by RJ Downes
When I was young, like most kids, I loved Christmas. I would like to clarify however, it was the non-religious aspects that took my heart and soul. The whole birth of our lord and saviour side of things was there. I was aware of it, being raised by a mother who herself was raised Catholic. But it was just another story, and a fairly boring one to my young ears, during a time of more entertaining stories about a big bearded guy who climbed down chimneys and brought toys to all the children. To a white kid raised in a fairly typical, albeit poor, 1970s/1980s household my choice of lord and saviour would have been old St. Nick. At least he was a saint, right?
Starting with its arrival in November, my sister and I would begin our Christmas prep like many others by reading and rereading the Sears Christmas Wish Catalogue. We would sometimes look together, sometimes take turns, dreaming of the toys on each page, even if we rarely got the ones we wanted.
From those beginnings we would race to the television each night to devour any and all Christmas specials they would play for us. This being the era before on-demand, you usually only had one shot at each show and if you missed it, that was that for another year. I remember having a distinct love of the stop motion specials like Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and a heartfelt fondness for A Charlie Brown Christmas above others. But really, I’d watch any special show they’d put out in the spirit of the season.
December was the month of Christmas. Like every other kid, I counted the days leading up to the big event. And, to me, like every other kid, it felt like a million years. Each morning I’d calculate just how long it was until magic time and lament how much longer there was to go. It’s funny just how much excitement and disappointment go hand in hand at Christmas.
My mother loved old-fashioned traditions, so we did things like making popcorn and cranberry garlands for the tree by hand and baking gingerbread men from scratch. I even clearly remember my sister and I reveling in designing, cutting out and decorating Christmas cards by hand for our classmates, friends and family members even as everyone else bought ones from the store to give out.
Even though we weren’t focused on religion in my house, we still marveled at the old ceramic nativity scene my mother would gently unwrap and set up in the living room
My parents would play the two or three Christmas records (LPs, in fact) that they owned over the holidays and I would wait with painful anticipation through all the other songs just to hear Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano or Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley, each played maybe once an evening. It would have been unheard of to dare to touch the record needle to move it back and play the song again.
On Christmas eve, we’d watch the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, which is still the version that plays in my head when someone mentions any of the varied and drastically different retellings of that classic story.
Going to bed that night was perhaps the most exciting event of the year, even more so than my birthday because I knew I shared my excitement with my sister and every other kid for miles. There was something tangible about the energy created through shared anticipation.
Sleep would eventually overtake each of us, but not before silent plans to wake up early, sneak down, see Santa and open every present with our names on it, were made.
Christmas morning was a nightmare of patience as we had to wait until my parents were both awake and ready to even start opening presents. It never occurred to my sister or I that the reason it took them so long to get up on Christmas morning was the fact that they’d spent the night before setting everything up and wrapping last minute gifts along with all the other things parents do once their children are asleep. My mom would have also had the forceful brunt of dealing with two kids and their manic energy for many days since school was usually out for at least a week before the big day. My father alone got to escape off to work until a bit closer to the main event but I imagine it was still a challenge for him as well.
The present opening was so incredible, so powerful, I felt like I was going to burst at the seams as each present was opened. Maybe this is what makes tearing into wrapping paper so satisfying. The gifts after opening were placed around us as though we were royalty sitting in our counting room surveying our wealth. This was the height of bliss for my young mind. Christmas was the drug and I was the junkie.
Even when my parents separated, like so many families of our generation, Christmas was still incredible, spending the morning with our mother, then heading off and spending the rest of Christmas with our father. Like other kids of that split family model, we got the double tree, double present Christmas with each parent hoping to win the holiday with a gift they picked out. The incredible Christmas high was still there, just two slightly lower but equally good peaks rather than giant one.
Basically put, Christmas was an important part of my childhood, the same as it was for so many other children. And perhaps it’s just due to the tricks of memory and the perceptions of a child, but Christmas also felt more important to everyone back then, more a part of the world we lived in. Maybe it simply was because no other culture or religious group was represented on such a mass scale at the time. I’m not saying it’s right or fair, it’s just how it was. While it’s still not equal billing, at least Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and others get a bit more world attention these days.
