65: Christmas on the Prairie

65: Christmas on the Prairie

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Christmas on the Prairie

What do we live for if not to make life less difficult for each other?

~George Elliot

I grew up on a farm and attended a one-room country school. Christmas meant hefting the axe and tramping through knee-deep snow into our woods to pick the best Christmas tree we could find. It meant celebrating at church, putting on Christmas concerts at school, and visiting family or friends. Times were tough, so Christmas did not mean lavish festivities or fancy gifts, but even though our house was small, there was always room for a few more at the table. My mother was adept at tossing more potatoes in the pot and cutting the meat, which was often venison or elk steaks, into smaller portions.

We lived on a road that led to one First Nations reservation if one traveled east, and to another if one went west. The two reservations were several miles apart, but we often had travelers, either single wagons of families or little groups traveling together, pass by our place. Occasionally they stopped to sell smoked fish or other goodies. Truth was, thanks to an older sister who loved to tell her own versions of “Indian lore,” I was afraid of them and always kept well behind a protective parent.

The year I was eight the Christmas season began as usual. We were all looking forward to the school concert. Of course we kids all had parts to memorize and perform, but there would also be neighbourly visits over a potluck lunch, candy treats, and a visit from someone’s father dressed as Santa. We couldn’t wait. We traveled by horses and sleigh, sleigh-bells jingling “all the way.” Snuggled down in the heavy bedding of warm straw covered by blankets, we sang carols and counted falling stars.

On this particular evening we had an unexpected addition to the usual program. A First Nation couple had been making the trek from one reserve to the other and had stopped and pitched their tent in our neighbourhood. I’m not sure who first discovered them, but they were invited to the concert and then joined in as part of the entertainment. They both played guitars, and he sang and chatted comfortably. We were enthralled. A real “Indian” at our concert!

A couple of days later, word came that a bad storm had blown down a tree that ripped a big hole in the couple’s tent. They were friends now, so my mom soon had Dad hitching up the team and going to look for them. It was cold and stormy, and as a child watching my dad go I was more than a little concerned.

Well, Dad found them and brought them home, even as the storm continued, and so we came to have guests for Christmas. The man’s name was Mr. Northwest. The woman was very shy, and I don’t think she spoke much English, but he more than made up for that. He was a wonderful storyteller and could do little tricks, like whistling into his guitar and making it sound like the echo was coming from the ceiling. Dad and Mom gave up their bedroom and shuffled us kids around to make room in our limited space. I suppose some of us slept on the floor — but we were used to that when guests came. Mr. and Mrs. Northwest were with us for a few days until the storm abated, and during that time I lost my fear of Canada’s native people.

When the weather cleared and they were once again able to be on their way, it was with a sense of sadness that we watched them go — trudging off into the whiteness, their packs on their backs. I guess it was one of those wonderful lessons that God teaches when we least expect it. Christmas — my favourite time of the year — was even better when it was shared.

~Janette Oke

Red Deer, Alberta

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