PATRICK MCVAY

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

When I was a kid, I felt ripped off at Christmastime because I didn't get to wake up on December 25th and tear open presents like all my Catholic school friends were doing. Instead, my family was on the road, spending the holiday in Quebec at my grandparents' house.

I loved my grandparents – they were enormously kind people – but limited space in our Country Squire station wagon and evil Canadian border guards who seemed ready to confiscate our belongings meant that only a few small gifts could be brought with us, to be opened by the relatives.

Bear with me, it gets worse.

While my friends had gone to bed early on Christmas Eve without a complaint, knowing that the sooner they fell asleep the sooner Christmas morning would arrive, my early bedtime had no such rainbow on the other side. Instead, I was cruelly roused out of my slumber at 11:30 and made to march with my sisters in the frigid cold to tiny St. Patrick's church, where I tried to stay awake for Father Boudreau's scintillating celebration of midnight mass.

The reward – an all-night "Reveillon" back at my grandparents – with ham sandwiches, sugar pie, and adults drinking and cackling until daylight while we kids played with the Victrola and watched TV – was no substitute for the excitement that my friends experienced of waking up to piles and piles of presents brought by Santa on a sleigh.

I received little sympathy for this unfathomable injustice: several times I was reminded that not only was I not denied gifts, but actually got to open them early, since we always departed for Canada a few days before Christmas and opened our gifts before we left home. Still, all the great stuff I had received – like the electric football table that vibrated to move the plastic statuettes of players across the field – was out of reach hundreds of miles away due to crazy rules that border guards apply to wreck Christmas for kids like I used to be.

My mom, a wise woman who realized the opportunities that these annual pilgrimages presented, soon implemented a new tradition: when it was time to leave for Canada and we were all piled into the car with no handheld devices to stare at – she would declare that she needed to pee, then disappeared for 10 minutes. This awfully long bio-break was simply a ruse to fill our stockings with gifts, such that when we returned from our grandparents' place, we'd discover that Santa hadn't forgotten us after all.

OK, so maybe my childhood wasn't quite so awful. As Christmas night 2022 turns into the day after Christmas, it occurs to me that what we had back then – grandma and grandpa, plenty of good food, and the part where they shake you awake on a cold night to attend a mass that I despised –was magical in its own special way. 

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