“We live in a Christmas card!”

Kincaid House, Dec. 24, 2017

The historic Kincaid House beside the Manse on Bosley Road, decorated for Christmas and wearing a pretty coat of white.

“We live in a Christmas card!” I exclaimed to Raymond one recent sparkling day as we drove along Queensborough Road, admiring the beauty of the pristine snow that covered the fields and the branches of the evergreens.

Raymond agreed.

Actually where we live is not really the inside of a Christmas card, but the front cover. You know those pretty scenes you see on so many of them, images of a small snow-covered village with church windows aglow, perhaps a skating rink with some children on it, and a cluster of cozy homes lit up for the season? Well, that’s Queensborough at this time of year.

Which is something I’ve said before, but that I think bears repeating, Especially on Christmas Day, when I want to wish you wonderful readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse all the very best of the holidays, and much happiness in the coming year.

And to put you in the mood for that happiness, let me take you on a little Christmas-card tour of Queensborough and area: scenes of Christmas 2017 in our lovely little corner of the world.

First, historic Hazzard’s Corners Church, where a beautiful candlelight service of lessons and carols drew the usual packed house two evenings ago:

Hazzard's Corners Church, Christmas 2017

Hazzard’s Corners Church, looking its best under a dazzling sun and bright-blue sky a few days before Christmas 2017.

And now on to another church – or more precisely, a former church – looking very pretty in the snow:

St. Henry's, Queensborough, Dec. 24, 2017

The former St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church in Queensborough, now a private home.

A scene along the road to Queensborough:

Queensborough Road, Dec. 24, 2017

Coming into Queensborough from the east.

One of the sights Queensborough is most  known for:

Mill and Thompson House, Dec. 24, 2017

The landmark Thompson house and mill at the heart of Queensborough on the Black River.

A piece of the past, happily preserved:

Queensborough and Bosley Roads, Dec. 24, 2017

The former blacksmith’s shop at Queensborough and Bosley roads, Queensborough; street-sign Christmas decorations by the Queensborough Beautification Committee.

The scene from our back yard:

Kincaid House from the back yard, Christmas 2017

Outhouse and barn at the Kincaid House from the back yard of the Manse.

Hey, welcome to Queensborough!

Welcome to Queensborough, Dec. 24, 2017

Welcome to Queensborough!

And welcome to the Christmas Manse!

Welcome Santa, Dec. 24, 2017

Santa bids you welcome at the Manse.

Vintage Santa greets you:

Santa and bird feeder, Dec. 24, 2017

Santa and one of the bird feeders to which chickadees, blue jays, juncos and sparrows flock, much to our delight.

Here’s the Manse (looking its seasonal best, I think) on the day of Christmas Eve 2017:

Manse Dec. 24, 2017

The Manse, Dec. 24, 2017.

And here’s a closeup of one of our Christmas wreaths:

Front-door wreath, Dec. 24, 2017

The wreath on the front door.

And finally, here’s a special Christmas look inside the Manse:

Roscoe under the tree, Christmas 2017

It’s Roscoe the kitten, a little worn out from all the Christmas excitement,  snoozing among the gifts under the Christmas tree!

You’ll note that in this final photo is a DVD of the classic movie version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, starring the incomparable Alistair Sim as Scrooge. It’s one of our traditions here at the Manse to watch it every Christmas, and we did that again last night. As I bid a very happy Christmas to you all, I’ll close this post with the immortal words of Tiny Tim:

“God bless us, every one!”

Christmas cards on display, in traditional Manse fashion

Christmas cards 2016 at the Manse

Some of the beautiful Christmas cards that Raymond and I received this year, on traditional display at the Manse. We had to use three separate door frames to display them all. Thank you, everyone – and Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from all five of us – Raymond and me, plus kitties Honey Bunny, Sadie and Beauregard – at the Manse. (I’m sending out my weekly post a day early so I can say that while it’s still Christmas.) I hope that as I write this, on what is for us a very quiet and pleasant Christmas night, you too are enjoying a quiet and pleasant Christmas night.

Sadie and winter wonderland

Sadie is one of the three Manse cats who join Raymond and me in wishing you a happy Christmas season.

And hey – thank you for all the nice Christmas wishes we have received from you! Some have come as face-to-face wishes, and some in comments here at Meanwhile, at the Manse; some as emails – and some as Christmas cards! I love Christmas cards, old-fashioned though I suppose they now are.

Raymond and I really enjoy receiving Christmas cards. We read each one carefully, and then put it on display in exactly the same way that my mum did in the long-ago days when I was a kid growing up at the Manse and, as the minister’s family, we received a gazillion Christmas cards.

