Who’s in the Red Velvet Suit?
I usually write about Parkinson’s and gardening in the context of my own life, past, present and what I think is the future. When you have Parkinson’s it is easy to forget that there was a time when your cares were, in most ways, less weighty. We should not let those times disappear from our memory banks. What follows is a story that I have often thought about while I am in the garden, or when I wish to push Parkinson’s to the background. While not obvious, it is a story that provides me with the mental nourishment I need to meet the challenges ahead. But mostly, it is a story about Christmas and a place I know. I hope you enjoy it.
Have a very Merry Christmas! Very Best Wishes to you, your loved ones and your community for safe and Happy Holidays!
The Red Velvet Suit
From the moment he burst through the doors into the steamy, smoke – filled hall, [hard to believe but they smoked everywhere in the 1950s] the game was on. Who was he? We had only about 12 minutes to make a positive identification before he disappeared out those same doors trailing his merriment into the frosty, snow-covered landscape of a typical Manitoba winter night. Crisp and clear – with a just hint of barley made into beer wafting from the local hotel two doors up the street.
The game was an informal one devised and perpetuated by children between the ages of 8 and 11; children who were pretty certain that Santa Claus was not real but who were nonetheless not quite ready to jettison a belief in Santa because their imaginations had not yet been sullied by adult thoughts and reasoning. These children still harbored private thoughts that there just might be a Santa and, if there was, they did not want to be caught amongst the disbelievers. Still, they played the game: who was behind the bushy white beard, the twinkling eyes, the big round voice matching the big round tummy, inside the red velvet suit with the white fur trim? The goal was quite simple: expose Santa as a fraud by making a positive identification of the imposter. In retrospect, I am not certain why the heck we would want to do that, but such is the way of the world. If it exists, we strive to expose its most fundamental elements for all to see, breaking down the mysteries.
The community hall was crammed to the rafters. Even the balcony (sometimes referred to as the “Choir Loft”) over the entrance was stuffed to overflowing. Most chairs had people’s bums in them already and those that didn’t had hats, scarves, or programs placed in such a manner as to reserve the seat for someone who was still making their way through the snow bank lined streets after finishing some urgent last minute task. The time was circa 1955 – 1960. The immediate “town” was really a hamlet at best but no one ever referred to it as such. The town was Altamont and the population was 120 people and five dogs with an equal number of cats. I know the population figure because my dad and I sat one evening when I was quite young and counted each person who lived within the official confines of the town limits.
But, as we know, the definition of “community” does not necessarily correspond to geographical boundaries as determined by government officials and cartographers. Families who lived on farms and in areas that were more rural than Altamont (hard to imagine) also formed an integral part of an ever-shifting community. The political boundaries of the school district were important in this determination and changed with many amalgamations over the years. Each amalgamation marked a death knell for some communities and the birth of a few new ones. In any case, at this time, even a radius of seven miles (yes, this was before we went metric) would double the population at least – if one were estimating the number of people who might cram themselves into the community hall or if one were guessing who might be inside the red velvet suit with white fur trim.
[As a side note: this post is not the appropriate place to engage in a discussion or debate about rights for minority schools, whether based on religion or language. These matters really go back to the famous “Manitoba Schools Question” which dominated Manitoba politics from 1870 when the Manitoba Act created the Province and on into the early 1900’s. The importance of this debate continues to this very day and should be required reading and study if one is to understand the development of Manitoba community and culture. I will say no more about it here.]
You have my apologies for that short digression. Regular readers will be used to it and undoubtedly we will take a few other sidetracks as we proceed.
I played the “Guess who is Santa game” along with the rest when I turned of age – that age when children, especially boys, morph from cute inquisitiveness to obnoxious know-it-all, hiding behind a barrage of questions meant to reinforce already formed opinions, without a concern as to whether it was right or wrong. All games have rules, even if the only rule is that there are no rules. The one rule for this game was that you are not permitted to touch Santa in any way.