But then as I got older, things changed. My father was no longer in the picture and my mother’s mental health was in question. Some people say that it’s all downhill from the time you find out Santa isn’t real but it’s bigger than that. The spirit of Christmas fades in many of us just like our sense of wonder and the belief that there is still magic in the world. The older you get and the more you see, the harder it is to hold on to the excitement of things you’re expected to believe in.
There is a bigger story here for another day, but by the time I was seventeen and legally emancipated, my sister and I would travel to Ottawa to visit my mother at Christmas each year. We would sit with her in the small room she lived in and listen to her beliefs about all the people who wronged her, all the people who were out to get her and all the people who were going to be punished for their wrongdoings when she finally got her day in court. It was the same scenario Christmas after Christmas without fail. The woman I had known growing up was lost in a world of her own delusions. But she was still my mother and Christmas was supposed to be a time for family.
As the years went by, it got to the point that thinking about Christmas filled me with dread. I knew on Christmas Eve I would be travelling to a city I didn’t want to go to, spending three or four days in a place I couldn’t stand being in, for an amount of time filled with emotional gut punches, wild mood swings and feeling like I had never fully grown up. Finally, after returning from the trip, it would take the better part of a month to unpack and emotionally digest the baggage I’d returned with. Suffice to say, Christmas and I were no longer an item.
In fact, more than a decade ago in my early thirties (and after my sister moved away to the other side of the country), I made a choice to stop forcing myself to go on these trips. I decided to do something else with my holiday. While this did bring me some peace of mind and soul during the Christmas season, it also seemed to reduce my connection to the holiday even more to the point that I really didn’t think too much about Christmas in any major sense. Sure, I still bought presents for others and shared time with friends through parties and gatherings. But honestly, New Year’s became the big focal point of the calendar for me at this time of year with hardly a nod towards Christmas. I ignored any and all holiday specials on television. I only participated in gift giving and receiving because it was simply what everyone does this time of year. My heart wasn’t in it.
Then, later in life than I would have imagined, I met my wonderful wife, Sarah and we ended up having two incredible boys. My wife enjoys Christmas and I will give her credit for making it more fun again. A Christmas tree began to get set up in our house along with Gnoel (our Gnome Christmas display) but I still wasn’t emotionally connected to it. As new parents, we did the Christmas thing for our boys mostly out of the fact that it’s what you do for children but also because it’s fun to do it as a family. When the boys were very little, they loved the fact that they got presents but they didn’t really understand why. It was fun but it didn’t really reconnect me with the holiday. But then they got a little older.
If you haven’t been through it yourself, just know that the alchemy of creating two little people who look a lot like you and watching them grow awakens many things. Some can be challenging and force you to face things you thought were left behind when you became an adult. Others can be so much more enjoyable than that. A smile or a gesture they make that you recognize either from your own memories or photos of you in your youth. Fears and joys they mention that spark memories of the very same in your own childhood. The biggest thing however, that having children does is remind you what the world looked like before you lost your full sense of wonder.
Children have big ideas, big dreams and even bigger emotions. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, they tell you what they think and they truly still believe in magic, even if they tell you they don’t. I can’t obviously see directly through their eyes but the refracted glow of Christmas excitement that comes off of them, now that they are both old enough to fully understand the holiday, is palpable.
From mid-November onwards the Christmas excitement just pours off of them and I have to say, they’ve pulled me in.
Hearing George, our seven-year-old, absently singing Feliz Navidad a cappella in his room while playing.
The joy on my four-year-old Henry’s face as he retells his favourite parts of the newest animated version of The Grinch.
Read on for the rest of the blog and to learn more about RJ Downes...
George proudly bringing home a project he made in class, a Santa Clause made out of construction paper and cotton balls.
Henry coming up to me with hands clasped together, pleading to be able to open even one present early before Christmas. (Also, his abject disappointment when we accidently called a pair of Christmas socks offered to him a “present”.)