Should you want to copy the Manse technique (by way of Lorna Sedgwick, my mum) for Christmas-card display, here’s what you do:

You take a roll of masking tape (something my dad, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, always had ready to hand), and you unroll a strip that’s exactly the length of the frame atop the door opening in your living or dining room. You tack it, sticky side out, at each end (and maybe a few places in the middle, if it’s a long opening and the tape is sagging). Then you run vertical strips down both sides of the door opening. And then you stick up the cards! The ones that open from the top get stuck along the top of the doorway, and the ones that open from the side go along the sides. (Raymond thought I was being too picky when I insisted on that separation of card placement by opening direction on our first couple of Christmases at the Manse, but since it was my mum’s way and I am a determined person, I have prevailed.)

And voilà! You have a lovely addition to the Christmas decor at your house. And every card on display reminds you of the nice person or people who sent it, and the seasonal wishes they included.

It’s a Christmas tradition from the Manse of the 1960s and ’70s that I am thoroughly tickled to have revived in the Manse of the 21st century.

Thank you again to all of you for your wonderful Christmas wishes. They make me want to do a Christmas dance! Want to join in? Here goes, and again, merry Christmas!

A Christmas card from Queensborough

Christmas card from Queensborough

The historic little wooden church (formerly St. Peter’s Anglican, our village’s first church, now a private residence), the river that runs through our “downtown,” a light dusting of snow and a pretty ornament to celebrate the season: it’s a Queensborough Christmas!

I went for a quick tour of our perfect little Christmas village yesterday with the intent of photographing the work that our hamlet’s beautification committee has done once again this year to make Queensborough look like – well, like the perfect little Christmas village. Once I got home and looked at the photos, it struck me that they would make a nice Christmas card from Queensborough. So to all of you lovely readers who live in Queensborough, or who once lived in Queensborough, or who wish you could live in Queensborough; to all of you who visit us here in Queensborough; and to all of you who live too far away to visit but have sent your interesting stories and good wishes and kind thoughts Queensborough’s way – well, Merry Christmas!

I’d been thinking about taking some photos of the beautification committee’s work because of the pretty wreaths the beautification volunteers had put on a “Welcome to Queensborough” sign that I see every day on my drive home from work. Here in these shortest days of the year that drive is always in the dark, and so I’d been saying to myself, “Self, get out there and get a daylight photo on the weekend!” And yesterday I finally did:

Christmas sign, west entrance to Queensborough

Welcome to Queensborough! The seasonally decorated sign at the western entrance to our village. Over the little hill that you can see in the near distance, you drive into a pretty little dip past historic buildings (the old one-room schoolhouse, the former Roman Catholic Church) and beautifully decorated homes. Did I mention that we live in a perfect little Christmas village?

I also checked out the signs at two of the three other entrances to the village (yes, all roads – north, south, east and west – lead to Queensborough), and was delighted to find that each had been decorated in a different style. Here’s the sign at the eastern entrance, with its gold wreaths and ribbons:

Christmas sign, east entrance to QueensboroughAnd here’s the one at the northern entrance. I have a particular fondness for this sign because a) it’s the newest one, designed and made right here in Queensborough by our own brilliant metalsmith Jos Pronk (also the new chair of the beautification committee); and b) it has the backstop from Queensborough’s old ball diamond in the background. Bring back village ball teams, I say!:

Christmas sign, north entrance to QueensboroughHere’s a photo from the heart of “downtown” Queensborough, showing the dam over the Black River (thankfully, in this year of terrible drought, with water going over it) and our seasonally decorated made-in-Queensborough street signs:

Christmas in downtown Queensborough

And here is the corner of Queensborough that Raymond and I call home, the intersection of Bosley Road and King Street where you’ll find the Manse:

Christmas at Bosley and King, Queensborough

I like this photo because it’s so Queensborough. An old fence. Trees. Attractive made-in-Queensborough signs. And pretty seasonal ornaments, put up by people who just want to make our beautiful village that much more beautiful.

Queensborough and Christmas: they just go together. Don’t you think?

A charming local symbol of peace and hope for this new year

The lion and the lambHappy new year, dear readers! I hope that 2016 will be a year of good health and happiness for you all. And I hope that your Christmas season – remember, it’s not over until the Twelfth Day of Christmas has come and gone and we mark Epiphany on Jan. 6! – has been a peaceful and pleasant one.

Kitties and Raymond in the kitchen

Our kitties keeping an eye on Raymond (okay, Raymond’s feet) in the Manse’s tiny unrenovated pantry/kitchen. That’s Honey Bunny at top, and Teddy (Theodora) at bottom. They are good Manse kitties!

