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Holiday Fiction: Home is where the savoury is

A memoir of Burl Ives and a Newfoundland Christmas in Ontario.


As a little girl, I was convinced my Nan should marry Burl Ives. Never mind her on-again, off-again relationship with Poppy (if you ask her, they are divorced; if you ask him, they're still married): I believed Burl was the man for her.

Every Christmas Eve growing up we'd all pile into the car and head over to Nan's house in Ajax. The moms (her three daughters: Diane, Wendy and Veralynn) gathered in the kitchen with mountains of scissors, tape and cannelloni rolls of green and red paper to wrap gifts, until all hours of the night. Us kids hibernated in the living room, crafting, telling stories and listening to records among the glow of the Christmas tree in all of its mismatched glory.

I loved my grandmother's Christmas tree. Its plastic balls, tinsel and homemade ornaments were fantastic artifacts of days gone by. At home in Oshawa, our tree was picture-perfect, adorned in matching ribbon and bows---dusty pink and gold---just like the decorating scheme in the living room. Nanny's tree featured handfuls of jellybean-coloured lights, yarn ornaments and a sense of Charlie Brown authenticity. But what I remember most about Christmas is the soundtrack: Burl Ives' Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.

As a family of displaced Newfoundlanders, the suburbs of southern Ontario never quite measured up to the shape of life on Bell Island. Despite being dirt poor with a dozen or so siblings, there was always enough for a feed of turkey, salt beef, cabbage, turnip, gravy, dressing and potatoes---jig's dinner, a traditional Newfoundland scoff.

When she spoke of Newfoundland it seemed almost mythical, imaginary even. Back in suburbia we'd try and recreate these holiday memories with special items purchased specifically at The Newfoundland Store. The notion of having to go to a store based on a province while living in another seemed a bit strange to me. I wondered if there were other stores like the Newfie store in Oshawa. Did Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Alberta have similar shops? Where did displaced folks from the prairies dwelling in the GTA shop? Surely British Columbians ate salt cod tongues, didn't they?

It wasn't until I was a teenager, on my first trip to Newfoundland since I was a baby, that I realized how truly unique the island is. A specialty store isn't just a resource; it's a community for displaced Newfoundlanders. What my grandmother was longing for all those years was a sense of belonging, home. It merely started with the savoury.

Before she moved back to Newfoundland, Nan talked about the island with a distant look in her eyes, as if the province was somewhere off in the background far beyond my face. As a family we gave it our all to make Ontario as much like Newfoundland as we could. One year my cousin Angie and I even tried to go mummering but the neighbours thought us odd---it was Christmas, not Halloween.

Nearly every Christmas Nanny sang along to Burl Ives with her hand stuffed into the back end of a turkey. To this day, when I hear "Christmas Can't Be Far Away," my heart swells. I still wonder: did Mom ever get that do-dad she was craving? And Dad, did he ever get his usual Christmas tie? I've never seen either my father or stepfather in a tie, but I buy into Ives' nostalgia hook, line and sinker. His voice is like a bottle of Purity syrup: sticky, yummy and sweet.

Truthfully I just couldn't get enough of Burl Ives, and neither could Angie. We'd put the record on every time we went over to visit. Burl Ives played in the background to our giggles on numerous slumber parties. We listened to him after we stole a cigarette from Nan's pack and smoked it by the tennis courts. I put the album on to console Angie after she got her mouth washed out with a bar of soap for cursing. It would be weeks after Easter and the two of us would still be singing out-of-season Christmas carols. Nan never once told us to turn it off; she'd hum along whatever the season or reason.

To me Burl Ives sounded like history, a history I had yet to truly know but felt deep within my bones. His thick, velvety voice paired perfectly with my grandmother's tales of Newfoundland. He seemed to call forth all of the longing within my grandmother's heart that eventually led her, and in some way all of us, home.

Nan moved back to Newfoundland nearly a decade ago. These days Nanny still shacks up with Poppy---they live outside of St. John's in the Goulds (pronounced da Gouls). They lost the record player in the split, when Nanny moved back to Newfoundland and Poppy made his way to Quebec. She doesn't sing as much as she used to, but sometimes I'll catch her humming an old song as she peels potatoes.

Life, circumstances and history brought my grandparents back together in the past few years, not necessarily romantically per se, but they care about one another and tolerate each other's idiosyncrasies best they can.

I try and make it back to Newfoundland every other Christmas. Even during the years I don't make it home, I'll still throw on a few Burl Ives songs, whatever the season. This is the first time I won't be heading to Ontario or Newfoundland for the holidays---this year, I'm staying in Halifax. As much as I welcome a new gamut of Nova Scotian traditions there are a few things I can't go without. Yesterday I bought Burl Ives' Have a Holly Jolly Christmas for $6.99 on iTunes and I'll be making a visit to the Newfoundland Grocery Store on Willow Street before the 24th.

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