I suspect that Christmas concerts were integral to the fabric of Altamont as a community however it was defined. As a child, I didn’t pay much attention to the fabric of anything – except if that fabric was part of a sport’s uniform. In particular, I was hockey crazy and was a fan of the Chicago Black Hawks back in the “Original Six” days of the NHL and I recall being greatly disappointed when Santa gave me a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for Christmas one year. I am quite certain this actually happened to me – or maybe I have just internalized The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier as the quintessential trauma of many Canadian boys who grew up despising the Leafs – or maybe this is the reason I despise the Leafs. Kids from the surrounding francophone communities were steadfast fans of the Montreal Canadien and sported the red of les habitants (The Habs.) There was a lot of support for the blue of the Toronto Maple Leafs (although not from me) and a smattering of support for the Detroit Red Wings with their stylized red wing of course.
I do recall that we were unable to afford coordinated team uniforms on the first teams for which I played. We were forced to take to the ice as a rag tag bunch with sweaters from various teams. The reds of the Habs, the Black Hawks and the Red Wings more or less defined what could be called a team. I stood out like a sore thumb with my blue Leafs sweater but thankfully a few of the other kids had hand-me-down sweaters of non-NHL teams from older brothers who played for teams in other communities. In the end we were predominately red with a smattering of green and orange and, of course, I had the blue Leafs sweater. We identified our team as being anyone with a colour that wasn’t the colour of the opposing team whose sweaters were generally provided courtesy of a local community organization.
Of course, we had no idea that we were a rag tag bunch. In order to ice a team of nine players we recruited from farm families and communities such as St. Lupicin and Deerwood. Not only were we small in numbers, we often were also small in size as some of our players were younger brothers or friends far below the age category we were playing in. We wouldn’t have been able to field a team otherwise.
Our coaches, (I’ll call them Winston and Leon because those are their real names,) were both farmers living outside the strict geographical boundaries of Altamont but who were nonetheless selfless in their long-standing commitment to coach us through the various age groupings. I still remember their calm demeanour and patience as we took every aspect of the game, and every development within the game, as being the most important thing that had ever happened to us. We hit the ice with the enthusiasm of an NHL team and we played every game as if it were the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. It was competitive. We played to win, as did every other team. This was not a league where they did not keep track of the score. Even in games of shinny each kid silently kept track of the score, until at last, with our mothers and fathers hollering at us to come off the ice for dinner, someone would shout, “Next goal wins” and the real battle was on.
I do know that the kids (and adults) from the other towns would laugh when our small contingent of seemingly unlikely hockey players would take to the ice wearing our collection of mismatched, mostly hand me down, hockey jerseys. But I also know that our uniforms were all that they could laugh at because we most often defeated them on the ice, sometimes handily, even though their communities were much larger than ours. Eventually, we did get uniforms but that is a story for another day when I address the good ol’days (and the not so good ol’days) of my hockey career in a future blog about hockey and small towns.
My apologies, but I always get carried away when I talk about hockey (and gardening), so I must return to the topic at hand – the annual Christmas Concert. The “Holiday Concert” had not yet arrived on the scene and, to my knowledge, there were no non-Christians living in my community. Christmas it was and the concert was the product of the collective effort of the teaching staff and the pupils of the Altamont School, grades 1 – 12. Yes, a four room school. The first room held Grades 1 -3. The second room had grades 4 – 6. The third room grades 7-9, and the fourth room had grades 10 – 12. The number of students per room was inversely proportional to grade level. Many years, there were no students in grade 12. The good ol’school days will also be a topic of a future blog so they are given short shrift here. I mention them now only as a reminder that the teachers hired were under considerable pressure to make their pupils, the children of the community, look good in whatever performance they appeared, no matter how difficult or inept these children were in real life – on any dimension you can imagine.
