Locals share favourite Christmas tales

Peggy Revell

Christmas began with a story about a child born in a manger. Over the years, however, the season has inspired a wealth of tales of goodwill and wonder that cause young and old to fondly reminisce.
“There’s nothing like good books for Christmas,” said retired teacher and local writer Judy Johanson, who actually has two Christmas favourites­­: “The Christmas Cat” by Isabelle Holland and “A Christmas Guest” by David La Rochelle.
Part of what makes these two stories favourites are that they constantly were read by the many children she worked with in the library during her times as a teacher.
“[‘A Christmas Guest’ is] a beautiful story,” she noted. “The kids always liked that one.
“It’s about a little boy and his mother who are very poor, and this old lady comes to his door at Christmas,” she recounted.
“The boy doesn’t really want to give up his hot chocolate and scarf for this old woman at the door, and he does eventually.
“And then he finds at the end of the story that she’s an angel.”
Meanwhile, “The Christmas Cat” combines both the traditional story of the birth of Jesus with “a really good story” about a cat that goes to Bethlehem, Johanson added.
“Children just love it because it has animals in it,” she said. “It really is a nicely-written story.”
Those who have been to “Storytime” at the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre already may know the favourite Christmas book of children’s librarian Andrea Avis.
Every year, she can be found reading—and more often reciting from memory—Robert Kraus’ book, “The Christmas Cookie Sprinkle Snitcher.”
“It’s fun,” Avis said about why this is her favourite Christmas book.
“I like the idea that the Christmas story is about a community celebrating the spirit of Christmas through cookies,” she explained.
“And the snitcher, he takes the sprinkles not realizing the consequences of this.
“And then he willingly brings them back and has a warm feeling at the end of the story for giving back to the community what they needed to keep that community in the Christmas feeling.”
Some Christmas tales are family traditions passed down through generations.
Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis said his favourite Christmas story is the famous 1823 verse: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“I guess because it’s what my mother used to read to me when I was a young boy as a tradition, we used to go through that,” he remarked, referring to why the poem about St. Nicholas’ visit is his favourite Christmas tale.
It’s a tradition that has “carried forward,” Mayor Avis noted, having read it with his own children. And his grandchildren now are getting to the age where the tradition can be carried on.
It was the starting of a new tradition that made the “Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg a Christmas favourite for local artist Connie Cuthbertson, owner of Northwoods Gallery & Gifts on Scott Street.
“I do absolutely love it,” she enthused of the book that tells one boy’s journey on a train to the North Pole to see Santa which her children had received for Christmas one year.
“It was the edition that actually included the jingle bell with it—but I had taken the jingle bell out of the book,” Cuthbertson recalled.
“So they just followed the story, and I had tucked the bell aside, and then they heard the jingle bell and ‘oh my gosh!’
“They still talk about it,” she added, noting that while the story was not from her own childhood, it made her own girls have “a really great memory of that year.”
“I love the idea of magic and Christmas, and the whole idea of goodwill and happy spirit. It’s really something I strive for year-round,” Cuthbertson stressed, adding the great thing about the season is the ability to create new traditions for the generations to come.
For Heather Campbell, director of education for the Rainy River District School Board, her favourites are both old and new.
“I really like ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ by Dr. Seuss, not only for its creative rhymes but also for the message of how Christmas is so much more than presents,” Campbell said of the holiday classic.
The “new” is the children’s book, “It’s Christmas, David!” by David Shannon, she noted.
“I especially enjoy reading this as it always results in laughs and giggles from my son,” Campbell explained.
Meanwhile, the story of the miserly Scrooge’s transformation into a kind soul in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the seasonal favourite of “Citizen of the Year” Joyce Cunningham, who also chairs the local library board.
“I guess because it reminds us of—and this sounds pedantic—it reminds us of, unfortunately, what we can become but fortunately what we could become,” she explained.
“And I think we need reminders of that frequently, especially during difficult times.”
Nowadays, with television and other forms of technology, Cunningham said we are more aware of how difficult the times can be for so many people—and Christmas is a time when that suffering becomes “so much more difficult for them and the rest of us.”
“But I think more importantly, the story gives us hope as to what can happen, and primarily through the impact and the efforts of individuals,” she added.
For retired Fort High teacher Frank Maraj, it’s not a particular Christmas book that is his favourite—but rather a holiday childhood memory growing up in Trinidad.
As a child, Maraj had travelled to the mountainous countryside of Trinidad to visit his grandparents during “Old Year’s Night” (the equivalent of New Year’s Eve).
“I was at that age, as a little boy, I didn’t differentiate very well,” Maraj said, recalling he repeatedly was told throughout the day that the evening was going to be “real special”—but wasn’t told what was going to happen.
It also was the one night of the year when children were allowed to stay up late, he added.
“This particular night just before midnight, two or three of the neighbours came serenading at the door with something like a banjo or that equivalent of [one],” Maraj recalled.
“It was wonderful.”
The songs had been made up by the guests, he explained, and were carols where the names of all the people present could be included.
“It was such a beautiful piece of music and we, as children, we just marvelled at the singing,” Maraj said, noting his grandfather had invited the neighbours in so they all could sing together.
And “just before the stroke of midnight,” the music came to an end and his grandfather went into the bedroom and brought out his guns, and the others got out their guns and went out into the darkness of the countryside.
“They stood up in line, aimed their guns at the sky, and fired three shots each. It was their way of sending the old year’s night away and welcoming the new year,” said Maraj, adding it marvelled him as a child because he had never seen or heard a gun up to that point in his life.
“I thought it was one of the most beautiful moments of Christmas as a little boy and that has stayed with me since,” he remarked.