“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Guardian) made me pause and think about how the rafts we’ve built over the years have gotten flimsy, floated away or been replaced by changing structures.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.
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.
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.