The teachers were generally not from the community i.e., they did not grow up there so they had no knowledge as to the particular weave of the community fabric. Inevitably, this led not to “great” performances, but “safe” performances. Best to stick to the tried and true, and not venture into the unknown. The obligatory “pageant” was performed primarily by the lower grades with a few upper students covering off the adult roles of Joseph and Mary (virginal or not), the Innkeeper, etc. There was the odd occasion where animals were introduced into the performance, usually someone’s dog and ended unsuccessfully with the owner scrambling to keep the dog from eating the gifts of the Magi. Who knew that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were so tasty? And it always looked a little weird when one of the Magi (or worse yet, Joseph) repeatedly had to swat the dog’s nose away from his crotch. Dogs are funny that way.
On one occasion, I recall Mr. T. being convinced that we would be able to pull the pageant off with some stellar narration from yours truly – what with my mellow 12-year-old tones and all. We rehearsed it a few times but there were concerns that I could not be heard from the back of the hall. Projection I have learned is key to a career in the theatre. One of my friends volunteered that they had a “sound system,” which would solve this problem. So, we tried it. Yes, that seemed to be just the ticket, as they say, and a speaker was placed in the balcony at the opposite end of the hall from the stage. As a last minute instruction, Mr. T. directed me to hold the microphone close to my mouth so that those in the front seats do not hear my voice from the front, in addition to my slightly delayed voice from the rear of the hall. Who knew that our small community hall would have the same acoustic issues as Yankee Stadium when the national anthem is sung?
I was situated stage right in full view of the audience, and I began my narration, the microphone held as close to my mouth as possible without it sounding like Darth Vader (who wasn’t invented yet) or a creepy obscene telephone caller (who was invented then and flourished because it was before caller ID.) The pageant was a particularly long one by pageant standards and we were pushing the attention span tolerance limits even without any added complications. But complications there were. Someone (I swear it was not my responsibility) failed to switch on the toggle that activated the amplifier at the back of the hall. I wondered why the audience in the far reaches seemed restless and disengaged, not giving this serious subject matter the attention to which it surely was due. As well, the audience in the front rows seemed a little irritated and there was much talking and eye rolling. But like a trooper in the spirit of the theatre I soldiered on, finally reaching the end at which there was thunderous applause signaling a collective “Thank God, that’s over!”
It was only later, but before the end of the concert, that I learned that the amplifier had not worked. The audience at the back could not hear a word I was saying. Those at the front could only hear “mumble, mumble” as I spoke. If you fast-forward some 55 years to the present day, I routinely hear the following words from my wife, Anne, “Good Lord man, stop mumbling through your beard. I can’t hear a word you are saying!” To which I, just as routinely, reply, “If you weren’t so deaf, you would hear me just fine!” But in my head I hear, “If you had a hearing aid, you would hear me just fine … but you probably wouldn’t turn the damn amplifier on!”
Choirs were always thought to be a safe bet for a concert so many grades sang a variety of Carols and Christmas songs ignoring the fact that choirs are generally a vehicle to blend many voices into one beautiful vocal instrument – and not a vehicle to highlight a beautiful voice at the expense of one voice, or several voices, whose efforts brought cringes before they were rewarded with polite applause from the ever understanding audience of parents and grandparents. Of course, classmates are rarely so polite and poor performances often form part of the schoolyard banter for years in the future. “He sounded like Stubby the cat when ol’ Wacker backed over his tail.” Or worse yet, and this was well before the Vanilla Ice scandal, “do you know that Ms. B. told him to lip sync the words?” If this applied to you, you undoubtedly are carrying the scars to this very day. I know I am. Such singing misadventures were brought into even sharper relief when the very fine Altamont Choir conducted by the talented Ms. Belva (not the Ms. B. above) would favour concert goers with a few old standards like “Little Drummer Boy” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” performed just before a blast of frigid air announced Santa’s presence in the hall. Needless to say, I was not in that choir, lip syncing or not.
Comedy was another option but there were so many things to avoid. Drunken Santas are never a good idea – likely to invoke a few images of the town drunk or perhaps drunks (c’mon, every town had at least one,) who sometimes adopted the persona of Santa (irrespective of the time of year) in their more lugubrious moments. I personally have seen what I believe to be the tracks of Santa’s sleigh in the fresh snow on Christmas morning leading directly from the local watering hole and ending abruptly at the first telephone pole, located ironically in front of the community hall where just hours earlier Santa had thrilled everyone in the village with his appearance. It is not widely known but Santa’s sleigh can magically transform itself into many things (Santa was on top of transformer technology) and one local village vehicle sported a rather nasty dent in the front fender and hood for years. It was never repaired to my knowledge. But I have no firm proof that said vehicle was once Santa’s sleigh.
