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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Airplane Dress

December 15, 2000

I know you'll all be pleased to hear that, but for those last fifteen letters or so and the shortbread, I nearly have Christmas in the bag.

The gift list is almost complete, only seven names to go and maybe one more thing for Gran.  And a few doggie and kitty gew-gaws for Jo'n'John's four-legged family.  Of course, there's still the upstairs to clean - most of the kids will be home plus a few extras and one of the OTHER mothers-in-law and that will mean a super-deluxe shine on the chandelier as well as setting up the bunk beds in the storeroom - and we haven't decorated the old barn yet or even found the decorations but I think I know where we stored them last year and once we get a tree we'll be in business. Except, that is, for finishing up the ironing left over from the summer (I like to have that done before I start wrapping presents) and washing and ironing all the Christmas doilies and tablecloths.  They're stored with the decorations so it may be a while before I can get to them but until I do, I should have time to get all the rugs and furniture shampoo'd.  A big job, that, but since I have everything nearly done, I feel I can spare the time before I have to start baking bread and buns and stollen, not forgetting the shortbread and maybe a batch or two of mincemeat tarts and cherry-nut bells. 

Isn't it wonderful to be so organized?  Christmas can come anytime it wants.  At least, as soon as I find those decorations.

We're buying a tree this year, a Douglas fir, and some might say that's not playing the game.  But trees don't make a Christmas, anyway.  Neither do presents or particular foods or honeycombed paper bells.  People, old, young and all ages in between, make Christmas.  My parents made Christmas for us; their parent, for them.  In the years that my father trapped and worked on the creeks, we received gifts in spite of our isolation, toys and clothing collected and wrapped by Dawson women who worked to ensure that no family, however far in bush, would go without.  People caring and sharing, that's what makes Christmas.

Coming from a European background and spending all of our very young years in the bush, we did not have a working relationship with Santa Claus.  There were tales of a Yule Nissen, sort of a Christmas elf, who hung out with the animals in the barn and rewarded good children with marzipan pigs, but until the winter of '43, Santa did not figure largely in our lives.  Then the American Army took up resi- dence on the outskirts of town and our lives were changed forever.

We had moved from Dawson by then, to the Whitehorse area where  Dad went to work for Ole Wickstom that winter, cutting firewood.  In his travels round the wood cutting area, he often encountered US army work parties, similarly engaged and, being a gregarious sort, he often invited them home.  The lonely men enjoyed their visits  and came often, bringing gum and candy and an occasional ham, paid for with sing-songs at the piano, good conversation and lunches of fresh bread and cheese washed down with copious drafts of Mom's very finest home brew.  Mom, on her own hook, brought home soldiers from church, for lunch or supper and an evening with the family.

Scenes like these were played out all over town and at Christmas, the Army repaid the kindness and hospitality of their Yukon hosts with the generosity and largess for which the American people are renouned. They threw a party and invited every kid in town.  We weren't in town, per se, we lived across the river at the old Fundy Fox Farm in that  two-storey log dwelling you see as you go from Fourth avenue over to Second travelling northeast past Beaver Lumber.  But we were invited anyway.  And it was thrilling.  And scary.

They held their frolic in the old Whitehorse Theater, at the corner of Third and Main, the Forties' equivalent of the FHCollins gymnasium for all and sundry cultural affairs.  And it was filled from stage to projection booth with children of all shapes and sizes.  On the stage was a huge Christmas tree, covered with light and tinsel rain and as we sat, mesmerized by the brilliant star on top that blinked on and off, from behind the tree walked the fattest old man we had ever seen in our young lives.  He was dressed in a bright red suit and seemed to be really tickled over something, the way he kept going, "Ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho!" in a loud voice.  One by one, we called to come down to the stage to receive parcels but my sister Jo and I were al- lowed to come together, hands clutching and near tears from sheer fright.  A young GI whispered into the fat man's ear and handed him several parcels.  "Ho-ho-ho, the little Porsild girls.  Merry Christmas!"  He seemed to radiate heat and goodwill and I could hardly take my eyes from a large drop of sweat that clung to the end of his rouged nose. "Mange tak!" We spoke our polite "Thank you," in almost inaudible voices.  For a moment he gazed at us, saying nothing.  Then he smiled, a warm, genuine smile and in a soft voice, told us that we were very welcome.  Clutching our gaily wrapped presents, we scurried back to take our seats with our older brother and sister.

The afternoon passed in a whirl of noise and activity and light and laughter.  Jo fell asleep and Betty had to carry her out, Aksel and I following, heads whirling, gifts still wrapped.  Each of us had received a bag full to the brim with Hershey bars and Milk Duds, red and green stripped candy canes, oranges and apples.  And a toy or a game.  And an article of clothing.  My toy was a doll, with molded head and cloth body and eyes that opened and closed and a pursy little mouth that wailed "Ma-a-a," when you turned her on her face.  But better than the fruit and candy, better than the doll that wailed, was the dress I found when I opened that last gift, a blue and white seersucker skirt and jacket with pockets at the waist.  And on each of the pockets, a little red airplane.  To a little girl whose wardrobe, in those impecunious times, was almost entirely composed of the hand-me-downs, it was a gift beyond price.

It's been nearly fifty years since I made my first acquaintance with Santa Claus and over those years he has brought me a diversity of riches, both tangible and intangible.  But I shall never forget my first glimpse of the wonderfully terrifying man in red who so personified the spirit and joy of giving.  Nor shall I for get the gift he gave me, a fresh bright gift of newness and individuality with airplanes on the pockets.

And now, I really must go and see about finding those decorations; my whole timetable depends on it.  Merry Christmas, everyone.  I hope that each of you finds an airplane dress under the tree.

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