• I thought l would let my assistant Sally share her thoughts of Christmas and what it means to her. At Robert Floris’s office we like to hear what this festive season means to everyone.

    Christmas is often, a season of transformation in ways unexpected.

    My before-and-after Christmas was in 1973. I was ten, my sister, seven and my brother five. I was aware, even though I didn’t quite yet wish to acknowledge it, that Father Christmas was a wonderful fairytale. In public, he resided during December at the Christmas workshop at the Centre Mall in Hamilton. In private, I knew there was a different sort of illusion; that my mother chose, bought and wrapped the stocking presents and then, my father tiptoed into our bedrooms on Christmas Eve and filled up the three stockings with gifts. And yet, I was not quite ready to let go of the illusion. Looking back, as a parent maybe it was deliberate, this testing of the waters? But, on 24 December 1973, I got myself proof positive, and was inadvertently responsible for the worst family Christmas ever.

    My mother’s strategy for the stocking presents was simple and lovingly delivered: different, but equal. We each had a version of the same thing, candies, figurines, a little book, hair barrettes, and clothes for Barbie, gifts appropriate to our interests and our ages nothing too much. Proper presents came later, under the tree.

    I cared only about one type of present. My November birthday had given me the most beautiful dolls’ house. It was not as fancy as those I’d seen in the Eaton’s display; with several floors, mine was a modern house, more modest. But it had a contraption at the back, where a battery was inserted to turn on the lights in every room. And it had a hinged front. But I didn’t have much furniture, not nearly enough, and it was two weeks of saving allowance to buy even the plainest of beds or dining-room chairs. What I wanted most of all was the proper old-fashioned stove for the kitchen, for which I’d been saving up for three weeks already.

    I’d like to think now, through the filter of 42 Decembers, that anxiety was responsible for the deed. Given the demands upon his time, how could Father Christmas possibly know how important it was that I was given certain furnishings and fixtures rather than others, even assuming he was fair and even-handed. If my sister was also given one piece of furniture too, she might not be prepared to swap. A dresser, an ironing board; it wouldn’t matter to her. My sister, Rachel, was already passionate about animals, particularly horses. She would put whatever piece of dolls’ house furniture she got into the middle of her farm that was filling most of the playroom floor. But maybe she wouldn’t want anything I had to offer?

    My siblings and I always opened our stockings together on Christmas morning sitting on our parents’ bed. It wasn’t fun to do it alone, fumbling with tape and paper in the dark of one’s own bedroom. But this time it was imperative I knew what lay in store. If I was to be disappointed, and not get the stove with its perfectly symmetrical cooking rings, polished rail, double doors, I wanted to have time to be disappointed in private. I kept vigil, counting the minutes down. But, lulled by the familiar sounds of the furnace clicking off, the sighs and breaths of the house I fell asleep. When I woke again, all was silent and the stocking was misshapen and full.

    I cannot be sure, now, if I intended to switch the presents all along, but in an old nightgown and bare feet, I left my room with my stocking and took the one from my sister’s bed, then carried them to a corner where the light was less likely to be seen by my parents, if they had awoken. In front of the old wooden book case, I unpacked each into two separate piles. As I’d expected, there were an absolutely equal numbers of presents, although each had a different colour of wrapping paper. This presented a dilemma. If I wished to swap the dolls’ house furniture, and absolutely I did, then I was going to have wrap things up again in the relevant sheet of blue or white wrapping paper. They might not quite fit the original shape or size. I’d like to think I paused. We had three pieces each. I slipped from wishing only to know what was to come, to the idea that it would be all right to redistribute the presents all together, equally and fairly. Since I had thoroughly persuaded myself that my younger sister would prefer sparkling socks, white and red Lego blocks, anything, in fact, other than dolls’ house furniture, I could keep all six pieces for myself. How long did this attack on the spirit of Christmas last? I have little sense of time passing now, even less when I was ten. I ended up with two rearranged stockings; colour coded still, a rearrangement to suit us both.

    I always loved, and do still love Christmas. The morning of 25 December 1973, though, is still lucid. My siblings, excited and not expecting such treachery, didn’t notice the slightly shoddy wrapping, the corners of tape unstuck. But my mother did. As one by one I revealed the dolls’ house pieces, her face seemed to harden slightly. Confusion, surprise, realization, I understood, then; no possibility of misinterpretation or excuse. She knew precisely what present had been put in which stocking. Without a word, my mother left the torn paper and arguments over whether eating a whole chocolate orange before lunch would spoil our appetites, and went to tend the turkey.

    Her dilemma, in hindsight, is obvious. She did not wish to spoil things for my siblings, but she knew what I had done. I cannot remember, now, when the guilt became too much and I cracked and owned up. Nor what happened when I did. I think I was made to give back to my sister the pieces of wooden furniture and glue that should have been hers. In time, they found their way into my dolls’ house. In the way of these things, it has become part of family folklore. The story became bigger in the telling, metamorphosed into “an event”. But the emotion of it remains, the memory of guilt, like a scar.
    And the dolls’ house, it sits, dusty and abandoned like so many other childhood things. The battery-powered lights no longer seem so miraculous, the furniture shoddy. It all seems insignificant as a symbol of a risk taken and a lesson learned on Christmas Day in 1973.

    Robert Floris is an independent mortgage broker with Mortgage Architects in Hamilton Ontario

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