Queensborough, our real-life Christmas village

Christmas Queensborough signI believe I’ve said it before, but it’s Christmastime again and by gum it’s still true: Queensborough is kind of the perfect little Christmas village.

Do you remember those miniature villages that people used to set up in their homes at Christmastime, tiny snow-covered (fake snow, but you know what I mean) houses and shops and churches, with little lights inside so the windows would be glowing warmly? (Think Hogsmeade in wintertime.) They looked like this:

Christmas village

(I have the vaguest of vague memories from my childhood here in Queensborough that Bobbie Sager Ramsay used to set up one such lovely little village in the windows of her general store every year. People who would know: am I right about that?)

Actually, given the vast number of pictures that just turned up on Google Images when I searched “miniature Christmas villages,” I am pretty sure lots of people still set these miniature villages up in their homes. Which is wonderful news, because I have always loved them, and I think the Manse is going to have to have one sooner rather than later. Here’s another nice one:

Miniature Christmas village

Anyway, what I was going to say is that whenever I drive into Queensbrough in wintertime, it reminds me of one of those quaint miniature villages – only full-size. With the graceful spire of the historic white board-and-batten former Anglican Church in the background, the picturesque waterfall of the Black River at the old grist mill – the water is still flowing now, but soon it will be frozen – and the beautifully decorated and lit-up homes, our tiny hamlet in a valley is kind of a Christmas village incarnate.

I am working on taking some photos of the beautiful Christmas lights that people have put up around Queensborough this year to share with you. (I downloaded a night-photography app on my iPhone, but I am still trying to figure it out. A photographic genius I am most decidedly not, as any reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse will have long since figured out.) But in the meantime, and as a little introduction to the idea of how pretty and Christmassy our village is at this time of year, I took the photo that’s at the top of this post – about a week ago, before we had the snow that now lies on the ground. You’ve seen that sign before in my posts (and you see it every day if you are lucky enough to live in Queensborough), but I just thought it was so nice that the Queensborough Beautification Committee had dressed up the entrance signs with seasonal decorations for Christmas.

All you have to do is drive over the modest hill that you see in the background of my photo, and you come down into the valley where our perfect Christmas village lies. Do that drive after dark, when the seasonal lights are on – preferably after a fresh snowfall – and you will see a magical little place. A full-size miniature Christmas village, so to speak.

This Christmas was for the birds. The blue jays, that is.

blue jays at the Manse

Look there, between the Christmas candy canes: can you see them? Three blue jays, busily snarfing up the bread crusts (leftovers from the turkey dressing) that Raymond had thoughtfully put out for them. I couldn’t get closer to take the photo, unfortunately, because opening the door invariably made them fly off.

The best gift I received this Christmas was a bit of an inadvertent one. And it had to do with blue jays, which since childhood I have considered very beautiful birds.

My grandfather on my mum’s side, J.A.S. Keay, was a kind and gentle man who was interested in birds. He always had bird feeders and bird baths in the back yard of his home, and binoculars at the ready to watch the activity at them – and lots of bird books in case identification or other information was needed. As a kid I absorbed a little bit of that interest by osmosis. And I decided early on that cardinals and blue jays – respectively bright red (my favourite colour) and beautiful blue – were my favourites, though I do know that some people (and lots of other birds) have issues with blue jays.

But when you live in the city, as I had for so many years before moving to Queensborough this past fall, you really get away from thinking much about birds. So it has been with a great deal of delight that I – and, I think I can safely add, Raymond –have been watching the avian activity in and around Queensborough. We’ve heard woodpeckers pecking and seen sweet little chickadees and, a couple of times (we hope more in the future), hummingbirds. We’ve seen crows and a bittern, and Raymond once identified a Northern “yellow-shafted” flicker. And one memorable night, as we were driving into Queensborough after a long trip from Montreal, an owl swooped gracefully into and out of our sights.

In the past couple of months, though, it’s been all about blue jays. I’ve see so many of them flitting about as I drive along the quiet country roads. And I never cease to delight in how pretty they are.

But back to Christmas Day. Raymond was making the dressing (or stuffing, as our U.S. family and friends call it) for the turkey, and decided that he would put the crusts he’d cut off the bread out in the snowy yard for the birds. (He’d recently been listening to the morning call-in show on CJBQ 800, Belleville‘s venerable AM radio station, and had heard people talking about how the birds have been having a hard time getting food because of all the recent freezing rain we’ve had – the berries and whatnot are covered in ice and inaccessible to them.)

