Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Christmas Orange

Christmas always makes me think about a story that became a tradition in our family.  It’s the story of the Christmas Orange. 

I think that most families have a story like this.  My father would tell it in response to us children explaining how life as we knew it would end if on Christmas morning we do not find The Mountain of Death Battle Station with a dungeon that really screams (batteries not included) under the tree.

“When I was your age,” as Dad began all stories that were intended to teach a valuable lesson, “we didn’t have store-bought toys.” The preamble to the story would be accompanied by much rolling of children’s eyes and a look around the room for the surest route to a quick escape.

I should also point out a this juncture that we children didn’t believe for a second that there was a time before toy stores.  Everyone knows that stores have been around even longer than politicians.  In fact, until there were stores there was no reason to have politicians because there was nobody to tax.

“When we were little,” Dad would continue in spite of the children’s eyes glazing over and our breathing becoming increasingly erratic, “most of our toys were hand made.” What followed was a totally unbelievable account of toy race cars being made by hand out of sardine tins and dolls patched together from socks full of dog hair.

We children, now almost catatonic and making the same sounds as the dungeon in the Mountain of Death Battle Station, were further regaled with the story of how Aunt Minnie’s best Christmas present ever was a hat made out of a tinfoil turkey roasting pan.  Not only did one size fit all, but since it hadn’t been rinsed after its last use, Aunt Minnie also saved on perfume.

At this point our hopes of getting our Galactic Warriors or Barbie’s Off-Road Racer began to fade.  It was replaced with the fear that we would come down Christmas morning and instead of finding expensive and easily breakable toys under the tree, we’d discover a stick with a string tied to the end, wrapped in tinfoil.

Having succeeded in rendering the children immobile, it was the time for my father to bring out the story of the Christmas Orange. As the story goes, as a kid he would open all his presents under the tree - a new block of wood for carving, or hand-me-down clothes originally worn by an older member of the opposite sex.  Then the uncle who played the horses would appear, and if the pony he had bet on the previous week had any of the Christmas spirit, he would produce from behind his back ... an orange.

To hear my Dad talk, when someone received an orange for Christmas people would travel for days just to get a glimpse of it.  Rather than eat it, the orange would be put on display in various locations in the house for envious guests to admire. Only when it was getting soft on one side and developing a colourful antibiotic patch did the family peel and pass sections of it around, and think of how lucky they were.

I have checked with my friends, and every single one of them has a story from their father about the magic of getting an orange for Christmas.  By my calculations, instead of being a rare and much envied event in the olden days, there must have been hundreds of thousands of oranges in circulation on Christmas day.

Whatever the truth, to this day my wife and I still put an orange in the end each other’s Christmas stockings to remind ourselves of how lucky we are. I just can’t wait to tell my son all about it.


© 2003 - Stephen Lautens 

Monday, December 17, 2012

It's A Jubilee!


Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

I got an email at the end of last week inviting me to attend a ceremony at the Ontario Legislature today for the awarding of the famous (infamous) Queen's 60th Jubilee Medals. There was no indication on the email or attached invitation who was to receive the medal.

To make a long story short, it turned out to be me, although the first actual confirmation I had was when I checked in at the ceremony reception desk this morning. The clerk looked at me oddly when I asked if I was indeed on the list to receive a medal today, and pointed to my name in the program.

The Jubilee Medal has had a checkered history, with it going to a lot of * ahem * interesting recipients. There are also a number of * ahem * interesting NGO "partners" chosen by the Conservative Government with allotments going to them. Then there are the two women awarded the medal by a Conservative MP who had or were serving time for their anti-abortion protests.

Conservative MPs were publicized using the medal as a reward for campaign workers, contributors and for other partisan political purposes inconsistent with the stated purpose of "awarding outstanding citizens who have achieved excellence and demonstrated a commitment to the growth and prosperity of our country".

When someone said they wanted to nominate me for my various charitable and non-profit work, I frankly told them not to waste their time. I have been more than a little cheeky towards the Harper Government (as anyone reading my tweets or this blog knows), and I figured my nomination had about as much chance getting through the PMO as a Liberal Senate appointment. I've also been cheeky - OK, downright insulting - about the medal itself, because some Conservative MPs have made a mockery of the entire selection process and I've let them know it.

What I didn't count on was that the Government of Ontario had its own allotment of awards they pooled and awarded independently of MPs or MPPs on a much more impartial basis (imagine that).

I have to admit that for a couple of minutes I thought about turning the medal down (OK - a couple of seconds). But then I thought, it might even be more annoying to Harper & Co to know that I sneaked through the partisan cracks and snatched one away that otherwise might have gone to some Conservative campaign manager or someone known for throwing rubber fetuses. Plus, and I'll admit it, it's cool to have a medal. And it is an honour.