A scene from a lighthearted play was sometimes tolerated even though it inevitably led to cases of overacting – [loudly: “who is that knocking at the door?” Followed by a loud “Knock Knock”.] Or underacting when the darling little six year old would look out into the audience like a deer caught in the headlights and realizing she couldn’t find her mother, would start crying. This would in turn generate some over-reacting by the mother in an attempt to salvage the moment. If this were a boy, he would make up for his momentary acting faux pas not by crying but by throwing around a few items from the set before exiting stage gauche, so to speak. And finally, words to live by, never rely on a dog not to pee.
But back to the case at hand. Who was that in the red velvet suit? From the moment Santa burst through those doors, he was under scrutiny. Did he have glasses? Of course he did. Everyone knows Santa has glasses – those little round kind or maybe the little square kind. Did Santa have boots? Of course, he did, he’s Santa. But wait. Those boots were often not the typical big black Santa boots. Sometimes they were black but they were those four-buckle kind, overshoes, the ones you coveted as a kid because you could leave the four buckles undone and walk around with the buckles flopping, making a buckley-metallic kind of noise until they wore out and the buckles fell off, always leaving each boot with a different number of buckles, but never just one. It was acknowledged that Santa just might wear such boots in our community. But could we determine who was in the suit from this footwear? There were many men in the immediate environs who had never grown up to the point of properly buckling their boots before they ventured outside. If they were only half – grown up, they buckled only the bottom two buckles and not the top two. But it proves nothing about who was in the red velvet suit unless you can make a positive identification. It would not be possible from this evidence.
Sometimes the boots were brown with a single strap – much like a watchstrap – to fasten at the top. This narrowed the possibilities considerably as fewer men wore that style. These men tended to be more practical, or cheap as these boots cost less – well maybe practical and cheap are the same thing in this case. Much to my chagrin this was the style of boot that I was forced to wear all of my youth, until I could afford to buy my own four buckle boots – so that I could jangle around losing my buckles – for about a year when they too went out of style.
Of course, there were toe rubbers. Wait! I apologize. I am just joshing you. Santa would never wear toe rubbers! Not then! Not now! No more shall be said about this digression.
What if the person in the red suit was … gasp … a woman? What if she is really Saint Nicola, Kristen Kringle, Mère Noelle, Old Woman Christmas, Grandmother Frost, or Mother Christmas? Well, you get the idea. There were a few occasions when the names of some ladies in town were mentioned as being a possibility to be the one who “manned” the red suit. Some had the little round glasses. For some their voices had that husky and jolly quality, either from being at the North Pole a lot or from hanging around in smoky bars. To say that there were several women in the broader reaches of the Greater Altamont Area (the GAA) who might carry themselves with the same stature and comportment as Santa would be uncharitable, so I will only say that many women were more matronly, or more muscular and big boned. Still, in those days, I could not imagine any woman in the GAA who could do justice to the high black boots with the white fur trim around the top in the same way that the real Santa does. If Santa was really a “she,” it should make our task much easier as it increased the probability that we could make a positive identification in spite of the fact that it increased the population of the pool from which we had to choose. Surely we would be able to spot a woman in the red velvet suit, wouldn’t we? The very thought that Santa could be a woman was, I think, just too radical for our young minds in the late 1950s. We could never envisage Mrs. Cleaver as Santa in the Leave it to Beaver culture we lived in. There was no strong female role model in My Three Sons, while Lassie and My Friend Flicka did not inspire our hopes for the ascendance of any humans, male or female, to the exalted position of Santa. And, just when Donna Reed and Shelley Fabares were sexing up the TV listings, surely I would have noticed if the boots became a bit more feminine and were … say … no longer black? If queried on this opinion today, I may feel differently. But it is not today with which we are concerned. Who was in the red velvet suit in those formative years of my life?
