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Stories of hard Christmases past

Manitobans reflect on holiday isolation, illness and strained finances, and how they look at these experiences

This year, many face a grim Christmas. Some have lost loved ones, others have lost jobs. Some are struggling with isolation and look ahead at the holidays with dread knowing they’ll spend it without family.

In the face of a very ‘2020’ Christmas, five Manitobans reflected on a hard Christmas of their past and how they view that holiday now.

It could be Jell-O

Alex McGilvery is a writer and former Manitoban living in B.C.
photo: Courtesy Alex McGilvery

“I remember waking up sick and thinking it wasn’t fair,” said Alex McGilvery, a writer and former Manitoba resident now living in B.C, reflecting on a childhood Christmas.

“I couldn’t keep anything but stale ginger ale down. Opening Christmas presents isn’t much fun when you’re hugging a bucket.”

McGilvery’s mom made him sleep most of Christmas Day. When she woke him for supper, he had visions of turkey, gravy and a lot of dessert. What he got instead was a bowl of red and green jello cubes. Those stayed down, anyway.

The next day he was finally able to enjoy his sweets.

He wasn’t particularly grateful for the Jell-O then. Now he realizes his mom was going out of her way to make him part of the Christmas celebration, said McGilvery.

Today “it could be Jell-O” remains a touchstone when “turkzilla, broken ovens and other Christmas disasters” loom.

“It will get me through this year too,” said McGilvery.

Christmas at McDonald’s

Cassidy Allison is an advocate and teacher on mental disabilities and queer identity living in Winnipeg.
photo: Courtesy Cassidy Allison

Cassidy Allison recalls the Christmas after she’d lost her home. She was couch-surfing at her grandma’s one-bedroom apartment while trying to find housing on a disability budget.

Allison lives in Winnipeg and does advocacy work in the areas of mental disabilities and queer identity.

She was estranged from her immediate family at the time and since they’d be at the family gathering to which her grandma was going, she refused to attend.

“I remember on the day itself I was determined to make something positive of the situation,” said Allison.

She dressed festively, packed some baked goods and table decorations, and had her grandma drop her off at a McDonald’s so she could use the Wi-Fi and keep in contact with friends online.

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“My baked goods and holiday spirit were at odds with the typical person who would enter a McDonald’s on the holiday,” said Allison. She chatted with friends online, all the while hoping one might offer to come get her and let her spend the day with them.

Finally, a verbally abusive patron brought down her veneer of good spirits, and she experienced a full-blown anxiety attack.

In hindsight, Allison says she wishes she’d been more direct in asking her friends for help and had not tried to force herself to be happy.

“I think being determined to always have it be this perfect joyful thing can only bring people pain,” she said. “The holidays in this season are varied in nature but at the heart of all of them is people being there for each other in the coldest and darkest time of the year.”

This year, Allison plans to have a friend sleep over on Christmas Eve (her “one person” as per restrictions) and to spend Christmas day playing video games and eating treats. She’s also doing her best to organize a virtual family get-together.

Laundry for Christmas

A necklace made of amber and mammoth tusk which Eleana Unrau counts as one of her most memorable Christmas gifts.
photo: Eleana Unrau

As a youngster, Eleana Unrau’s family didn’t have much money for gifts. This led them to get creative about Christmas presents.

Unrau, a health-care worker living near Steinbach, recalls how she — then aged 10 — and her brothers used said creativity to play a Christmas joke on their parents.

“We were always early risers,” said Unrau. “Being Christmas I know we would have been up extra early.”

Their parents were still in bed, and as she looked around she had a brainwave. They lugged out the overflowing laundry hamper and stuffed it all into a big box, which they then wrapped.

“I remember bringing it into my parents’ bedroom and my mom being so surprised at this big gift as we wished her a Merry Christmas,” Unrau said. “When she opened it and saw all the dirty laundry, there was so much laughter.”

One of Unrau’s most memorable gifts came at age 14 when she helped a Lithuanian couple at their art booth at a mall. They did not speak English, but Unrau spoke some German so she was able to translate for them.

One item they had for sale was a necklace and pendant made of amber (complete with a bug inside) and a piece of mammoth tusk. She told her parents how much she liked it.

That Christmas, she could not believe her eyes when she unwrapped the necklace.

“My parents had spent money that they didn’t have and had decided that that’s what they would buy me for Christmas that year,” she said.

“One thing I learned about having modest gifts and Christmas surrounded by the knowledge of Christ and his gift of salvation was to cherish the things I had and take care of them,” she said. “We live in a world where everything is disposable. And I always valued each and every thing my parents gave us.”

Christmas in the ER

DeAnna Goertzen and baby Annie.
photo: DeAnna Goertzen

In the two days leading up to Christmas, DeAnna Goertzen’s kids all began to develop fevers and cold symptoms.

Goertzen, who works as a stay-at-home mom near Steinbach, hadn’t slept much by Christmas morning. She got up early to make a big Christmas breakfast — ham, fruit, casseroles and special breads. The kids were feverish and coughing when they got up, but were smiling nonetheless.

The kids, in matching flannel pyjamas, opened gifts. With some Tylenol to keep fevers at bay, they had a pleasant morning. However, Goertzen spent most of the day holding her sick baby. She suspected an ear infection.

As the day went on, the kids were only getting sicker. When evening came, DeAnna told her husband Thomas it was time to take them to the ER.

With the kids still in matching PJs, they arrived at the Steinbach ER where the doctor gave them medication for ear infections.

“The fresh air seemed to help revive our kids because by the time we picked up our meds at the pharmacy and got home they all seemed to be improving,” said Goertzen. “Or maybe they just liked the adventure of going to the hospital on Christmas Day.”

She added it was the quickest trip to the ER she’s ever had.

“I remember looking at all our sick kids that evening and (being) so proud of how content and thankful they were even though they were very sick,” she said.

This Christmas, Goertzen says she intends to keep focused on her faith and on helping others.

“We know because of COVID there are many people in need and even gift shopping is hard, so we are planning to have the kids give away some of their own items, whether it’s to donation centres or regifting to friends.”

All the sweets you want… and no stomach for them

Violet and Larry Moore visit their granddaughter during a socially distant first birthday party.
photo: Courtesy Violet Moore

Young Violet Moore had a toothache. Her brother Bob had a stomach bug. As their family prepared to leave for Grandpa and Grandma’s house, their mom told them it was probably best they stay home.

“You can eat all the candy and cookies that you want to,” Moore recalled her mother saying.

Moore is retired and lives with husband Larry in Steinbach.

Dad added that since they’d be home anyway, they could take care of chores — though the family would be home in time for milking.

Moore remembers looking longingly at the sweets, but realizing that snacking would just make her toothache worse. She dabbed some ‘Wonder Oil’ on her tooth, hoping it would make it feel better, and opted to visualize eating all those goodies.

The siblings went out to the barn late that afternoon and forked hay down from the loft for the animals. When they returned to the house, Bob curled up on the floor with a pillow for his stomach and Violet lay down to rest her aching head — she dabbed a bit more Wonder Oil on the tooth just in case.

Years later, Moore says she doesn’t remember much of the disappointment of missing Christmas at her grandparents’ house.

“I remember most fondly — my mom’s loving heart always wanted to give us ‘the world,’” said Moore. “Her generosity with what she had — as well as imagining what she had, was a gift to us. And a great example to follow!”

Moore said this Christmas, her children can’t be with her in person so they’re planning a video chat where they’ll play a dice game.

“Toronto and Oklahoma can join us locally, all at the same time,” Moore said.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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