Certainly it has been for Raymond and me at the Manse; we enjoyed what was, for me at least, one of the best Christmases ever. It was just the two of us and our little kitty-cats, and we celebrated quietly with minimal gifts and maximum time spent making a lovely turkey dinner complete with flaming plum pudding, admiring our Christmas tree and the cards that so many friends had sent, and hanging out with the aforementioned kitty-cats, who really are the best ever. (If you would like to read the story of how one of them returned to us from a near-death experience, click here.)

Christmas dinner by candlelight at the Manse – just Raymond and me, and was it ever nice!

Christmas dinner by candlelight at the Manse – just Raymond and me, and was it ever nice!

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what might make an appropriate topic for a start-of-the-year missive, and I finally settled on the delightful image that you see at the top of this post. It is a wall hanging that is in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church in Tweed, which (for those of you from “away”) is a village not far from us here in Queensborough. Raymond and I attend services at St. John’s every now and again because it is one of two churches that, together with our own St. Andrew’s United in Queensborough, have formed a productive three-church arrangement to share the services and talents of our excellent minister, The Rev. Caroline Giesbrecht. While most Sundays each of these churches has its own service, we join forces every now and again and all worship together at one of the three. And on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, we did so at St. John’s.

Every time I visit that historic and welcoming church, my eye is drawn to the colourful hanging on the right-hand wall at the front of the sanctuary. At first (probably because of the dove carrying an olive leaf) it makes you think of Noah’s Ark, with all those critters gathered together: the zebra and the elephant, the giraffe and the koala, the panda and the tiger, the puffin and the – hey, what is that animal on the right, anyway? I’m thinking maybe a wolf. But then you realize that the two creatures front and centre are a lion and a lamb, and that the gentle little lamb is happily nestled in the mighty paws of the ferocious lion. And then you get the larger message, which is that it is a vision of a world that has become truly peaceful.

The story behind the wall hanging

The story behind the beautiful handmade wall hanging at St. John’s United Church in Tweed. “Peaceful Kingdom” – how lovely!

Now, I learned a couple of things from researching this post. (What? You think I just make all this stuff up? Okay, maybe it sounds like it sometimes. But I am a journalist, and therefore I do try to get my fact straight. And by the way, I appreciate it when readers point out where I’ve gone wrong.) One of those things is that the phrase “And the lion shall lie down with the lamb” is a misrepresentation of the actual verse from Isaiah in the Christian and Jewish scriptures. As you can see from the text that accompanies and explains the wall hanging at St. John’s, there is not a mention of a lion lying down with a lamb. And yet that’s the line we all know, and the image that Ken Fisher worked with when he made that beautiful piece of art for St. John’s United. And you know what? There is absolutely nothing (in my view, at least) wrong with that.

Another thing that I learned (though I kind of knew it already) is that the passage from Isaiah 11 on which the image in the wall hanging is based is regularly read in Christian churches during the Christmas season. In Year A of the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary (we are currently in Year C, by the way), it’s read on the second Sunday of Advent. So it ties in very nicely with this time of year.

“The lion shall lie down with the lamb” is a saying that over the centuries has become part of our everyday language because it is surely what we all wish for: That enemies can learn to become friends. That war will end. That we will finally figure out that we are all God’s creatures sharing God’s good Earth, and that we should – we must – work together to preserve that Earth and the species who live in it.

Or, as I like to say (not very originally): Can’t we all just learn to get along?

Which leads me to my thought and hope for myself and all of you for this new year of 2016: Let us all try to learn to just get along – recognizing our differences, and accepting them, and maybe even (one hopes) celebrating them.

If we all make that our mission for 2016, I think it will be an awfully good year. One for the ages!

Merry Christmas 2015 from Queensborough and the Manse

Wreath on the Kincaid House

Merry Christmas from historic Queensborough!

Happy Winter Solstice, dear readers! (I hope you have checked out today’s delightful Google Doodle that marks the occasion.) The shortest day of the year is a day that always makes me happy. Why? Because it only gets better from here on in. On each succeeding day between now and the Summer Solstice on June 20, we will have a little more daylight to enjoy.

People, the dead of winter is already behind us. And it hasn’t even snowed yet! At least, not in Queensborough. Not really.

Anyway, the night of the Winter Solstice seems like the perfect time to wish you all a very happy Christmas. And what better way to do that than with a kind of digital Christmas card, featuring Christmas scenes from Queensborough? (Which is, as I have noted before, kind of a perfect little Christmas village.)

