at 6:30 AM. “Want to see what Santa left in our stockings!?” They needed to see, they had no idea!
After dumping them out on their bed and making a festive mess of things, we would be forced to wait at the top of our second floor staircase, while our parents, in the living room below, checked to make sure that Santa had indeed seen to loading the bottom of our tree.
I can only assume.
We fidgeted on the top step, knees knocking, pushing each other as we craned our necks to peer down through the glass doors at what incredible gifts may have been left! Lightsabers, Skywalkers and Han Solos, Thundercats and He-Men, hockey sticks, Playmobile Pirate-Ships, socks and underwear – unfortunately - but then Batman and Joker, Spider-man, Silverhawks, COPS fighting crime in a future time, Bravestar, AirRaiders, Centurions, and Ghostbusters, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Splinter and Shredder, and always, always, the firm denial that I had never asked for a She-Ra action figure. Which, of course, I did not!
At last we were given clearance to come down. Our bums bounced off each step as, in our PJs and ninja crested housecoats, we took the stairs like some ill-made slide. Banking off the wall and swinging from the bottom banister, we burst into the living room. With eyes wide we would find Santa’s gifts aglow under the twinkle of the tree’s lights and the white, brilliant morning shining in through the bay-windows. Flashes popped, paper was torn, and plastic blister packs created the trail of destruction typical of two kids on Christmas morning.
Then after breakfast, with thick scarf-smothered mouths, snow-panted legs, and fearless hearts of adventurous fervour, my brother and I would venture out, trailing our Brett Hull-approved GT snow-racers while stomping down the street, the skis of our sleds scraping over the salted sidewalk.
Meeting our friends atop the Dundurn Park toboggan hills, now forested and overgrown, we would talk toys, video games, and discuss whether anyone had seen Santa. Several of us, of course, had.
“I saw him putting gifts under my tree!”
“I saw him smile at me at my bedroom door!”
“He rubbed my hair, kissed me on the forehead, and said ‘goodnight!’”
“I heard him on my roof, and then he came down the chimney, and then my Dad and Santa drank beer and watched TV, and then he left out the front door!”
“You guys still believe in Santa?”
One of us was now lost forever.
Until midday, our crew of miniature Sir Edmund Hillarys would clamber up sled-tracked hills, building ramps to foolish heights and burying each other in small avalanches of snow. We would push, shout and scuffle our way around those snowy peaks.
“I bet you I could run up faster!”
“I bet you I could go down faster!”
“I bet you I could go off the jump higher!”
“I'm going first, dummy!”
“No, I am! NO!”
But he was already down, swift as an Alpine skier, and off the jump higher than I dared. He lay at the base of the jump laughing.
“I said I was going first! You’d better move, 'cause here I come!”
And off I shot, down the slope, and straight towards him. He just laughed.
That was the year my sled met my brother's head.
Once indoors again, after enduring the gruelling process of removing our Arctic gear, with boots confiscating our socks, or worse, leaving one dangling half on, we would be dressed in our itchiest new sweaters. Our pale blue Mazda pick-up would be loaded with gifts, dishes, and baked goods and we would be off, heading east for family time.
At Britannia Street, Nana J would serve tea, sugar cookies out of a blue tin, and talk about the Queen’s address as it was being replayed on CBC. The old dog, Rupert, fully aware of the day’s high spirits, would sulk and scowl, responding to season’s greetings with a shrug, a roll of his eyes, and a low, back-talking growl that could only mean “Bah Humbug.”
At Blenheim Drive in Stoney Creek, in my grandparent’s warm basement bar, the crackling of the fireplace competing with the crooning of a Sinatra record, Nana M would spoil us with stockings, sweets, and Coca-Cola in little cocktail glasses. Granddad would be serving rum and cokes from behind a bar decked with shamrocks, church keys, and signs - “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” and “An Irishman is Never Drunk as Long as He Can Hold on to One Blade of Grass to Keep From Falling Off the Face of the Earth.”
Then, as the afternoon grew late, it would be back into the pick-up, racing home down Burlington Street to make last minute preparations and greet family as they arrived for dinner at our house. As the daylight faded, the sky blazed with the splendid festivity of early winter and seasonal merriment. Hues of hot red and cool blue washed over the houses, the smoke and steam rising from their chimneys signalling the celebrations inside. Lights flashed on in quick blinks of illuminated revelry, whites, reds, greens, purples, yellows, and oranges adorning trees, pillars, porch roofs, and wreathes. Rosy-cheeked relatives emerged from cars with bags, serving trays, and smiles.
Packed around a leafed kitchen table, crackers were popped, paper crowns were worn, terrible jokes were told, and small trinkets were compared as we took our seats.
“What do you get when you cross a bell with a skunk?” bellowed an uncle.
In the middle of the table sat the turkey, to be consumed with heaping amounts of potatoes and casseroled vegetables, cranberry sauce and stuffing. Wine was passed around the table along with the titters of tipsy aunts. Then trifle, pie, cookies, and a Christmas pudding cake, soaked in brandy and set alight, with a coin deep inside that one would find for year-round good luck.
After the meal we sat in the living room by the glittering tree and roaring fire. Upstairs, the TV would show a festive film to anyone who happened to meander in. Sometimes It’s A Wonderful Life, sometimes White Christmas, sometimes, inexplicably, Return of the Jedi. In the main room, Trivial Pursuit would prompt sibling rivalry among the adults and periodic accusations of cheating.
The fire smoldered, guests dwindled, and as the night worn on, the day wound down.
We bid goodbyes to our final guests from the front porch and watched them drive away under the dim-dusk orange street lamps. Looking up, out into the Hamilton night, you knew the ghosts of Christmas were out, haunting us in reminiscence, of memories of friends and family, of kindness and generosity to those we know and all those we don’t. These spirits rose up over the city, drifting over Barton, over Ancaster, over Dundas, over Flamborough, over King’s Forest, and over Glanbrook. They sat on the edge of the escarpment and sang songs of the holiday with voices like the winter wind's whistling. To some they sound forlorn, to others happy, and to others both. Ethereal melodies of good times now past. Past, but not forgotten, and always able to be recalled, touchstones that remind all to keep in their hearts a selfless care for their fellow person for all their days.
On our father’s back we were taken to bed. I was tucked in, kissed by my Mom, nuzzled by my Dad’s bulldog-bristle chin, and was asked, “did you have a good Christmas?”
Prayers were said, and the light was switched off. Beyond the bedroom window, and across Dundurn Park, the moon gave its good and gentle glow. Amid such stillness, the city was silent, snow fell, a smile slowly faded from my cheeks, and I slept.