So he scattered the crusts around in a couple of different places, and within minutes the word had gone out in the Queensborough blue-jay community. (If you stood outside you could hear them yakking about it.) And they descended on the lawn in droves, several at a time, grabbing a crust and flying with it back to the nest, and each time one would take off another would take its place. And they hung about in the branches of all our trees, including our relatively small recently planted front-yard maple, and flew hither and thither, and made lots of blue-jay noises, and just generally were having a heck of a time.

And it was absolutely delightful to watch. All these beautiful blue birds against the backdrop of white snow, on the ground and in the branches. We had more fun than anything.

It was a nice Christmas gift on Raymond’s part to the blue jays. And they returned the favour with their splendid show. Merry Christmas, blue jays!

The light shines in the darkness

candles at Hazzard's Corners Church

Last night Raymond and I – and many other people from near and far – attended the annual Christmas candlelight service at historic Hazzard’s Corners Church. That beautiful 19th-century building, just a few miles west of Queensborough, was one of the churches on the Queensborough Pastoral Charge when my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, came here as a new United Church of Canada ordinand in 1964. Sadly, it was closed in 1967, a time when many rural churches across the country were ordered shut by the United Church powers that be because of concern over dwindling numbers (and, of course, finances). But people in the Hazzard’s community have worked very hard to keep the church building in good nick, and excellent services are held there every August and every Dec. 23.

It was a simple service, as always: the traditional lessons and carols, read and sung by oil-lamp light and candelight. But so beautiful! Especially the part when all the lights were dimmed, and everyone held a candle, and we sang Silent Night. To think about all the times that lovely old carol had been sung in that sanctuary, through all the years – and there we were, doing it again, and in the process not only celebrating Christmas 2013 but honouring all those who’d stood there before us to celebrate Christmases past.

Anyway, I’ve written about the Hazzard’s services before (here and here, for example), so tonight – Christmas Eve – what I want to talk about is Christmas Eve services. Because something I saw and took a photo of last night at Hazzard’s Church reminded me so deeply of the Christmas Eve services that Dad used to organize at St. Andrew’s United Church, just up the street from the Manse.

The object in question (the photo atop this post) is a piece of birch log, a bit over a foot long, with three candle-sized holes hollowed into it to allow for three candles to be placed there. It sat on top of the old organ at Hazzard’s, where its candles burned throughout last night’s service. Such rudimentary but pretty candle-holders, made out of birch logs, are exactly what Dad crafted for Christmas Eve services at St. Andrew’s back in the middle 1960s. There was one in each of the church windows, and several in the choir loft to light the music being sung.

(And you know what? We never once burned the place down.)

I recently learned, from our friend The Rev. John Young, a professor of theology at Queen’s University and an extremely knowledgeable church historian, that the Christmas Eve services that we nowadays pretty much take as a commonplace in Protestant churches like the United Church are actually a relatively recent phenomenon. John told me that it was only after Vatican II in the early ’60s that Protestant churches warmed to the idea of a Christmas Eve service. Until then, Christmas in those churches was marked on Christmas Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas, and that was it – point final, as they say in French. But I guess with the Roman Catholics getting a little more modernized thanks to Pope John XXIII, the Protestants decided it might be time to adopt/adapt some of the great things about Roman Catholicism – like an earlier-evening variant on the traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

I’d had no idea about all this until my conversation with John, and I found it most interesting. For one thing, it means it’s very possible that the Christmas Eve candlelight services of lessons (read by children) and carols that my dad organized at St. Andrew’s in the middle 1960s were the very first Christmas Eve services ever held in that old church. Do any readers know anything about that?

But mainly I am just happy on this Christmas Eve (at the Manse) to be enjoying the memory of those services in my childhood: the church packed with people, the well-rehearsed (Dad was good about that) young readers doing a splendid job, the special music that the choir (which included my sister, Melanie, and me) provided, and the magical feeling of being inside a candlelit country church as the snow fell in the darkness outside.

“The light shines in the darkness,” says a passage from John’s gospel that is often read at Christmas, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

That is really the message of Christmas, isn’t it? Light in the darkness. Past, present and future.

A very happy Christmas to you all. From the Manse!

Community in action

Christmas dinner at Amazing Coffee

Raymond and I have been busily hewing to the Buy Local mantra in recent days, spending a lot of time in shops in and near Madoc, Tweed and Marmora – the closest towns (actually villages) to us here in Highway 7-territory Hastings County. And we’ve been thoroughly tickled at the wonderful things we’ve been able to find in those shops. I suppose that in many respects I am preaching to the choir here, but people, it really is worth the trouble to check into your local shops for interesting gift ideas. It helps the local economy, and it is so much more pleasant than time spent in Wal-Mart.