Many homeowners around here do an absolutely spectacular job of lighting up and otherwise decorating their properties for Christmas. Obviously it’s most impressive at night, but since I have not yet mastered the art of taking good nighttime pictures, I can’t (this year, anyway) do those scenes justice. But here are a few images that I hope give you a sense of Christmas in Queensborough:

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In addition to decorations on private homes, Queensborough has been made Christmassy thanks to the elves at the Queensborough Beautification Committee. They have added some lovely seasonal touches to public spaces in the village. Thanks, elves! Here’s a sampling:

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I think we can all agree that Queensborough is about as nice a place to spend a quiet Christmas as there can possibly be, and Raymond and I are looking forward to doing just that. And hey – if you’d like to get a taste of a country Christmas in our beautiful North-of-7 part of the world, you can! Here’s a hint:

Hazzards Church wreath

Regular readers and people who know this area will instantly recognize this historic building. It’s Hazzards Corners Church, where every Dec. 23 at 7 p.m. a lovely candlelight Christmas service of lessons and carols is held. It is a highlight of the Christmas season. Every year people from near and far fill the old pews to sing O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night and Joy to the World, and to listen to the story, timeless in its beauty and simplicity, of the birth of Jesus.

Because, as Linus says: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

A midcentury Madoc Christmas tale, with a dram or two of whisky

First bottle of Top Secret off line 1 smaller

The first bottle of Jack Baker’s Top Secret rye whisky – a legendary product with a strong connection to the Manse’s geographical area – comes off the production line. On hand with the gals who helped produce it are Jack Baker himself (he’s the gentleman with the silver hair) as well as the president of the company (and Jack’s son-in-law), Frank Baillie. It’s courtesy of Frank and his wife, Elizabeth (Lib), that I am able to share all this great local lore with you today. (Photo courtesy of Frank Baillie)

Welcome to December, my friends, and welcome to my somewhat delayed weekly post here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. Perhaps another time I will regale you with the story behind the partial reason for the delay; for now I’ll just say that it was yet another new adventure in rural living for Raymond and me, having to do with a full-to-the-brim septic tank and the kindness and help of both a neighbour and a local septic-tanking-pumping company. You might even be able to fill in the blanks without me telling you the whole story.

But today’s instalment is about two other things: Christmas – which seems appropriate, it being early December and all – and Canadian whisky. Actually, make that three things: it’s also about making connections with interesting people who have great stories to tell.

Now, I hope you’ll bear with me as I backtrack a little here. Back in March 2014, I did a post (which you can read here) featuring a vintage (1964) newspaper ad for Seagram’s V.O. Canadian whisky that, slightly inexplicably, shone a spotlight on the good taste in Canadian whisky of the people of Madoc, Ont. (Which is “town” for most of us who live in Queensborough.) I say “slightly inexplicably” because a reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse had already filled in the blank for me, sharing the information that a top gun at Seagram’s back in those heady 1960s days was a chap with a huge Madoc connection named Jack Baker – and also that Jack Baker had later gone on to produce a whisky with his own name on it.

Jack Baker's Secret 1976 Bar magazine

Jack Baker and his legendary products at the time they were launched (1976), featured on the cover of Bar magazine. (Photo courtesy of Frank Baillie)

That post garnered all kinds of comments (click here to read them) from folks who knew or had worked with Jack Baker (or at least, whose fathers had), and also comments from Canadian-whisky connoisseurs who remembered Jack Baker’s namesake product very fondly.

Eight months later, in November 2014, I followed up on that post with one (which is here) sharing some of the interesting information that readers had come up with, and a bit more that I had gleaned myself about Jack Baker. The main element of that post was the legendary whiskies made by Jack Baker. Jack Baker’s Secret and Jack Baker’s Top Secret whisky are long-gone mid-20th-century libations, but they are remembered fondly by many drinkers of Canadian whisky, as I reported then.

And that, I thought, was that.

But a short while ago – a year after that second post, in fact – something marvellous arrived: a comment from the person who, as he very accurately put it, “can best give you info about Jack Baker Distillery.” Who would that be? Well, I’ll tell you. It would be Frank Baillie, who not only was president of the company that produced Jack Baker’s Secret and Jack Baker’s Top Secret – Jack himself being chairman of the board (and, as Frank says, the real boss) – but also the man who has been married to Jack’s daughter, Elizabeth (Lib), for the past 54 years. Now isn’t that something?

Thanks to the enlightening and entertaining comments that Frank and Lib posted (you can see them here) and their subsequent email exchanges with me, I have learned all kinds of interesting things about not only the whisky, but the man behind it – and behind a whole lot of stories about Madoc back in the day.

And among those stories is a Christmas one that I am going to share with you.

