Of Red-Noses and Reindeer

Note: This story is part fiction, part real – how much of each is my little secret. In any event, the whole thing ought to be real.

As a Mom, I have certain treasured memories tucked away in secret parts of my heart, moments that I take out, dust off, and lovingly caress in bleak and gray times. Christmas is an especially fertile time for growing those special memories.

Christmas for me is built solidly around memories. It’s all about the traditions, the memories of my own childhood, and those I lived as a mother. For me, the most precious thing is looking back at the shadows of Christmas Past from the embrace of Christmas Present, knowing I am adding another ornament to the tree I’ll look back on in Christmases yet to come. Linus was only partly right.

I am of French (Canadian) Catholic heritage. As a young girl, Christmas revolved around Midnight Mass and Family. Everything else about Christmas sprang from those two truths. Every Christmas Eve, the whole clan would gather at the house of one of my grandparents – Memere and Pepere in French (there really is no way to spell the words phonetically). One year it would be at my mother’s parents, the next at my father’s. It didn’t much matter because they lived within a few blocks of each other. 

Both sets of my grandparents were old school Francos. My Memere Cournoyer emigrated from Quebec as a girl. She never spoke English except three key phrases, enough to cover all possible contingencies: “Yes, No, and kiss me ass.”

I remember how excited I was as darkness approached on those special nights. School was out, and I’d get to stay up well past mid-night, eat special foods, and hear wonderful music. I’d get to wear the Christmas version of my Easter dress, though in a nod to the winter weather, it was usually lighter on the frills and heavier on the practical fabrics. We’d bundle up and make the trip, I carrying four small gifts for the grandparents, Mom a plate of cookies and a cast iron Dutch oven with a bail handle holding some of her pea soup, and Dad, of course, carried the inevitable 6-pack of beer and fifth of whiskey.

We would climb the steps to my grandparents’ spacious apartment to be greeted with raucous joy on entering. Hugs and kisses were shared, and my rambunctious cousins and I would dart off to argue about whether or not Santa Claus was real – there were two schools of thought on the matter. One held he was a made up lie, and the other summed up in the cry, Course he’s real, stupid-head! Naturally we’d speak breathlessly of what we wanted him to bring, whether we believed in him or not. 

At some point, the free-flowing alcohol would loosen inhibitions and Memere and Pepere Ouellette would break out the accordion and spoons; after brushing off the rust with a few traditional jigs, they’d segue into Christmas songs sung in French in jig time. We kids would gather around, enraptured.

Finally, eleven o’clock rolled around. The men would “secretly” fill small flasks with anti-freeze, and we’d troupe off to our imposing granite parish church. As vast as it seemed to me on ordinary Sundays, it was packed to overflowing for this Mass. I was sure everybody there had their eyes on me in my pretty Christmas dress. 

The Mass itself meant nothing to me at five, six, and seven. I stood, sang, knelt, and prayed all by rote. The beauty for me was the choir up above us, and the thundering pipe organ. At the end of the Mass came my favorite part. A parish lady, Madame Saucier, had a devastatingly beautiful soprano voice. The Church would fall silent, then wafting up like a vapor, the Ave Maria. Then as now, it makes my legs tremble and brings tears to my eyes.

After Mass, the part we kids loved best unfolded. A late repast of traditional Franco foods would magically appear on the table: cretons and crackers, tourtierre, salmon pie, boudin, crepes with maple syrup hoarded from last spring’s trip to a real Quebec cabin a sucre, and the centerpiece, Memere Ouellette’s exquisite Buche de Noel. How we kids slept after that feast is a mystery to this day.

As I grew older, gradually, subtly, but inexorably the traditions evolved. By the time my son Josh was born, the focus of Christmas Eve had switched to the evening Children’s Mass. The children born by my generation performed the Nativity pageant, always a beautiful, moving thing for me. The meal had long since drifted into a late evening event. Everyone wanted to be home before midnight. I was an only child, so the family consisted of the same aunts, uncles, and the cousins with whom I long ago debated the existence of Santa Claus. Sadly, both sets of Memeres and Peperes had long since passed. But the tradition continued.

Did Santa exist? I got a personally satisfactory answer the Christmas Josh was six.

Back then, we lived in an old farmhouse out in the willie-whonks. We were mostly surrounded by open fields, where the farmer up the road would pasture his beeves in the summer, but on the other side of the road was a high, long, wooded ridge criss-crossed with skidder roads, snowmobile trails, and assorted goat paths. Out back of the house there were a several fruit-bearing apple trees forming the entrance to a garden I built by bits and pieces each summer. It was nice, rural setting, and I was content there.

That Christmas Eve, we were heading home from my parents house around midnight. It was snowing lightly, and Josh was right on screech. I could foresee him taking hours to fall asleep, and my now ex-husband and I having to wait ‘til four in the morning to lay out the loot under the tree. I was tired and cranky myself. As we headed down the desolate home stretch of road, I noticed a radio tower on the ridgeline through the thin veil of fine snowfall, with a blinking red light marking its top. I’d seen it a thousand times before and never paid it any attention. However, on this night I had one of those maternal flashes of inspiration that are little gifts from an Angel. 

"Josh," I said, all excited, pointing at the blinking light. "Look! There’s Rudolph! See his red nose? He’s guiding Santa!" Even in the dark, I could see his eyes get as big and bright as saucers. "You know what that means. Santa’s almost here, and if you’re awake when he comes to our house, he won’t stop!" 

When we got home, that boy tore into the house at warp speed. I never before or since saw him brush his teeth and get into his pj’s as fast as he did that night.

It would be cool enough if the story ended there, but it doesn’t. The next morning, we went through the whole ritual of opening gifts (a beast was unleashed that morning when Josh got his first pair of "real" hockey skates and a new Wayne Gretzky stick). After it was done, I poured myself a cup of coffee and stepped out on the back deck to clear my head. There was an inch or so of new snow and it was quite beautiful. 

Something under the apple tree caught my eye. On closer inspection, I could see that deer had come down from the woods during the night to nibble on the fallen apples, leaving behind hoof-prints. That inspirational Angel was still with me. I ran into the house and slipped on my Bean boots. I grabbed Josh and carried him out back (my ex thought I’d gone off the deep end) and down off the deck. "Josh honey! Look! See the hoof prints? That’s where Santa’s reindeer landed last night." 

There we were, me in my robe, nightie and untied Bean boots standing in the snow carrying Josh in his footie pj’s, studying deer prints — I imagine we made quite the sight. I still believe that that Christmas bought Josh at least two extra years of believing in Santa. I dragged my ex out there later and said, "See? Who says there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, oh ye of little faith."

That little memory has carried me through many dark days, days when I felt sure I couldn’t go on for another minute. Thank you Santa for the greatest Christmas gift this mother ever received.

The End