Amazing Coffee in MadocAnyway, as we were making the rounds of Madoc on an extremely wintry day today, a poster in a shop window (it’s the one you can see at the top of this post) caught my eye: a free Christmas dinner for anyone at all who happens to be alone on Christmas Day. And at one of the nicest places in Madoc, too – a wonderful place called Amazing Coffee where they serve great coffee (and tea) and food, and sell coffee beans and fine teas and organic cleaning products and lovely gift items and… well, the list goes on. And Amazing Coffee also often hosts musical events, including open-mike evenings. It’s just a great addition to Madoc.

And what a lovely thing, that Amazing Coffee is opening its doors on Christmas Day, for a meal at no charge. That, my friends, is small-town life at its very best. It is one more reason why I am glad to live here.

¿Dónde está Santa Claus?

Here Comes Santa Claus

The internet is a truly amazing thing, people – did you know that? And here’s my latest bit of proof, tied (of course) to my 1960s childhood here at the Manse in Queensborough.

My family had a few Christmas records back in those days (the most memorable being Joan Baez’s starkly beautiful Noel). One of them featured songs and carols sung by a children’s choir. And that’s pretty much all that I had been able to remember about it in recent years, although I did recall some of the tracks: Here Comes Santa Claus, All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. (Classics!)

But given that another Christmas is rolling around here at the Manse, and that now I once again live here thanks to my dear husband Raymond and I having bought it a while back, I was thinking about that long-ago LP the other night. What I wouldn’t give to have a copy of it! But what would be the chances of actually finding that doubtless-obscure, and very-long-ago, bit of vinyl?

Well, not as poor as you might think. I googled something like “Here Comes Santa Claus children’s chorus” – and there it was. In less than a second. A YouTube video featuring another of the tracks on the album, one in Spanish called Donde Esta Santa Claus, and an image of the album cover featuring a very red-cheeked Santa that brought all the memories rushing back. The Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus (whatever that is, or was): Of course! How could I have forgotten? (Oh – right. Life intervened.)

I haven’t yet found a copy of that Kapp Records classic for sale online (on eBay or whatever) – but you can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye out. Meanwhile, for your Yuletide enjoyment, here’s a long-lost Christmas classic:

Christmas at the Manse: let’s try this again

the plum-pudding cats

The plum-pudding cats are up, which can only mean one thing: Christmas at the Manse!

Longtime readers will probably recall all my posts (like here and here and here) leading up to Christmas 2012. It was the first Christmas I had spent at the Manse in more than 35 years – since 1974, when I was a wee slip of a 14-year-old. It was to be especially exciting because for Christmas dinner Raymond and I were hosting my mum, Lorna – who of course spent as many years living at the Manse as I did back in the 1960s and early 1970s – and my sister and brothers, who, like me, grew up here – as well as some of their children. Many readers sent us warm and kind wishes for that day. It was truly heartwarming.

And indeed it was a nice day – except that Raymond and I were so sick with the flu that was going around (the first time either of us had been stricken with flu in many years) that after it was over we could barely remember it, let alone figure out how we had managed to serve a big turkey dinner to all those people. It was one of those situations where you power through because you have to, but after it was over we kind of collapsed. When we look back at it now – well, let’s say it’s kind of a foggy, flu-y haze.

So all the more reason why we must try it again! I am delighted to report that my family is once again gathering at the Manse on Dec. 25, Raymond and I will once again be serving turkey dinner, and surely to goodness the chances of getting the flu for a second year running in that period are slim to none.

And in anticipation, we are getting the place ready:

Christmas tree 2013

The tree is up! (In the same place where my family always put it when I was growing up at the Manse.) And isn’t it beautiful?

And this year we even have outdoor lights:

Raymond putting up the Christmas lights

Raymond hard at work (still-outdoors Christmas tree behind him) putting up our outdoor lights. He did a bang-up job!

Pretty little Queensborough is – as one of our neighbours noted in a comment here some time ago – kind of the perfect Christmas village, especially when it’s a clear, starry night with a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. Many houses are beautifully decorated, and really it all looks rather like a Christmas card.

The Manse has to keep up!

No more drinking at the Quinte Hotel

The sad ruins of the landmark Quinte Hotel in downtown Belleville, Ont. (Photo from the Belleville Intelligencer)

The sad ruins of the landmark Quinte Hotel in downtown Belleville, Ont. (Photo from the Belleville Intelligencer)

Hello people, and welcome to 2013! My apologies for being so absent lately. It has been a combination of weariness/illness (the aftermath of The Dreaded Christmas Flu), and being on the road with no reliable internet access. But tonight I am feeling better than I have in quite a while, energized and (thanks largely to a great note I got today from my friend and indefatigable Queensborough-booster Elaine) all revved up about what this year is going to bring for Queensborough, and for Raymond and me and our life at the Manse. It is going to be a good year!