So the long and the short of it is, I'm now the recipient of the Jubilee Medal, and I'll wear it proudly every time I write a snarky tweet about the Harper Government.



Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Phoney War On Christmas

"Lee, this is one Santa that's going out the front door."

December 15, 2012
 

It seems a media staple to dust off every year a story about the “war on Christmas”.

The annual anti-Christmas story usually goes along the lines of someone tries to keep a nativity scene from being erected on a library lawn or a tree from a city hall lawn, usually in the US. People line up on either side and in the end everyone stomps off muttering “bah, humbug” or the like.

These Christmas kerfuffles make good reading, and inspire no end of alarmist letters to the editor about whether you’ll soon go to jail for wishing anyone a Merry Christmas, but the defenders of Christmas miss two important points.

The first is you’ll be hard pressed to find a city or town in North America that isn’t done up in lights, holly, garlands, tinsel, angels and trees on December 25th. Stores play Christmas carols from November 1st right through to New Years.

Christmas is in no danger of disappearing and Christians are not likely to be forced into the catacombs anytime soon.

The second and bigger point to keep in mind is that Christmas – the holiday if not the religious festival – is enjoyed by people from an astounding variety of cultures and other religions.

I worked in a small office with two Jewish partners. They wouldn’t let me put up a Christmas tree. Why? Because they wanted to put it up themselves.

I had a Christmas tree at home, they argued, so I should let them have the fun of putting it up at the office. By the time they were finished with the tree and angels, the office looked more Christmassy than my living room.

This week I was in our local dollar store getting stocking stuffers for the family. I passed on the canned prunes from Yemen and tins of sardines with Arabic labels and instead went for the easily breakable toys.

Behind the counter the owners had a little shrine to Ganeesh – Hindu god of prosperity and good fortune. That didn’t stop them from wearing Santa hats. “Merry Christmas” they called out to me on my way out past the collection of plastic crèches.

Some will complain the rampant commercialism is ruining it and Jesus wasn’t about selling flat screen TVs at 40% off. Just remember there have been people selling junk to pilgrims and outside of churches for more than a thousand years. We’ve survived.

My Jewish friends take no offence when I offer them a “Merry Christmas” because they know I’ll also wish them a Happy Hanukkah.

Some Christians insist that the “keep the Christ in Christmas” means keeping everyone else out – that somehow sharing it diminishes it. Often the ones who don’t want to share are the same people who say Christmas is under attack.

I have friends who are ministers and priests and make their living as professional Christians. Presumably they know a thing or two about the Christmas season.

Their opinion? Christmas may be for the faithful, but it’s also for sharing with anyone who wants to embrace the spirit of the season.

That spirit is about peace on Earth and goodwill towards all men. It’s about counting your many blessings and being mindful of the needs of those less fortunate. It’s about forgiving past feuds and putting love and kindness in your heart, hopefully not just for a couple of weeks a year but every day.

So don’t worry – Christmas is alive and well, and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

©  Stephen Lautens 2012

Behind the Paywall

The Calgary Sun started to put online content behind a paywall starting December 4th. I had no idea they were going to do this, but then, I'm just a regular freelancer so I don't have access to the inner workings of the Sun Media empire.

The actual deal is you get 20 free "Sun+" views before you have to pay, but some people find they use them up pretty fast, especially if you click on links on Twitter. You may not even know you're using them when you click.

Being a freelancer in a unique situation at the Calgary Sun (even though I've been a weekly feature for the past 15 years) I'm able to post my own columns here a day after they come out in the Calgary Sun. No paywall - no begging buttons. Just free electrons for you to enjoy.

The Calgary Sun has been archiving my columns on their columnist page so you can browse backwards, but that's is now behind the paywall too. While they were doing the archiving work for me (and missing the occasional one as their Internet elves fell asleep on the job), I was - let's be honest - lazy and let them do it.

No more.

Now I will create my own archive here on my blog. Because the Calgary Sun has what is called "first publication rights" and my column generally appears on Saturday in the actual paper, I'll post here on Sunday as soon as I get a coffee into me (and only if I think the column is any good- I reserve the right to not post if I think it sucks that week).

Thanks for reading,

Stephen

PS - more free columns here from 1997-2003

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Great Helmsman

Here's a little poster I whipped up to commemorate Chairman Harper's 5 pm on a Friday approval of the sale of Nexen to Chinese State Owned Enterprise CNOOC. Oddly, his Conservative base in Alberta is deafening in their silence following the announcement, where selling off oil assets to foreign nationals is like the Vatican putting the Holy Grail out at a yard sale.