As It Happens

Hausfreunde cookies, a new recipe to revive an old ritual
Hausfreunde cookies, a new recipe to revive an old ritual

“Ritual has an anticipatory relevance—we prepare for it, practically and psychologically; that’s part of its benefit.It’s about making your own raft of time. Your own doorway into Christmas,” writes Jeanette Winterson in her new book Christmas Days.

What are your rafts into the doorway of your Christmas?

Jeanette’s article (sent by Lynn from The Guardian) made me pause and think about how the rafts we’ve built over the years have gotten flimsy, floated away or been replaced by changing structures.

I no longer make a fruitcake. Or Grandma Danchuk’s Perishka cookie recipe, which got overtaken by savoury biscuits for a few years and now a new favourite: Hausfreunde, chocolate-dipped almond/apricot sandwich cookies. We no longer have tourtiere on Christmas Eve, opting for something lighter over the years like bouillabaisse, which of late has begun to feel like too much and has no long-term replacement. We no longer send Christmas cards or write a breezy newsletter of the year’s events. But we do have two, new traditions that started when we moved here 18 years ago. George and Marsha introduced Magellan and me to “A Traditional Christmas with the VSO,” a mid-December ritual to open the holiday season. The second is the Christmas turkey dinner our big book club holds around the same time, but without spouses. All good. Life, as it happens, brings new experiences and different routines—I embrace that.

But a ritual is more than baking and parties, isn’t it? A ritual is more intimate, more of “a spiritual experience even if you’re not religious” as Jeanette writes. Hers is listening to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols live from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve. Magellan, Lynn and I used to have something equivalent—and for me it remains the most memorable ritual of the season.

The three of us used to listen to Alan Maitland read Frederick Forsyth’s short story “The Shepherd” during the last half hour on “As It Happens” on Christmas Eve, a tradition CBC started in 1979. On the desolate highway from Calgary to ‘home’ in Saskatchewan, where our parents and younger siblings were gathered, the three of us sat in the car, silently listening to Al’s distinctive voice. The only other sign of life was sheltered behind the dim lights projected from the windows of farmhouses randomly spaced on the prairie.

Do you know “The Shepherd?”

It’s a chilling story about a Royal Air Force pilot heading home, flying a plane, solo, over the North Sea to England from Germany on Christmas Eve. The year is important: 1957. Post WWII. Fog sets in over the Atlantic. He loses all radio communication and soon, almost all of his fuel is gone, too. Then a ghost plane appears in the fog over the Atlantic, shepherding him toward an abandoned military airport. Alan’s reading captures every nuance of the story’s crisp writing. Even after listening to this story year-after-year on frosty, Christmas Eves, goose bumps shiver my spine.

The impact of this Christmas Eve ritual, I realize, had a lot to do with driving ‘home’ for Christmas. There’s something about being enclosed in a cold vessel of metal on the icy prairies, puffs of snow drifting over the highway, that crystalizes the chilling mystery of “The Shepherd.”

When we started having Christmas in our own ‘home’ in Calgary in the late ‘80s, then in Vancouver in the late ‘90s after Clare was born, and then flying to Saskatchewan if we went for the holidays in the ‘00s, the raft of listening to “The Shepherd” on Christmas Eve drifted.

Several years ago, alone in our living room, Magellan and I listened to “Fireside Al” reading this powerful story. Instantly, the doorway to Christmases past flooded open.

Back to the days before the years of Alan Maitland reading “The Shepherd” began. To the first year we drove back to Saskatchewan for Christmas, 1970. I had swaddled Lynn, not yet a year old, in blankets, snugged her head in a woollen toque and secured her in the bassinet of her baby carriage in the back seat with only her little nose exposed to the drafty interior of our 1955 Dodge for the eight-hour drive.

The highway home for Christmas past in Saskatchewan (Photo: Government of Canada Weather Bureau)

To that same drive in the early ‘80s when the temperature dipped so low outside (and frightfully low inside our diesel car) that afraid it would freeze up entirely, we stopped halfway and booked into a motel. When the three of us awoke on December 24, the car had frozen up. The tires were rigid squares and the motor was dead silent, despite being plugged in all night. Magellan had it hauled into a garage where the mechanics built a fire under our car to heat the diesel. It was Alan’s voice reading “The Shepherd” that warmed us on the final stretch into Saskatoon that Christmas Eve night.

The last time we heard “The Shepherd” on a Christmas Eve drive to Saskatchewan was in the ‘90s when Magellan and I got lost trying to find the cabin my family had rented at Turtle Lake. We missed dinner, but the silver lining was getting to listen to “The Shepherd.”

“Ritual is time cut out of time,” Jeanette writes. “Done right it has profound psychological effects.”