The sight of those two boys, who love video games and pretending to attack each other with made up karate moves, both sitting quietly at the table making Christmas ornaments and crafts together to send to relatives.
Those same two boys proudly showing me the icing art they’ve made decorating Christmas cookies they made with their mother.
Each boy in turn asking their mother politely if they can press the button that makes her singing squirrel display come to life with an obnoxious rendition of Up on The Rooftop and then bobbing along with the stuffy squirrels as they sing.
I’ve even found myself pulled into watching those Christmas specials with them. Some of them many times over because we now live in a world where you can watch Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer whenever you want. And you know what? I have to say, most of those movies are still pretty entertaining.
Just being around my boys, through the weird osmosis that can only come from children, I find myself feeling the thrill and wonder that comes with the season all over again. I’m inspired to make some gifts for people. I like the fact that of our living room is glowing with Christmas (and Gnoel) cheer. I love the fact that George and Henry are just bubbling with anticipation and excitement for the big event.
I honestly thought Christmas was lost on me forever, but I was wrong. Because of my sons, I see the beauty of the season. Christmas lights and decorations have become something to watch for and call out when driving. Christmas songs have become something to sing along to and Christmas once again feels a lot like it did when I was a child.
I don’t know what will happen as my children get older, but I really hope they keep their sense of joy and wonder for as long as they can. I was missing it in my life for a long time and I don’t want to lose it again.
RJ Downes is on the Board of Directors for the Fringe of the North International Theatre Festival.
From the Fringe of the North website:
Local and international theatre companies return to Sault Ste. Marie in 2021. 100% of the box office goes to artists with maximum fringe theatre ticket price set at $12. Performers can charge less but not more.
Fringe North is a member of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) and World Congress of Fringe Festivals.
All Fringe festivals share a set of common guidelines with the aim of providing an easily accessible opportunity for all audiences and all artists to participate.These guidelines include:
· Participants will be selected on a non-juried basis, through a first-come, first served process
· The audience must have the option to pay a ticket price, 100% of which goes directly to the artists
· Fringe North festival producers have no control over the artistic content of each performance. The artistic freedom of the participants is unrestrained.
· Fringe North will provide an easily accessible opportunity for all audiences and all artists to participate in Fringe Festival
The Fringe theatre movement started in 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, still home to the world’s largest fringe festival. The first Canadian fringe festival was founded in Edmonton in 1982. Since then the movement has spread across the continent and the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals currently boasts 30 member festivals across Canada and the United States. We are also a member of the World Congress of Fringe Festivals which boasts 250 Fringes world-wide.
About Sault Ste. Marie
Sault Ste. Marie is a city of about 80,000 people, located in Northern Ontario. We are at the hub of the Great Lakes on the St. Marys River, which connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Some popular tourist attractions include the Agawa Canyon Tour Train and the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre. Share our history through visits to The Sault Ste. Marie Museum, the Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site, Whitefish Island National Historic Site and the St. Marys River Heritage Waterway. Enjoy our Hub Trail, a 22 km non-motorized trail.
RJ Downes has been a playwright, producer, director, stage manager and actor for over 27 years. As a playwright his works have been performed all across the GTA as well as in Hamilton, Stratford and Kingston. As a producer, director and stage manager he has worked with a wide and eclectic range of production companies in Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Many of his plays including, Without Whom, The Stranger, Platypus, Modern Ritual and Charades, have been produced multiple times in a variety of productions.
Other noted produced plays include: Homesick, Music and Laughter, Crime and Etiquette, Last Dance of The Dark Cloaked Avenger and Tightrope
In April 2020 his short play Among The Beasts was presented by Remote Theatre Experiences in an online presentation during the pandemic lockdown.
In November 2020 his radio play The Revolution Has Failed was presented as part of the Shortwave Theatre Festival on CFRC radio in Kingston, Ontario.
Having relocated with his family to the city of Sault Ste. Marie in the fall of 2020, RJ has become a board member of the growing Fringe North International Theatre Festival and is currently working on several writing projects.