But first, a bit more from the treasure trove of material and memories that Lib and Frank were kind enough to send along.

Probably the best place to start is with a bit of background on Jack Baker. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War and, looking for some peace and quiet after that, chose tiny Madoc to settle his family in. A man of enterprise and ambition, Jack set up a construction business and a service station. And then – have I mentioned that he was an enterprising sort? – it struck him that Madoc could really use a liquor store. Or, as it says in an ad for his whiskies that Frank sent me, Jack “noticed that the local townsfolk in and around Madoc spent a good deal of their time driving back and forth to the area’s only liquor outlet in Belleville. Not being a man to ever look the other way when opportunity was staring him in the face, Jack leased a store which he owned in Madoc to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, who made him the manager.” (Interestingly, another ad for Jack Baker’s Secret and Top Secret says that Jack built – rather than leased out – the building that was to house the Madoc liquor store. As with all legends, the details sometimes get a little cloudy.)

1950s LCBO store

The interior of a midcentury (1950s) LCBO store, not long after the time that Jack Baker built and became manager of the Madoc outlet. This was long before the days of self-serve liquor stores; customers had to consult the product listings posted around the store (which you can see in the photo) and fill out a paper chit for the bottle of their choice. Then one of the men (always men) who worked there would go into the back room and get the requested libation. Heaven forfend that bottles of wine and liquor should actually be on display! (Photo from lcbo.com)

Anyway, Jack became the manager of the Madoc liquor store, which Lib tells me was close to the intersection of St. Lawrence Street West and Russell (or is that Russel?) Street in downtown Madoc. As you already know, he later went on to work with Seagram’s and to produce a whisky of his own (and a little more on that below), but it is evident that his time as a businessman in an interesting line of work in a small town in central Hastings County is what stuck most with him in later life. Why is it evident, you ask? Because those Madoc days are all referenced big-time in publicity that was produced for his whiskies.

And thanks to Frank and Lib Baillie, I can show you those ads from the 1970s. Click on each one to enlarge it – in some, the reproduction is a tiny bit fuzzy, but I think you can read them all when you zoom in. Herewith, stories about a wrist-wrestling contest, and a rollerskating rink on the roof of the LCBO, and Big Bill Baker, and all manner of interesting local lore. Do any readers remember?

Jack Baker: wristwrestler

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

Jack Baker: roller rink

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

Jack Baker: Mud Cook

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

Jack Baker: empties

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

Jack Baker: Big Bill

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

Jack Baker: my friends

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

I’m going to let Lib Baillie tell the last part of the story of her dad and the whisky that bore his name:

“Secret and Top Secret were produced in Waterloo [Ont.] at the House of Seagram. Father was very close to Charles Bronfman and when the patriarch Sam gave Charles a distillery for his 21st birthday (Thomas Adams Distillers), Father ran it for Ontario, Quebec and The Maritimes. Charles made space available in Waterloo as a thank-you.

“Jack Baker’s Distillery died shortly after he did. He really WAS the company – I’ve never met anyone with his level of salesmanship, tenacity and guts.”

In reading the stories that Jack recounted in those 1970s ads, you certainly do get a sense of his “salesmanship, tenacity and guts,” as Lib so aptly puts it. But I think you also get a sense of how his experiences in Madoc helped shape him: helped him learn about human nature and human foibles, and thus perhaps how to be a better salesman and businessman. And even more to the point, gave him a wealth of great stories to tell!

And here’s the Christmas story I want to share with you this Christmas season. It says a lot about small-town life in central Hastings County back in the middle of the last century. Though I would like to think that if the same Christmastime catastrophe happened in little Madoc today, the response would be exactly as it was back then.

Herewith, with huge thanks to Frank and Lib Baillie (and the late Jack Baker), The Day a Town Gave Itself for Christmas:

Jack Baker: Christmas

Courtesy of Frank Baillie

The Day a Town Gave Itself for Christmas

“It was a bitterly cold Sunday night that December 23rd, 1945. Even today I can see the flames from my service station lighting up most of Madoc, Ontario.” Jack Baker chuckles. “I wasn’t laughing then, I can tell you. I had just spent every thin dime I had to buy that station. Every spare penny I could scrape up was invested in the 5000 gallons of gas in those tanks. Whether my family and I had a Christmas at all, was a matter of whether or not I sold that gas. When I ran up and saw those flames shooting through the roof, I saw my whole life going up in smoke. Including every stick of furniture I owned, which was stored above the station. I was wiped out.

“Everyone tried their best, but it was a burned out shell by morning. As I stood there, alone in the frozen ice coated remains, I saw a 300 pound air compressor that I had thrown outside at the height of the fire. I tried to lift it and I couldn’t.