To recap, we unconsciously, if not consciously, relegated the idea that Santa was a woman to the scrap heap of impossible ideas. Hey look, I am just sayin’ that the 1950s were that way.
There was always such a mad crush around Santa when he arrived, and his movements were unpredictable. Many times he entered through the main doors but sometimes he entered through the kitchen behind the stage where, it was understandable, he was provided refreshment after his long trip from the North Pole. Other times, he sneaked in the opposite side of the hall behind the giant Christmas tree. It is widely thought that he lingered behind that tree observing all the children (and some particular adults) in his final determination as to whether they had been naughty or nice. In the case of the adults, naughty and nice sometimes overlapped and the judgment scale could tip either way.
There were always a few helpers (not Elves …. we didn’t really believe in Elves) who handed out little brown paper bags tied with red or green ribbon containing Christmas goodies such as gum drops, licorice all-sorts, humbugs, jaw breakers, life savers, candy canes and butterscotch. Oh there were always a few peanuts, as a kind of filler, but no one counted those as candy and indeed discounted them as being leftovers from Halloween. Invariably a bag would break and the scramble would be on as little ones flung themselves under foot to grab an extra lemon drop.
A path through the crowd magically opened as Santa rolled in on his hearty “Ho Ho Ho” and he stopped only briefly to pat a few of us on our wide-eyed heads, and to look a few of my compatriot non-believers directly in the eye, as a kind of cheerful challenge for them to identify him as being someone other that the real deal, the genuine Santa. Even though we planned to observe everything we possibly could in an attempt to expose this fraudster, the madness of the moment, the craziness of Christmas let loose a wave of pent up thoughts and emotions: Christmas really is almost here. The Concert was Santa’s dress rehearsal for his solo performance on Christmas Eve.
Even when some of the older children (boys in particular) were able to report in after Saint Nick’s departure with some “hard facts” that they had gleaned from those few frenzied flashes of his face as he passed, or the observance of articles of clothing that are perhaps not regulation Santa issue vestments, the cracks began to appear in the case. Those brown boots are just like Georges’ boots,” one boy said. Another said, “yeah, but they didn’t really fit very well so I think they switched boots. Besides he didn’t have an accent.” Another offered that he thought Gordon was in the red velvet suit. This was quickly countered with the fact that Gordon was too short and this Santa had no evidence of an arthritic hip. “Maybe it was the other Gordon,” said the first boy. “No, I saw him going into the hotel only moments before Santa’s arrival in the hall,” called a voice from the back. Frantic now, other suggestions were shouted out. It was Frank. It was Lorne. It was the other Lorne. It was Bert. It was Charlie. It was the other Charlie. No, it was the other, other Charlie. “Well, it was Flo,” one timid younger girl piped up. All eyes turned to her and then rolled in unison as they explained that Santa could not be a woman. Enough said. Each possibility was thrown equally into doubt by contradicting evidence – some from eyewitnesses, some factual differences in appearance or other distinguishing features, some circumstantial.
There is much debate in philosophy about the scientific method and whether we can ever prove anything to be true. It does make for interesting and stimulating reading but it is hardly Christmas story material so I will not engage in a lengthy discourse about it here. Suffice to say that one approach, proposed by philosopher Karl Popper, is that we can only prove something to not be true. For example, even if we have only ever seen white swans, it does not mean that all swans are white. However, if we ever see just one swan that is black, an initial hypothesis that all swans are white is not valid. Similarly, if we say that all Santas are real, we need to find only one Santa that is a fake in order for the first statement to be disproved. Seems easy enough, right? All we had to do was unmask our Santa to disprove the assertion that all Santas are real. Sure, but the catch is that finding one fake Santa does not prove that there is no real Santa. It just means that all Santa’s are not real.