Yes Jeanette, it does.

I’m going to rebuild this ritual. Next Saturday on Christmas Eve, we’ll sit down at 7:30, the traditional cross-Canada airing time of “The Shepherd,” and listen to Fireside Al. Jubilado style. We’ll turn on the gas fireplace in our living room, pour an old-fashioned drink and listen, quietly travelling back in time to the years when this story defined Christmas Eve.

Barbara Frum and Alan Maitland, the beloved duo of “As It Happens” (Photo: CBC)


Food and Wine magazine’s December 2016 issue is where I found the recipe for hausfreunde cookies.

Forsyth, Frederick. “The Shepherd.” CBC has a recording of Alan Maitland reading this classic, Christmas Eve story here.

Winterson, Jeanette. “Family Christmas.” The Guardian. November 2016. An excerpt from Jeanette’s book Christmas Days appears here.

20 Responses

  1. Thank you for another transportive post. I grew up in Winnipeg and your description of long distance driving in the bitter cold takes me back…in a warm way. It was interesting that you mentioned Jeanette Winterson. She had completely fallen off my radar screen, now I must pick up her new book. “Written on the Body” one of her earlier books, is one of my favourite reads.

  2. Ah yes “Christmas”, a time for memories and best of all, a time to see the eyes of the little ones, may their smiles grace our lives well into the future.

    Awesome story that has awakened “The Spirit” in us all, regardless of your nationality or religious beliefs, celebrating your Canadian Heritage is paramount in uniting us all.

    “Our Best to Everyone and their families, be Safe”. Believe.☃

    Ho Ho Ho ☃

  3. Merry Christmas Spice and Magellan

    Your blog made me stop and remember rituals from the past with my parents and grandparents. I too love our rituals in Vancouver.

    Enjoyed listening to “The Shepard”.

    Thank you.

  4. I remember your frozen faces that Christmas driving in your diesel. I think my most vivid traditions were celebrating Xmas dinner at Grandma Danchuk’s …..not the presents but the meal and family.
    And One special Christmas morning when we three elder sisters received gorgeous dresses from Grandpa MacLeod. I still have visions of them.
    I listened to “the Shepherd” . It’s been ages since I’ve listened to an audiobook. Mom would like that.
    We’re still practicing the Norweigan Xmas eve tradition of lutefisk , lefse and apple pie. Not sure how many more years as verns mom is 99. Maybe Kamlyn will continue with it!

    1. Yes, 30 people for a sit-down dinner at Grandma’s with turkey, ham, cabbage rolls, salads, pies, cookies, Grandpa Danchuk pouring vodka in the dining room, Grandpa MacLeod smoking his pipe in the living room away from the hubbub…And those dresses. I have the same vivid memory. Mine was a grey wool printed with little flowers, black bead buttons to the waist and a little white collar. And yours as I recall was more of a party dress, navy with white dots and a ruffled white collar? A quote from Sue that I will pass on about rituals: “our ability to see greatness in small things.”

    2. Ah the familiar memories of family gatherings of the past. They all seem to change (the traditions, not the memories) once the family dynamics change. We find ourselves in a hotel room stranded by bad roads on a road trip to Edmonton for Christmas. Every year I am flooded with memories. May you all have a great Christmas season, as for me it is more than the day. I still like the ritual of the cards, remembering my Mom having the Christmas cards taped to the door…each day awaiting news from far and away. Love it! hanks for sharing, and hoping to see some of the MacLeod clan this Christmas. Cheers, wherever you may be.

  5. What’s old again in new again! Seems to be happening a lot as we age… XOO Merry Christmas from across the street!!

  6. “The Shepherd”, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, and “The Sons of Knute’s Christmas Dance and Dinner” by Garrison Keeler are some of my perennial favourites.

    Hardly any snow for Christmas here in Saskatoon this year.

    A great time to relax and reflect with the people most dear..

    Merry Christmas to you and Kerry and your family. We’ll try to stay warm here while you at home ther will try to stay dry..

  7. Thank you for sharing snapshots of your family’s Christmases past and present.
    So can feel your chilly journeys over iced Saskatchewan roads

    1. I can still feel the silence of Christmas Eves on the road, engine humming, tires biting the black ice, the occasional puff of wind blowing snow across the highway. Thank goodness for the radio.

    1. TY Ed. On the subject of rituals, a friend sent this quote yesterday: “The human soul can always use a new tradition.” (Pat Conroy) Best of the season’s rituals—old and new in Kimberley—to you and Vic.

    1. I think a tradition somewhat unique to our family was cooking the turkey on a Weber charcoal bbq, even if it was 40 below with a bit of wind. For each of us that tradition continues, but now over gas.

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