It was magical. The snow really did “lay round about, deep and crisp and even”, transforming our neighbourhood into the perfect setting for the perfect Christmas. The snow began to fall on the 23rd and then fell and fell and fell. It was touch and go whether the Toronto Parks would make it from Sun Peaks, but they did, so worry turned to joy as they walked through the door. Breathing a sigh of relief, we snuggled in for the Christmas weekend, enjoying the warmth inside while winter deepened outside.

House 1, Dec 2016

(Oh, how I appreciate a warm house through the ease of natural gas: Turn the thermostat down at night for a cool sleep, and crank it up in the morning for a cozy day. I grew up in a house heated—or not—by wood and coal. The wood in the stove heated the kitchen, albeit with lots of labour: cutting the trees, hauling them home, chopping and stacking the logs into a well-structured woodpile (overseen by Grandpa B in my younger years), and then carrying armloads into the kitchen to keep the home fires burning throughout the day. The coal in the furnace heated the whole house, again with a fair bit of physical labour to shovel the coal into the basement bin and then into the huge, old furnace. But it was the fiscal part that was the most difficult to manage: The expense of coal was a luxury beyond our means, and therefore was used only when it was bitterly cold or when we were celebrating a special occasion.

So I have been cold, really cold. I would start the winter’s day by jumping out of bed and running down to the kitchen to get dressed by the big kitchen stove. I would hang over the stove and yell, “Close the door!” every time someone came in from the yard. I would bundle up with layers of clothes before walking to and from school or doing the endless farm chores, and often come in with numb fingers and toes. A major motivation for me to choose cooking and cleaning as my family responsibility was that they were inside chores, thus letting me escape long hours outside in the cold and wet and misery of many a winter day on the prairies. So fossil fuels are a friend of mine and all Canadians, making our northern country habitable, and it will be decades before renewables can match the availability, reliability and affordability of fossil fuels.)

Back to the story of Christmas at home. The house was dressed in its Christmas finery, adorned with garlands and wreaths inside and out, and a Christmas tree one dreams of: symmetrical, dense, fragrant, Christmas incarnate. Red, green, blue, yellow and white lights twinkled inside and out, adding sparkle to the rooms, the house and the neighbourhood. A tradition I had started in the early 2000s, stringing the big spruce tree in our front yard with lights, is being copied by more and more neighbours, making Scarboro a joyful neighbourhood indeed.

And it wasn’t just the living and dining rooms. The working rooms—that is, the kitchen and bathroom—got a touch of Christmas, too.

But let’s back up so I can tell you about getting it all ready before they walked through the door. And the logical place to start is with the lists:

  • the Christmas gift list
  • the menus for the lunches & dinners during the visit
  • the preparations

The Christmas gift list starts to be filled in a few months before December 25th, usually in September. With the long summer days cooling into crisp fall days, and children dragging their huge backpacks past the front window on their way to school, energy returns and plans start percolating. The list begins with things I’ve already bought in shopping and traveling excursions, things that caught my eye as just right for someone on the list. Then items are added serendipitously, until November when the rest are chosen, bought and wrapped, ready for sending to Geneva in plenty of time for Christmas. Which leaves plenty of time in December for finding the final, often frivolous but pleasing gifts for the people on the Christmas gift list.

(A young colleague asked what I thought about her plan to propose not exchanging gifts in the family this year. “We have so much and don’t need any more stuff, so I think we should make a substantial donation to a charity and dispense with giving gifts to each other.” And I replied, “That is a selfish, value-signaling plan that makes you feel good and family members who disagree feel bad—not exactly the Christmas spirit, eh? And that spirit is made manifest in both the giving and receiving of gifts.” By all means, include a charity on your gift list, but don’t exclude a loved one or friend; they, after all, are the foundation on which your love and generosity are built.)

About four to five days before our guests arrive, I begin the preparations. Why? Because the more I can do beforehand, the more time I have to spend with them. And we usually have quite a few activities planned, so in our busy days, elegant meals still can be served. There’s more to meals than just eating: The family table is the civilizing heart of the family where the young are taught the human graces and in the process learn how to be citizens of a democratic society. For this crucial function, I then ask, why would one not make it as elegant as possible? Elegant, mind you, not stuffy, where conversations of all sorts—from the quotidian to the philosophical and everything in between—are encouraged and free-flowing.

The menus list, then, includes the settings as well as the food: the tablecloths & napkins, the china & cutlery, and the candles & flowers that will be used for each meal. It is hopelessly old-fashioned, I know, but I love seeing the table set with the light glancing off the glassware and china, then seeing everyone around that table eating and talking together, and finally the voluptuous disorder of the table at the end of the meal. I agree it was a bit demanding when the grandchildren were tiny to insist they sit properly at the table and stay there until everyone was finished. But I also think they would agree that it is better to be part of the family and not banished to a children’s table.

Once the menus are decided, the recipes are gathered and the grocery lists made. The next order of business is listing what food needs to be prepared and what beds, etc., need to be made up. Finally, I sort the tasks into the four- or five-day prep calendar, and that brings me to the end of the first day in that calendar. The next day is devoted to grocery shopping, the goal being to have everything on hand to begin the work the following day—a goal I rarely meet so I extravagantly use the backup of my husband running all over town for this item or that. Usually, it takes two solid days of chopping and simmering, stirring and baking for the food prep, with the various sauces and dishes labeled and either refrigerated or frozen until their day to be served.

And that completes the preparation for another family visit and another dual effort for the family affair. The Toronto Parks arrive, the house comes alive, and another memory is built for the Park family archives.

’Til next year…