“Then a strange thing happened. As I stood there in the wreckage of my station people started arriving. Before long most of the town was there. Even farmers from miles away. They didn’t waste time talking about it, or offering sympathy, they just pitched in and started chopping and shovelling away all the ice and snow. They worked like beavers. Pretty soon the lot was cleared. The town electrician rigged power for my pumps, which had escaped damage.

“As if that wasn’t enough, those people did the darnedest thing. They got into their cars and lined up at the pumps. They filled their tanks to overflowing. I still think some went home, filled the tractor from their car and came back for more. Anyway, by dark I had sold more gas than I ever had in my life. They cleaned me out. And I had money for Christmas.

“Every year since, just before Christmas, I can’t help remembering the charred remains of that other Christmas. But most of all, I remember those wonderful people in Madoc. Without asking, or hesitation, they banded together and unselfishly gave me a priceless Christmas present I’ll never forget. That taught me one thing. Besides having your health, there’s nothing more important in life than having good friends. Fortunately for me, I’ve kept both. Which has enabled me to realize my life’s ambition, to create two of the finest, smooth-tasting Canadian whiskies available today, Secret and Top Secret. When you taste them, I know you’ll be pleased. All you have to remember is to mention my name: Jack Baker.”

Wow! Jack Baker was a great salesman (as you can tell from the story’s end – but it is an ad, after all), and a great storyteller. And thanks to Frank and Lib Baillie coming across Meanwhile, at the Manse and sharing their wealth of Jack Baker and Madoc knowledge, I can share a wonderful Christmas story with you all, featuring kindness and neighbourliness and true Christmas spirit in our own Madoc.

I think we can all raise a toast to that.

What did I get for Christmas? Vintage building blocks!

Sta-Lox Blocks under the tree

Under our Christmas tree, my new (old) set of Sta-Lox Building Bricks. Just like the set I might have played with under the Christmas tree (in the exact same place here at the Manse) back when I was a very young child. All thanks to my friend Lynn, whom I thank for such a wonderful vintage Christmas gift!

“What did you get for Christmas?” Remember how all the kids used to ask that of each other when we reconvened at school after the Christmas holidays, in early January?

Knowing what I know now, but failed to see through childish eyes then – which was how very poor some of the families around us here in the Queensborough area were, and how probable it was that a fair number of those kids got nothing for Christmas except, hopefully, a decent meal – I wish I hadn’t ever asked it.

But I did. We all did. Can’t change that now, though I sure wish I could.

Anyway. Even though Raymond and I decreed this a gift-free Christmas (which, let me just tell you, really alleviates the stress of the season), I did get a gift. And I want to tell you about it, because it is (of course) a vintage classic. Which, by the way, cost the giver precisely nothing, so so much the better. It is: a set of Sta-Lox Miniature Building Bricks! Does it get any better than that?

All right, I know perfectly well that you’re yawning at this revelation. But people, look at those blocks! Here is another image:

Sta-Lox blocks, closeup

Two words for you, people (okay, maybe only one word if you count the hyphenation): pre-Lego.

These Sta-Lox blocks are the building blocks that all us North American kids – or at least us Canadian kids – had, and loved, before those Scandinavian Legos conquered the world, which was sometime around the time when my younger brothers (John and Ken) started playing with building blocks in the later ’60s and early ’70s. Sta-Lox were perfectly good building blocks, if you didn’t mind the fact that they were small enough to readily make their way into a child’s mouth and choke him or her. Which, come to think of it, might well be the reason why Sta-Lox were eclipsed, or, actually (truth be told), obliterated by Lego.

Our good friend Lynn, who visited Raymond and me at the Manse just before Christmas on the way from her home in Nova Scotia to spend time with family in Toronto, had picked up this wonderful tube of Sta-Lox for me from – get this! – someone who had been throwing them out! She saved them from the dump! And she brought them to me in Queensborough, knowing I would recognize and love them. Which of course I did. I took one look at them and remembered being about four years old, on the tiled linoleum floor of my maternal grandparents’ comfortable home in the leafy Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside, trying to build homes and maybe even castles with those same blocks.

Which were, by the way, made right there in Toronto! Back in the days when we actually manufactured things in Canada! Here’s the evidence, from the back of the tube of building blocks that Lynn gave me:

Sta-Lox Peter Austin Manufacturing

Oh, and one last photo. I was pretty useless at making good stuff from those little flexible red bricks, but obviously others were not; get a load of this Sta-Lox suburban masterpiece, courtesy of the internet:

Sta-Lox built

Anyway, this has perhaps been a longer post than it needed to be. Long story short: Sta-Lox Building Bricks were a brilliant and important part of my early childhood, which was mainly at the Manse. Where Raymond and I now live again; and so a gift from Lynn of some Sta-Lox bricks for the Manse was just a perfect Christmas present.

