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My best wartime Christmas

 

By Terry Haller

 

It wasn’t a good time for Christmas. The world was at war, and there was nothing but gloom in the air. My brother Tommy had signed up with the Scots Fusiliers and shipped off to England. We hadn’t heard from him since Dunkirk.

Mom and Dad weren’t thinking much about Christmas. The whole neighborhood was in the dumps. They kept asking Mom about Tommy, which just made her think about him all the time. To make things worse, there was talk of rationing. Limited shortages had already appeared. The downtown department stores had little to sell. Imports had ceased. Factories were turning out munitions. The only Christmas toys on the store shelves were crude objects made of wood, and nobody wanted them. That didn’t stop us kids from wishing.

“I want a Meccano Set,” said Bobby Bender. His father built things around the house, so that made sense.

“I want skates,” I said. Dad had made a rink in the backyard, so that made sense too.

In spite of the war, we managed to honor most Yuletide customs. Looking back, there was a smattering of amusing interludes. The sub-zero temperature was perfect for a particular Canadian rite of passage. A mean girl from across the street dared me to lick an iron railing. I cried as I tried to release my tongue. Mom had to come out and pour warm water on it. Then she slapped me and the other kids all laughed. I went looking for my younger brother to see if I could induce him to lick the railing.

To cheer us up, Dad strung lights on the front yard shrubs. Naturally, I had to stick my finger in an empty socket to see what would happen. Once again I was in tears. When Mom learned what happened my face found the back of her hand, then she bawled my dad out. He kept shouting: “They don’t sell new bulbs anymore!” Then he yanked the lights off the bushes, and tossed them in the garbage can. Soon, Mom made him smooth things over.

“Didn’t you want to see the Christmas stuff at the church? Would you like to go now?”

It was a big church — bigger than most American cathedrals — with five altars and a life-size Nativity scene. What I liked was this big plaster angel. If you put penny in a slot, it made his head nod. Canadian pennies then were as big as quarters. I could have fed him pennies all afternoon, but with my three, the coin box was full, and it couldn’t take any more.

When we got back home there was good news: Tommy was safe.

Christmas anticipations kept mounting. After supper on Christmas Eve, a guy dressed as Santa Claus came to our house. I had to sit on his lap and tell him what I wanted. He had beer breath and he scared me. My sulky response killed everyone’s fun, so Mom sent me to bed.

I remembered something I should have told Santa. I went back downstairs and saw Santa drinking beer with my dad. His beard was hanging down and he quickly put it back on. They let me tell Santa about the skates, then made it clear I was not to come back down until morning.

I was too excited to sleep. Near dawn, I snuck downstairs to see my presents. I only got halfway when I had the shock of my life. Santa was in the living room, placing gifts under the tree. The rules said you weren’t supposed to be there when Santa came down the chimney, so I shot back to bed.

As soon as I heard my mother in the kitchen I knew it was safe to go back downstairs. What I had thought was Santa was a red car, the kind you can sit in and drive. It was secondhand, but nicely repainted. My dad had gone his best. “There’s a war on,” he kept reminding us.

I also got a Red Ryder coloring book. American kids were getting Red Ryder BB guns; Canadian kids got the cheap coloring book. I didn’t know it then, but the rest of the war was going to be a whole lot worse. We wouldn’t even have decent comic books. “Comic-book paper is going to the war effort,” they said.

I tried to drive the little car around the living room but couldn’t reach the pedals. Dad attached wood blocks to them. Still, the pedals wouldn’t turn. Dad said a crank arm was bent, and he’d fix it, but he never could.

I went next door to see what Bobby got for Christmas. Mr. Bender shouted through the door: “Bobby can’t come out today. Go away.” Minutes later, Bobby snuck to our back door, crying.

“I looked under the Christmas tree and there was just a note from Santa Claus,” Bobby sobbed.

“What did it say?” I asked.

“That my gift was in the mailbox.”

“And what was it?” I asked.

“A lump of coal.”

“That means Santa found out you were a bad boy,” my dad said, thinking it a big joke.

“In Ireland, he gave you a raw potato when you were bad,” my mother added.

That afternoon, we were giving rides by pushing my little red car up and down the icy sidewalk, when Bender’s 1938 Ford pulled into their driveway. Bobby got out and came running towards us. He was holding something.

“I got the Meccano Set! Santa left it with Aunt Rose by mistake!” he shouted.