Gifts money can’t buy

It took my dad far too long to set up his B&H movie camera and light rack, before allowing us near the Christmas tree.

It was a time before cell-phone selfies and video. Heck, it was even before video. Each Dec. 15 morning, our parents wouldn’t allow us into the living room where the tree sat until the time was right. My sister and I had to wait until Dad wound up his Bell & Howell movie camera, and turned on the powerful electrical lights so that the camera would register an image on his 8-millimetre motion picture film.

“OK, I’m rolling,” he would say finally. “You can come in now!”

Whereupon, my sister Kate and I, blinded by the movie lights and unable to see a thing until our eyes adjusted to the bright lights, would stumble into the living room. Of course, with no audio on the developed film, one could only make out by reading our lips that we were saying, “Wow!” or “Look at that!”

Among my favourite Christmas gifts, a manual typewriter much like this one on which Dad composed HIS Barris Beat columns.

I remember many other more tangible gifts bestowed upon me from years past – gifts that left indelible impressions – such as my first box radio, my first set of hockey skates, socks and pants, my first writing desk and my first Underwood manual typewriter.

Another Christmas gift I’ll never forget was the holiday trip my family made to Mexico in 1961. My parents had scrimped and saved for years to get the four or us on a plane to see the extraordinary sights of Mexico City, as well as the Mesoamerican pyramids, Xochimilco (the floating gardens), Chapultepec Castle, and, when we actually got to a Pacific Ocean beach, the Quebrada divers at El Mirador Hotel in Acapulco. Of course, they weren’t nearly the tourist attractions back then that they are today. But somehow my sister and I felt we were privileged to be cheating winter as tourists on a Christmas escape.

Among my favourite holiday time memories are associated with the CBC. Of course, on the closest weekday to Christmas Eve, there’s “As It Happens” airing of Frederick Forsyth’s short story “The Shepherd.”

Even more delicious were Judy Maddren’s invitations to participate in the reading of “A Christmas Carol” at churches all over the country to raise money for local charities. I think I did a dozen appearances with other CBC personalities back in the 1990s. Nothing got me in the Christmas spirit quicker than those performances before audiences in Uxbridge, Stouffville or Thunder Bay.

Entrance to Wainwright, Alta., but this is a summertime welcoming sign.

But if I were to choose one gift above all the others, it would be the one my wife Jayne and I received on a chilly Christmas Eve in the 1980s. She and I were on the road from Edmonton to Saskatoon to be with family. The night was crisp and clear. The temperature was down around minus 30. And we had about reached the halfway point in our drive, at Wainwright, near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. We stopped for a late dinner at one of the few restaurants still open in town that Dec. 24 night. I think we were the last customers of the night.

“Merry Christmas,” the restaurateur said to us as we exited, “and safe trip,” as he locked the door behind us, turned out the restaurant lights, just as I looked down at the trunk of the car resting unusually low to the ground. I realized it wasn’t the load of presents and suitcases in the trunk that made the car sit so low. A rear tire was flat. I swore, a most inappropriate thing to do on Christmas Eve. But suddenly the lights in the restaurant came back on. Our former host emerged bundled in his coat and scarf.

“Flat tire?” he asked.

“Yes. And I don’t have a spare,” I added.

Within a few minutes the man had invited Jayne and our two young daughters back into the restaurant out of the cold. Meanwhile, my good Samaritan, a man from Lebanon, was on the phone to the only gas station in town. It had closed hours ago, but somehow he persuaded the owner to repair our flat.

We emptied the trunk of the gifts (and hid them somewhere), while we jacked up the car and removed the frozen flat. He then drove me to the garage, and waited until the station owner had repaired the flat. He drove me back, helped me bolt on the repaired tire. We repacked the trunk.

And for a second time, the restaurateur wished me, “Merry Christmas.”

Every year, I go to the country and retrieve our own tree.

I offered to pay him for his trouble. But all he asked was that I pass on the favour some other time. I think I have on several occasions, and I’ve always thought of him whenever I did. Brighter than my father’s Christmas movie lights, more meaningful than any one material gift I’ve ever unwrapped, or even the Christmas tree I bring in from the country each year, that one random act of kindness returns to me each and every Christmas.

From my family to you and yours – the best of the season!

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