Our guest blogger is Stephen A. Nelson, a freelance journalist who grew up in Toronto back when, as he says “they still had a Santa Claus at the Eaton’s and Simpson’s department stores, where magical window displays with expensive moving toys gave joy to many.” Here Stephen shares a true, right from the heart, childhood Christmas Story, and adds some of his own favourite media Christmas Stories.
The Many Faces of Father Christmas
A Real Christmas Story from the Kid Who Lived It!
Stephen A. Nelson
The Salvation Army has been in the news this Christmas; especially since it was discovered that a Grinch – masquerading as Santa Claus – stole more than $2 million worth of donated toys that were meant to go to needy kids in the Toronto area. The stolen toys were recovered and Mean Mr. Grinch has been arrested and charged with stealing Christmas. It’s sad and shocking, but at the same time a reminder that – while Scrooges and Grinches may be real – so is Someone Else.
My Christmas story takes place not in the 1940s, but in the 1960s, shortly after we’d arrived in Canada from England. The Beatles were more popular than Jesus and it was a very good time to be English in Canada. Especially if Canadians thought you sounded “just like The Beatles.”
We moved into a neighbourhood in West Toronto. Our family of six was living in a small two-bedroom flat above a restaurant on Dundas Street West now known as The Junction. We did not have much, in fact, we had very little. But we had the two most valuable things in the world: family and friends.
“Family” included my Uncle Terry, my mother’s beloved brother. The Nelson family had arrived in Canada on the unforgettable night of the Great Northeast Blackout in November of that year — that night everything from Niagara Falls to New York plunged into complete darkness. That was the night Uncle Terry had driven all night to get us from Montreal to our new home in Toronto.
“Family” also included the people at the Salvation Army in West Toronto. That was the great thing about the Sally Ann then. We had travelled to the other side of the world, but the Salvation Army still felt like home. It was more than a church, more than a charity. It was family.
Foremost among that Salvation Army family was a man we called Uncle Harry. He virtually had adopted my dad when my dad first arrived in Canada. And for as long as he lived, Uncle Harry was like a father and a big brother to my Dad. And until his dying day, Uncle Harry was a real uncle and a granddad to us kids.
When we arrived in Toronto, winter was already upon us. More snow than we had ever seen turned Toronto into a Winter Wonderland. And before we knew it, it was Christmas. It was a beautiful glorious Christmas, around which the entire year of being a kid revolved. Christmas, time for Christmas carols and Father Christmas — or as Canadians called him, “Santa Claus.”
I was a true believer in Father Christmas. So although there were many department-store Santas, I knew there was only one true Father Christmas. He was at the North Pole now, making his toys. But I had met him at the Salvation Army Christmas party and I knew he was real. I knew because he knew me and he knew me by name.
But I was worried: Even though I’d seen Father Christmas, I hadn’t told him what I really wanted. And with all the excitement of moving to a new country, I hadn’t had time to write to him! “How will Father Christmas know where we are? How will he know what I want?” I wondered.
Mum, another true believer, assured me that Father Christmas would know and that he would find us.
“But we don’t have a chimney in our flat! How will Father Christmas get into our house on Christmas Eve?”
Mum assured me that Father Christmas had a magic chimney he could use to get into houses that had no chimney.
Well if Mum says so, it’s got to be true.
But I was still worried.
I was like Ralphie from the character who played in A Christmas Story. A movie favorite of mine that centres around a young, nine-year-old, blue-eyed, blond-haired boy name Ralph “Ralphie” Parker (Peter Billingsley). The first time I saw the film, I immediately turned to my friend, pointed at the kid on the screen with big glasses and said, “That’s me!”
But Ralphie is an Everyman, and the film is the tale of his quest to realize his heart’s desire and secure his holy grail of Christmas presents — a Daisy, Red Ryder, Carbine-Action , 200-shot Range Model BB Rifle. He was trying to relay the message to the world that there was one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. This was my heart’s desire. This was my holy grail.
It wasn’t a Red Ryder BB Gun. No, in 1965 it was a Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army) — a toy gun that was seven guns in one.
In these cyber-days of Halo, WarCraft and Assassin, such toy weapons are either politically incorrect or passé. Forbidden or forgotten. But in 1965, the Johnny Seven was “the bomb.”
It was a Red Ryder BB Rifle on steroids. Ralphie’s Red Ryder was a steel-blue beauty that fired BBs and had “a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.” It was everything cowboy hero Red Ryder would need to fend off the evil Black Bart, rustlers, and other Bad Guys. But a Johnny Seven One Man Army was a plastic mini-arsenal that fired an anti-tank rocket; shot an armour-piercing shell; launched an anti-bunker missile; shot 10 bullets as a rifle; made a rat-a-tat-tat sound as a Tommy gun; and had a pistol that detached and worked as a cap gun with a very loud “bang!” In short, it was everything that G. I. Joe would ever need to fight the Viet Cong. And since it was three-feet long, it was literally the yardstick against which all other boys’ toys were measured. It was the talking Malibu Barbie of boys’ toys. It was the perfect present.
Like Ralphie, I knew exactly what I wanted. And like Ralphie, I was worried that I wasn’t going to get it. After all, if Father Christmas couldn’t find me, how could he give one to me? And if Father Christmas couldn’t deliver, who could?