And so: what I got for Christmas could not have been better.

And so, Happy Christmas.

I expect you had to have been a teenager, or at least a young adult, in the middle 1970s to consider John Lennon‘s Happy Xmas (War is Over) an essential piece of Christmas music, and an important part of the season generally.

I mean, it’s not a particularly great song, right? (But then again, with the exception of White Christmas, how many pop Christmas songs are great? Jingle Bell Rock? Don’t get me started.) Happy Xmas is not John Lennon at his brilliant songwriting best – at the level of, say, Norwegian Wood, or In My Life, or even Mind Games. (As for Imagine – well, I told you not to get me started when it comes to terrible songs. But maybe that’s just me.) Right, back to Happy Xmas: there’s one line in particular that is so dopey that it drives me nuts every time I hear it. That would be, of course: “Let’s stop all the fight.” Hello? John?

War is Over

You know, the message is as true and as good at Christmas 2014 as it was way back in the ’70s when John and Yoko released the song. Thanks for the poster, Yoko! (You can get yours, in almost any language you choose, here.)

But Happy Xmas became a huge hit at a time when I was young – when so many of us were young. (In my case, I was young at the Manse in Queensborough, so doubly blessed.) It was unavoidable on the airwaves in those days. And the music of one’s youth is the music that one always loves, is it not? In addition, Happy Xmas had a good sentiment, otherwise expressed as Give Peace a Chance. And finally, Yoko for once sounded downright tuneful and soulful when she sang on it. All of this taken together translates into my abiding affection for Happy Xmas (War is Over).

Oh, and there’s one other thing: it was a standby of the Christmas-season playlist back in the days when DJ Joey Edwards was entertaining us all here in Hastings County with his weeknight show on good old CJBQ radio (Belleville and TRENTOONNN, 800 on your AM dial). One of the absolute highlights of this past year for me (which you can read about here) has been connecting with Joey, who’s still in the audio/music business, though way off in Beijing. (Note to Joey: You should come home to Madoc for Christmas!)

Anyway, to quote John: And so this is Christmas. And so, dear readers: A very merry Christmas. And a happy new year. Let’s hope it’s a good one – without any fear.

From then, to now, to you: the Sedgwicks’ Christmas card

Luke's gospel, inscribed by Mum

Indeed, as the inscription in my mum’s neat handwriting says, Luke’s gospel does contain “The original Christmas story.” Which is why I’m sharing this story with you on this Christmas Eve.

A little while ago, a Queensborough-area friend gave me something very special that I have been waiting until this night, Christmas Eve, to share with you.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when I was a kid growing up here at the Manse, Christmas cards were a bigger deal than they are now. It seemed like everyone sent Christmas cards. And probably because my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, was the local United Church minister, our family was on practically everyone’s Christmas-card list; I remember the cards arriving in heaps. We kids used to love to look through all the colourful cards – displayed thanks to masking tape and thumbtacks around most of the Manse’s interior doorways – and to read the hand-written messages. It was a lovely, friendly tradition.

My family in turn sent out cards by the dozens, if not the hundreds, every year; somewhere kicking around the Manse here I have a copy of my parents’ list, circa 1968, of names of members of Dad’s churches‘ congregations and other local residents to whom cards were to be sent. The list just goes on and on and on, and brings back many memories of good people no longer with us. (And happily, some of the names on the list are still with us!)

Sometime in the early 1970s, however, Dad decided that our Christmas cards should be in a different form. And so for a few Christmases – probably four, since there are four gospels – we sent out small booklets produced by the Canadian Bible Society, each one containing one of the gospels in what was called “Today’s English Version.” (I don’t know a lot about different versions and translations of the Bible, save that the one I use most is the Revised Standard Version, and I find the cadences of the King James Bible as magnificent as the English language gets. “Today’s English Version,” later called the Good News Bible, was, I believe, an attempt to put it in “words that everyone could understand.” It was not the first or last such attempt, and while the goal is undoubtedly laudable, the poetry and beauty of the biblical language are generally tossed overboard in these editions. Anyway, it was the ’70s; what can I say?)

I have good childhood memories of helping my parents stuff and address the envelopes containing these little booklets. It was quite a project, let me tell you.

But it was all only a memory until that recent gift to which I referred at the top. The gift was two of those little Christmas booklets:

Good News gospels

My family’s Christmas cards in 1972 (Good News by a Man Named Luke) and 1974 (Good News by a Man Named Mark). What a gift to have these little booklets once again!

