Christmases Past and Present (2021)

Before the commercialized Christmas Tree, candles were the lights and only burnt Christmas Eve

Merry Christmas and allow me to start by quoting the epiphany Scrooge experienced in that classic “A Christmas Carol”. A tale that has been a mainstay of the Christmas spirit since its first publication in 1843. What many people fail to recognize about this tale is the analogous nature of “people changing” and never more meaningful than during times of strife.

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.  No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells.  Oh, glorious.  Glorious!

“What’s to-day?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day?” replied the boy.  “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself.  “I haven’t missed it.  The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like.  Of course they can.  Of course they can.  Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.

“I should hope I do,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge.  “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”

“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge.  “It’s a pleasure to talk to him.  Yes, my buck.”

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge.  “Go and buy it.”

This particular exchange with Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” is, to me, the first major example of “neuroplasticity” I encountered without really realizing it. What does a ten year old kid know about terms like neuroplasticity however now that we are into our second Christmas in this pandemic it is a concept people should be aware of.

The Tiny Tim of Christmas past

So, as Tiny Tim would say “God bless us everyone”

I spend seven Christmases in the Children’s Hospital and many by choice. In fact the first four years after my parents moved to Calgary I never did attend a Christmas in our house on Tavender Road. I was 11 years olds and my parents had moved to a much bigger (and brand new) house in the newly developing Greenview.

My Christmas joy was in the hospital, partly out of greed and partly out of a need to just isolate myself. The hospital was my home and my “tribe” were other polio kids. My tribe was simply one component of a much large community, the world outside the hospital.

The excitement at the hospital among most of the kids would start to built three or four days before Christmas. This is when those kids that were healthy enough (and most of us were) to go home for anywhere from two to five days for Christmas with family. As I indicated my “family” were other polio kids and I now realize this was my first real introduction to the differences between “tribalism” and “community”. I preferred Christmas with my “tribe”, the community of the day was still not disability ready and could be quite a hostile place for disabled kids..

As a kid I didn’t realize this but, with maturity behind me, I now know my family, like so many others at the time, was a borderline dysfunctional family. In the 50’s and 60’s those were not uncommon, post WW2 family dynamics began changing as the migration from rural living to urbanization kicked into high gear. When my parents moved us to Calgary, so I could receive the :”free” treatment being offered by the then Junior Red Cross for Crippled Children to polio kids (this was year before any national social healthcare), the population of the city was 213,000. Plus this was a time when a place like the Junior Red Cross was more like a cross between a hospital and an orphanage, not that we were orphans but the polio tribe lived in a “community” ill prepared for the disabled.

Getting ready for the day by first lacing my braces

Christmas at home involved fifteen minutes attaching 30 pounds of of metal and leather on so I could walk. The only way to ambulate was to wear the braces so it was not uncommon to have the braces off at home and be scooting around the floor on my ass. Neighbours use to kid my mother about having the cleanness floors on the block while I had the dirtiest pants. Also, because the braces were fitted into my shoes I didn’t have “winter” boots so orthopaedic shoes weren’t exactly made for snow and ice. When going outside, like Christmas tobogganing, I had spikes similar to the ones explained here, which were a pain in the butt putting off and on so I could go out with the “community kids”. At home I was kind of a Charlie Brown and his football, I was constantly falling for the old “Come on Terry, leave your crutches at the top of the toboggan hill and we’ll pull you back up”. Guess who would be crawling back up the hill because some siblings thought it a great joke to get the toboggan back up the hill before I could get on it,

Between uncles, aunts, a paternal grandmother living with the results of a stroke and, at minimum, 10 kids under 15, we could host as many as 20 to 25 people for a Christmas supper. To me, 11 years old and braces off, I was often the “tag” victim crawling around on the floor trying to “tag” other kids who had certain “privileges” (like the ability to jump furniture). All good fun but activities that contributed to some of my own cognitive development.

This is what “Christmas stockings” use to look before the holiday became such a commercialized event. I knew as a ten year old I could be much greedy in the Hospital while skipping my five siblings who never really knew me.

Meanwhile, by staying at the hospital, (greed) I knew at home I would probably receive for or five Christmas presents but at the hospital (thank you service clubs) I would wind up with twenty to twenty-five gifts. In those day a package of five, say DC comics, would be a pretty good gift. Books, games, board games, model building kits, Lincoln log set (pre Lego days), etc. Electronics were unheard of then.

Also in the hospital, Christmas Day was pretty relaxed. I would often, as the CBC’s “Friendly Giant” would say, “find a comfortable chair to curl up in” where I could just sit and read. The Solarium, it took up the complete top level of the north part of the hospital, was our playground. At one end was a small area full of plants and chairs while the other two thirds was wide open space used to race each other in our wheelchairs (had to wear the braces during the week due to physio three times a day) but on weekends and holidays we could just grab a wheelchair out of the storage area and have at it. With that said we also had chores which would often involve washing black skid marks off the floors. The Solarium was also where Friday night movies happened (some service club would bring in a projector, a couple of canisters of 35 mm film while the staff would wheel beds up there or we took a wheelchair) for movie night. That was movie night and, besides her part in the original Mouseketeers, there probably wasn’t an Annette Funicello beach movie we didn’t see.

I preferred Christmas in the hospital, partly for the greed reason given above, but more because I enjoyed the solitude over the chaos with siblings. There were no “regulations” that would later lead the newly developing regulatory system we have come to experience today. For the record, most who stayed in the hospital for Christmas enjoyed the quiet. The nursing staff went out of their way to make Christmas extra fun for the kids who didn’t go home and many came in on their days off (there was a student nurses residence attached to the hospital so most of them would come over) just to play with us kids. Based solely on my own memory about 75% of the kids would get home at least for the day but be back in the evening, short home visit, but also because the community wasn’t accessible to most disabled people in those days. Warehousing the disabled didn’t really fade away until the mid 70’s so society, in general, never saw us.

With that said, Merry Christmas and, pandemic or not, always look for the silver lining otherwise your life compass will shatter. May 2022 be a much better year..

Christmas Alone

Here it is Christmas Eve and again by myself,
Don’t expect Santa or his elf,
I’m best where I’m at and that’s all alone,
Just like an old dog with his bone.

Christmas is about family and things,
Twinkling lights and angels wings,
I’m where I’m at with my solitude,
I cannot join you don’t think I’m rude.

I’ve had my time of festive fun,
Mother, father, daughter and son,
Now I like my quiet time,
Writing my thoughts and looking for rhyme.

Don’t get me wrong Christmas a blast,
But I know I will never re-capture the past,
I live for today and enjoy what I can,
Living the life of a solitary man.

Terry Wiens – December 2004

2 thoughts on “Christmases Past and Present (2021)

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