On Christmas Eve, there were no signs of any Christmas presents in our small flat. I don’t even remember seeing a Christmas tree.
Still, milk and cookies were placed out in a dish with care, in hopes that Father Christmas soon would be there. There were no visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. I was dreaming of a Johnny Seven. I went to bed hoping and praying that Father Christmas would indeed find us. But I feared he would not.
On Christmas morning, I woke up to find a sign of hope. A red Christmas stocking had been hung up with care, a sign Father Christmas had really been there.
When out from the living room there was such a clatter, I sprang down hallway and said “What’s the matter?”
I turned into the living room and beheld a sight more wonderful than anything I had ever seen before or since. Where there had been darkness before, there was now the most wondrous light. Where there had been emptiness, there was now a cornucopia of Christmas presence. An Aladdin’s cave of magical things that I had never seen before in my life, including something called a “toboggan.” I had no idea what it was for, but I thought it was amazing.
In a room full of children’s treasures, I almost missed the Holy Grail itself. But there it was, in the middle of the living room floor, set like a jewel in the crown: my Johnny Seven. It was perfect.
I promptly fired off all seven guns in rapid order and managed to do it without shooting anybody’s eye out!
I was overwhelmed with joy at getting my Johnny Seven. But I was even more happy that Father Christmas had found us and he had delivered. For years to come, this was proof to me that Father Christmas was real. And later, when my non-believing school friends said, “There’s no such thing as Santa; it’s just your parents,” I knew they were wrong.
Over the years in Canada, we would spend many Christmases at my Uncle Terry’s and we would learn many things about Father Christmas. We learned that, here in Canada, Father Christmas went by many other names: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Sinter Klaas, Santa Claus, Santa, Kris Kringle, or even Père Noël.
Years later, I found out that, in our home, Father Christmas had two other names: Sometimes we called him “Dad”: other times we called him “Uncle Terry.”
But at our other home, the Salvation Army, we learned that the most important person at Christmas was not Father Christmas, but that other person who also comes at Christmas and who is also known by many names.
And at the Salvation Army, we learned that the real Father Christmas had yet another name. There we called him “Uncle Harry.”
Welcome Christmas, while we stand
heart to heart and hand in hand…
Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we
My Favourite Media Christmas Stories
Stephen A. Nelson
Everybody has a favourite TV holiday special at this time of the year.
The first and still the best is A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring the Peanuts gangand the coolest of all Christmas soundtracks by Vince Guaraldi. A very close second is How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Boris (The Grinch) Karloff and the coolest of all Christmas songs, You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch .
And when it comes to Christmas movies on TV, you still can’t beat the 1951 black-and-white classic A Christmas Carol, starring Alistair (Scrooge) Sim and three very spooky Christmas spirits. Mind you, Jim Carrey. The Muppets, and even Doctor Who have all done a great job of bringing this story to life.
What these all have in common is the theme of redemption. That and the radical, almost heretical message expressed by the Grinch: the idea that “Maybe Christmas… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”
So maybe it’s odd that my other holiday favourite is the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. Odd because, at first glance, the movie seems to say that Christmas does come from a store — and that happiness is a new gun.
A Christmas Story starring Darren (Kolchalk: The Night Stalker) McGavin is a classic based on the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. A sleeper hit when it was first released, the film has become a perennial favourite on TV. One American cable station shows it all day on Christmas Day.
The film, narrated by the author himself, takes place in a mythical mid-western US town. But a lot of it was shot in Toronto. In fact, in a part of Toronto that looks a lot like the Toronto I grew up in. It even has the classic red-and-yellow TTC streetcars that Mike Filey loves.
It also has all the elements of my first Christmas in Canada: the Salvation Army band playing Christmas carols in the frosty air; the Santa Claus parades, the department store Santas. And most magical of all, the Christmas windows displays at stores like downtown Toronto’s Eaton’s and Simpson’s, where half-frozen kids press their noses up against the frosty glass to get a closer look of at the electronic panoramas of mechanized magic.
Perhaps that’s why this film stays with me, because it feels like my city and my childhood. I feel I could have easily run into the characters in this film. In fact, I think I did.
But more than that, I think it stays with me because — in many ways — A Christmas Story is my story: “except for the name and a few other changes, when you talk about me, the story’s the same one.”
Ralphie, for most of the film, is scheming to get his mitts on one of these beautiful, steel-blue pieces of pre-adolescent weaponry- a Daisy, Red Ryder, Carbine-Action , 200-shot Range Model BB Rifle… For him, it is not only the Holy Grail; in his hands it will become Excalibur.
So our hero does everything he can to persuade every adult he knows — his teacher, his parents, even Santa — that a firearm is the perfect present. The response is always discouraging and always the same: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” And once even Santa Claus rains on his parade, Ralphie knows the game is over and he’ll probably end up with a football (“not a very good present”) for Christmas.
Needless to say, our hero is more than a little discouraged come Christmas Eve. By Christmas morning, when all the presents have already been opened, he has despaired of ever achieving the Holy Grail.
But wait! Somehow Santa delivers a last-minute Christmas miracle and Ralphie gets his BB gun — his faith in Santa and in Christmas is fully restored. That night he goes to sleep with his holy grail in his hands and all is right with the world. It is a very merry Christmas.