The “good news” by Luke had been sent by my family at Christmas 1972, and is, as you’ve seen from the photo at the top of this post, inscribed by my mum, Lorna Sedgwick, on behalf of the whole family. The copy of Mark’s gospel was sent at Christmas 1974, the final Christmas that my family lived here. And this one is inscribed in the hand of my late father:

Mark's gospel, inscribed by Dad

I expect you can now understand how much this gift – having once again those booklets sent out by my family all those Christmases ago – meant to me.

So this being Christmas Eve and all, and in the spirit of the original reason for those booklets being sent out to friends, neighbours and parishioners, I’d like to give you “the original Christmas Story,” as my mum put it, as it is written in Good News by a Man Named Luke. I’ve also included the rather cool modern (that is, 1970s modern) line drawings that are included in the little book, one showing people going to be enrolled (as the King James Version has it; here they are “registering themselves for the census”), and the other, quite delightful, showing the shepherds gazing up in wonder at the angels. If you too experience that sense of wonder and joy this Christmas, then the Christmas wish that my parents sent out from the Manse all those years ago will have been fulfilled.

The Original Christmas Story

At that time Emperor Augustus sent out an order for all the citizens of the Empire to register themselves for the census. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own town.

Going to Bethlehem to be enrolled, from Good News by a Man Named Luke

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth, in Galilee, to Judea, to the town named Bethlehem, where King David was born. Joseph went there because he himself was a descendant of David. He went to register himself with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant, and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger – there was no room for them to stay in the inn.

There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terribly afraid, but the angel said to them: “Don’t be afraid! For I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very night in David’s town your Saviour was born – Christ the Lord! This is what will prove it to you: you will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great army of heaven’s angels appeared with the angel, singing praises to God:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven!
And peace on earth to men with whom he is pleased!”

The shepherds and the angels, Good News by a Man Named Luke

When the angels went away from them back into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, that the Lord has told us.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and saw the baby lying in the manger. When the shepherds saw him they told them what the angel had said about this child. All who heard it were filled with wonder at what the shepherds told them. Mary remembered all these things, and thought deeply about them. The shepherds went back, singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen; it had been just as the angel had told them.

Ah, tinsel: the way Christmas trees used to look

The tinsel tree

It’s rather hard to believe now, but tinsel-covered trees were once considered the height of Christmas elegance. And yes, people, I remember those days.

I had to smile when I came across this tinselly monstrosity in a funny email forwarded to me by some local friends. The email was entitled “Our Life in Pictures” and featured a whole lot of images of things that only people of a certain age would remember. Let’s just say that I include myself in that number, and found the images, and the memories they brought back, highly amusing. I’ll share more of them with you in a post-Christmas post, for your holiday enjoyment.

Tonight, though, let’s talk about tinsel-covered Christmas trees. Does anyone use tinsel any more, or has it permanently been declared a total fire hazard and/or assault on the senses? Ah, but back in the day, everyone – including us Sedgwicks here at the Manse in Queensborough – adorned their tree with tinsel, which (come to think of it) was probably wildly inexpensive as a decorating option.

As I recall, in the dwindling days of tinsel use, people applied it sparing, and when you did that it didn’t look all that bad. The thin silvery wisps would catch and reflect the glow from the lights on the tree, and that was kind of pretty. But in earlier days, I vaguely recall my brothers and sister and me throwing the stuff onto the tree in handful-sized clumps (which we thought was great fun), and the result was as you might expect.

Now, obviously the people who decorated the tree featured in the photo atop this post didn’t do that; you can tell they were of the one-strand-at-a-time school of tree-trimming with tinsel. But gracious, they certainly have applied a lot, one stand at a time. And I have to say that that tree looks downright scary.

Anyway, those are my reflections on tinsel, for this Christmas at least. But before closing, I’d like to remind you of another dubious tree-decorating choice from back in the day. Do you remember Angel Hair, people?

Angel Hair“FIREPROOF,” the box proclaims. Yeah, right. Didn’t that stuff get banned when it caused one too many disastrous holiday-season blazes? At any rate, I remember that for many Christmases of my childhood, Angel Hair adorned every tree in sight – and then suddenly it was gone. Utterly gone.

But fire hazard though it may have been, it was kind of pretty, don’t you think? People would wrap some of it around each of the lights on the tree – trees tended to have far fewer lights than they do now – and it would turn the coloured light all soft and fuzzy. It gave you kind of a warm Christmas feeling to see it.

Which was all good, until that warm feeling was transformed into a raging Yuletide house fire…