There was always frost on my grandfather's nose as he undertook the job of building the annual ice rink on the plowed fields behind our house in St. Catharines, Ont.
Every morning and evening, Grandpa and my uncles Ivan and Vern would don three sets of winter clothes and venture out, hoses in hand, to flood the rink.
When they'd finished, the trio came into the house, shaking off the icicles from their clothing and the drips from their noses. It was so cold on those country evenings, you could smell it coming off them.
I never understood what possessed a 75-year-old man with emphysema and diabetes to make this grand gesture for a group of ungrateful kids. My grandpa said my two brothers and their friends had too much energy and they needed the rink to work it off.
Christmas season always began a month or two early, with the three men levelling the soil and building the bones of an NHL-sized rink. Once the temperature dipped to freezing or below, I loved to watch the rainbows of refracted light as the rink masters sprayed the field, and often themselves, in their quest for a perfect ice surface.
By the time we were out of school for the holidays, our rink was filled with neighbourhood boys playing shinny. I didn't realize we had so many neighbours until the rink was built. Suddenly, a gaggle of prepubescent boys would merge onto the surface, jostling each other for the puck and showing off their moves.
The game always ended with a fight, real or imagined, before the horde headed inside for the warm and bitter cocoa my grandmother had brewing on the stove.
When the game was finished, I would don my white skates and trundle around the rink, stepping carefully to avoid the numerous grooves and potholes. There was no Zamboni to smooth the ice, so I was forced to accept a quick turn in the slush before giving up.
It wasn't easy being the only girl. I felt like a second-class citizen. I had to skate on mushy snow and drink the cold sludge left in the cocoa pot. No wonder I never learned to skate well, and no wonder I grew up hating cocoa.
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But I always loved Christmas on the farm. There was so much to do, from making homemade cookies to addressing what seemed like 1,000 Christmas cards.
We had little money back then, so most of the gifts were handmade. I learned to do crafts early and badly, but I was determined that I would have gifts to give everyone. As a result, the tables were littered with irregular doilies and macaroni Santas.
Despite our circumstances, which were sometimes dire, Santa never forgot our house.
There were always one or two special presents under the tree for each of us - a pair of skates and a tabletop hockey game for the boys, and a nice doll and dress for me.
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We never knew that the skates were secondhand, or that the dress might have been a hand-me-down from a prosperous cousin.
Nor did we understand the sacrifices made by my widowed mother, who had no present under the tree for herself.
I don't believe my mother ever got a Christmas gift, other than the macaroni Santa I made at school. I know for a fact she never got a new dress for Christmas.
We may not have had much in terms of possessions, but we had a house full of company, homegrown food in our bellies and, above all, time spent with cherished relatives.
Every Christmas was a good one until the year my grandpa had a stroke. My mother found him and an ambulance was summoned. The next time I saw him, he was in a coffin.
The year after that was pretty awful, too. My grandma passed away a week before Christmas. The holiday season was never the same after that.
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Our financial situation worsened, and my mother and uncles were forced to sell the farm. We moved into an apartment in the city, and our lives changed forever.
But the spirit of Christmas never left us. Our small apartment was filled to the rafters, this time with teenaged friends who treated my mother like their own. There was always food, drink, music and friendship.
I still miss my family, even though they have been gone for many years.
But I remember well the lessons learned on the farm so long ago. I have tried to pass the spirit along to my own three children to help them understand that Christmas is about more than fancy holidays and expensive presents.
The true spirit of Christmas is not about presents at all. It is about presence.
Rose Simpson lives in Ottawa.
Illustration by Steve Adams.
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