10: Our Christmas Eve with Max

10: Our Christmas Eve with Max

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Our Christmas Eve with Max

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.


The year was 1942. Thousands of airmen training in Canada were boarded into private homes, and Max was one of these “aircrafters” who came to our house. He was short, with dark, curly hair and a cheerful smile. His family were Polish immigrants who lived in Sudbury, in Northern Ontario. I was very young, starry-eyed with excitement waiting for Santa to bring me something wonderful, but had to sit quietly as Lorne Greene — The Voice of Doom — read the war news on the radio.

Early on December 24th, Max left for Toronto’s Malton airport to fly home for his Christmas leave. He returned with a long face. Mum was ironing and I was drawing with crayons at the kitchen table. My brother Howard, five years older, sat opposite me, gluing a model Spitfire together.

“Bad luck, Mrs. B,” Max said, shrugging off his blue uniform greatcoat. “A blizzard has closed every airport in the north. Tomorrow I may get out, but…” He sighed. “I’ll eat downtown and go to a movie.” He tried for nonchalance, but only looked forlorn. He was eighteen, and had never before been away from home.

“No,” said Mum, “you’ll stay here with us. There’s more than enough.”

“Are you sure?” He looked cautious but keen, as if a lifeline thrown his way might be snatched back. “I won’t be a bother? I know Christmas Eve dinner is special.”

Mum looked at him. “Our big meal is tomorrow. Is tonight’s dinner special to your family?”

Max nodded. “It’s called Wigilia.”

Mum put the kettle on, a sign for tea and a chat. “Tell us about it, Max.”

His face lit up as he sat at the table. “Well, before dinner, there is Gwiazdka — looking for the first star. An extra place at the table and a lit candle in a window invite any wandering stranger to join us.” He told of other customs and listed a meatless menu of mushroom soup, fish, and strange-sounding foods like pierogi, babka, kartofle, and oplatek.

Max stopped for breath and a cup of tea.

“Oplatek is the bread of love,” he went on, “thin, square wafers stamped with holy figures. We break the wafers with everyone at the table, and wish them health, wealth, and happiness. Then we eat.”

He smiled, drank his tea, and munched shortbread. A soft light glowed in his eyes.

My brother and I had listened, enthralled. “What else do you do?” Howard asked. “After, I mean.”

“Well, we sing carols, and then go to a special mass called Pasterka, or Shepherds’ Mass. That’s when animals can talk.”

“Wow,” Howard breathed. “Did you ever hear any talking?”

Max smiled. “No, and I don’t know anyone who has. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

“Gee, I guess not.”

“Now, Mrs. B,” Max said, rising, “I’ll go out and shovel the sidewalks. We didn’t get much snow, but enough.”

“Thank you, Max,” Mum said.

After Max went out, Mum sat for a moment, then grabbed a pencil and paper and began writing. I went back to my crayons and Howard to his Spitfire. In a few minutes, Mum spoke again.

“Howard, you’re to go downtown to Despond’s Fish store. I’ll give you money and a list. Don’t tell Max where you’re going.”

Howard looked up, holding a tiny wheel with tweezers. “Huh?”

Mum smiled. “We’re going to give Max his Wigilia,” she said. “At least, as best we can. Now bundle up well. A bus will be at the corner in a few minutes.”

After Howard left, I started setting the dining room table. “Mum,” I cried, “there are only five of us. Max said an uneven number was bad luck.”

“Don’t worry, Patsy. I phoned Mrs. Donaldson, and she’s joining us.”

I liked Mrs. Donaldson, who lived three houses up from us. Her hair was almost all white and she wore it in a bun at the back. Mr. Donaldson had died recently, and she was alone. She was coming for Christmas dinner tomorrow, along with all our relatives.

So, in the early dark, Max, beaming with surprised delight, lit a candle in the window. Outside, the wind had dropped. In the clear cobalt sky, one star hung glowing in the West. The beauty of it took my breath away.

“That’s Venus,” Howard said importantly. “Venus is a planet, not a star.”

Dad smiled. “Tonight it’s our Christmas Star.”

Mrs. Donaldson had tears in her eyes. I thought in my young ignorance that the cold caused them.

At the table, we joined hands while Dad said grace. We said amen, and Max made the sign of the cross. For oplatek, Mum had graham wafers; big squares that separated into four smaller squares. Max laughed, and called them perfect.

“Like breaking a wishbone,” said Howard, breaking his wafer with Mrs. Donaldson. “Health, wealth, and happiness, everybody.”

We ate mushroom soup, Despond’s fresh fish fried in butter, pickled herring, boiled potatoes, vegetables, and Mum’s homemade pickles. Dessert was Spanish Cream and fruitcake. For Max, Mum added a compote of plums, raisins, and apples simmered in a syrup of sugar and cinnamon. Everything was delicious, even the pickled herring.

Max started to thank Mum, but she shushed him. “We thank you, Max, for showing us a wonderfully different aspect of Christmas. I’m glad if it reminded you a little of home.”

A strange notion popped into my head. “Max, is your family up in Sudbury eating like this right now?”

“Yes, Patsy, right now.”

“Gosh.” My imagination suddenly broadened, widening far away. “And your relatives in Poland, are they eating too?”

“Well, time is different there, you know, and the Germans have taken Poland over. But, yes, somehow, they will celebrate too.”

I couldn’t speak, for my mind had flooded with images. Max’s people in Ontario and Poland, looking at the same bright star, sitting at a table, saying the same things, singing carols, thinking of Christmas and of absent loved ones.

Why, they were all just like us. Had some of Max’s Polish relatives been forced to flee like the refugees in the newsreels? To me, those scenes had seemed a fantasy, something in a Hollywood movie.

But no, they showed real people, real families. What if Canada was invaded and we had to escape with only what we could carry? How could Mrs. Donaldson manage?

Young as I was, the reality of war had come to me, and I was frightened.

Dad leaned toward me. “Don’t worry, Patsy,” he said. “You’re safe here. Many brave men have gone to fight to keep us safe. Men like Max. Tonight we won’t think of fighting, but about the birth of Jesus. Remember his other name?”

“The Prince of Peace,” I murmured.

“Then that’s what we’ll think of — peace.”

Soon we were all laughing and singing carols. My fear was gone, and I had grown up a little.

Our Christmas Eve dinners became special, more meaningful, and our mother, as I did later, always made some of the dishes we had that night. Our lives changed a bit for the better after our Christmas Eve with Max.

~Patricia Harrison

New Hamburg, Ontario

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