But what was the case with our Santa? Would we ever know if it was the real Santa Claus in the red velvet suit or if it was an imposter? If he (or she) was not the real Santa, we needed a positive identification as to who in our community was masquerading as Old Saint Nick. Now, I doubt that we ever thought of our game in terms of the scientific method, and I am certain that our methodology was greatly flawed, but we were determined, at the very least, to prove that our Santa was not real. That was what the game was all about. But, as Robbie Burns wrote in his poem To a Mouse, in 1786 “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]”
And the awry part started with a fact that distracted us greatly. Santa always left a gift for each of us under the tree –perhaps hidden amongst the branches or deftly tucked around the back barely visible from any angle. The presents were not there before Santa arrived, but were there after Santa left. Clearly, Santa had worked his magic in the few short minutes of confusion and excitement when he was in the hall. Or perhaps, time was momentarily suspended keeping us spellbound as he emptied his great sack of presents.
As I indicated earlier, I was a hockey crazy kid and the only thing I really wanted was a hockey stick. Oh, how I hoped that there would be a stick just like the sticks I fondled and coveted in Herbie’s hardware store. I know that I checked the tree when we first arrived in the hall and there was no evidence of a stick, or anything else for me. I was a bit concerned. It is not that easy to hide a hockey stick and I didn’t think I had been bad. Well, there was that garden incident that I wrote about in a previous post, but surely Santa had gotten past that?
When Santa rushed out of the hall with a great swoosh and disappeared into the crisp dark night, the game of trying to determine who was in the red velvet suit disappeared with him. Everyone’s attentions were now firmly fixed on the tree and the many presents glittering under the Christmas lights. I remember the smell of the branches and my fingers being sticky from pinesap as I searched for my gift. [Not the only time my fingers were sticky I’ll wager.] And there it was, leaning up against the back wall, barely visible through the branches – a Sherwood hockey stick, just like the ones in Herbie’s store, with my name on it. The “L” on the shaft meant that it was a stick for a left-handed shooter, like me, so there was a small curvature of the blade to the right in order to better cradle and control the puck. This was in the days before Bobby Hull and others introduced and perfected the giant curved blades that drastically changed the game, so much so that rules and regulations were introduced to restrict the degree of curvature and allow goaltenders to breath a collective sigh of relief.
But there it was, my stick. I grabbed it without thinking and turned to show my father and mother. The stick had not yet been shortened to its proper length and the butt end was sticking out a long way above the point where I grasped it. In turning, I accidently hit Herbie, the hardware store owner, smack in the face and knocked his little square lens glasses clean off. [Hmm … little square lens glasses? Could it be?] In any case, I think that was my first high sticking penalty. Maybe it serves Herbie right for selling such lethal weapons in his hardware store.
To my knowledge no one was able to identify Santa as anyone other than the jolly old Elf he claimed to be even if we didn’t really believe in Elves. It is a fact of human nature that as we grow older nostalgia grows incrementally stronger, and with nostalgia comes a desire not to break the bonds, the glue, that holds happy memories together. A little known fact is that nostalgia for matters of Christmas begins about age 12, the same age that children begin to profess that they are no longer children. The first great test for those who wish to leave childhood behind is that they must not engage in any activity that would cast any doubt upon Santa’s existence. Whether Santa is real or myth or mirage is no longer of any consequence. The solidification of childhood memories as nostalgia obviates the need for further empirical investigation. Put more bluntly, they don’t care anymore – leaving the game to those who enjoy pursuing the unattainable – preferring instead to revel in memories of Christmas past; the enjoyment of Christmas present; and the anticipation of Christmas future.
As I stick handled my way home that night, my father and mother maintained a respectful distance with my sister Geraldine safely tucked into the sleigh under a tonne of blankets. My youngest sister Colleen existed only as a distant star adding sparkle to the snow and our night. I had nothing on my mind but hockey, and Santa, and the snowflakes glinting under the streetlights, and hockey, and the frost on the snow, and how I wished I had a puck, and Santa, and hockey…. Secure in my world where only Santa would wear the red velvet suit with the white fur trim and black boots. And because he had a funny, one of a kind, uniform, he had to be on my team!
Copyright The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2014