But first, some news from Hastings County that won’t be news to those of you who live there or keep tabs on it, but will perhaps be to others. It’s rather sad news, because it involves the end of not one but two historic buildings that have a certain place in the Canadian literary canon, thanks to poet Al Purdy. These places are none other than the Quinte Hotel – or should I say, the Quinte Hotels. One is – or rather, was – in Trenton, a small city in the southwestern corner of Hastings County (and for some unknown reason sometimes more associated with neighbouring Northumberland County); the other, currently in ruins and semi-demolished, is in Belleville, the Hastings County seat about 45 minutes due south of Queensborough. Both experienced devastating fires over the course of the past couple of months – first the Trenton Quinte (which in recent years has been a strip joint called the Sherwood Forest Inn; details on that fire here and here) and then, just before Christmas, the historic landmark building that was the Quinte Hotel (or, in more recent times, the “Hotel Quinte”) in the heart of Belleville; you can read about that one here and here and here.

If you know anything at all about Al Purdy you probably know At the Quinte Hotel, one of his most famous poems. “I am drinking/I am drinking beer with yellow flowers/in underground sunlight/and you can see that I am a sensitive man/And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too…” Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip did a video based on it and here it is (though I recommend fast-forwarding through the first couple of minutes and getting straight to the voice of Al reading the poem):

It kind of gets all gauzy in retrospect now, but if you grew up in rural Ontario in the middle part of the 20th century, you will probably have a good idea of what places like the Quinte Hotel were like in the days Al was drinking in them. In a small town or city, “the hotel” was a synonym for “the bar,” or better yet, to use a classic Canadian phrase, “the beer parlour.” These were generally three- or four-storey brick buildings that once had been real hotels, with respectable rooms for rent, and restaurants with fine meals served as well as bar service. But once there was no longer much call for hotel rooms or fine dining in Ontario’s small towns and cities, the proprietors of these establishments had to make ends meet any way they could, and that tended to be turning the ground floor into a large bar serving primarily draft beer (generally purchased in sets of two glasses, salt shaker on the side) primarily (especially in the unenlightened days before the late 1970s/early 1980s, when women were finally allowed in, for better or for worse) to men. (There would in the olden days be a separate room for “ladies and escorts” that was never particularly populated.) The food served in these beer parlours was mostly from giant jars of pickled eggs and preserved sausages on the counter; there would be a cigarette machine doling out Mark Tens and whatnot in exchange for a whole bunch of quarters in the corner of the room; and on Friday and Saturday nights, as likely as not, there would be live entertainment in the form of a band that might be half-decent and, then again, might not. The room would be always a haze of cigarette smoke, fights would be common, and if you happened to be there past closing time (when the lights went up, a ghastly – though eminently predictable – event immortalized in Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time) it was always entertaining to watch and listen as people outside the locked door tried to wheedle their way in for one last late-night drink.

Gee, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, don’t I?

Well, let me assure you that my experiences in old-fashioned Ontario beer parlours have nothing whatsoever to do with my growing-up-in-Queensborough years. They came when I was older and much less wise. But suffice to say that while I never darkened the door of the Quinte Hotel in Trenton or the Quinte Hotel in Belleville, I am perfectly aware of what those places were like. And since Al Purdy was very fond of beer, and of shooting the breeze, I am equally sure that many of his afternoons and maybe evenings were spent drinking beer at the Quinte Hotel, in whichever town he happened to be in.

It turns out it was the Quinte Hotel in Trenton he was referring to in his famous poem, though I’d be shocked if he hadn’t enjoyed the hospitality of the Belleville establishment as well. I remember that place (the Belleville one) in the 1960s and 1970s, when my family would visit Belleville (usually because my dad, the minister, was making pastoral calls on parishioners who were in the hospital there) because of the oval rotating red and white and blue sign proclaiming “Quinte Hotel” that was something of a landmark in the downtown (though damned if I can find a photo of it on Google – anybody?).

Anyway, these are fond memories, stinky tobacco-hazy beer parlours and all. But here is some news you need! The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust people, the good folks working to restore the humble A-frame house that Al and his hardy wife, Eurithe, built by hand in Prince Edward County and that was a home away from home for generations of Canadian writers, are holding a celebration and fundraising night this coming Feb. 6 (that’s a Wednesday) in Toronto. Details here, and you can order tickets here. Gord Downie will be there, as will Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent and many others. Awesome things – like, say, books from Al’s own library – will be up for auction. And all for a good cause: remembering and celebrating and carrying on the legacy of your friend and mine, Al Purdy.

A sometime drinker at the Quinte Hotel.