Authors Note: Being the holiday season, I wanted to share a couple of my favourite Christmas memories. I hope you enjoy them.
Being in Her Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy is a difficult career choice for anyone. When sailors aren’t busy moving their families across the country (or the world), they’re often out at sea, separated from their loved ones for months and months at a time. I know this lifestyle first hand; my father was a career naval officer.
But if there’s a silver lining to this hard lifestyle, I believe it’s this: Such circumstances help community members -both home and away- develop a spirit of understanding, generosity and kindness toward one another that I’ve not seen since.
As a child, I remember naval wives always meeting for coffee, babysitting each other’s kids, or helping one another out in any way they could. But at no time did this spirit of kindness and generosity impact me as much as Christmas 1967.
We were living in the tiny rural township of Maitland, Nova Scotia, in an old ramshackle wooden house that was so close to the Bay of Fundy we watched as icebergs float by from our kitchen window. And man, was it ever cold! Whenever the eastern winds howled, our home became an icebox, creaking and groaning so much that it convinced my siblings and me that the house was haunted.
On Christmas Eve that year, my parents were leaving to meet some friends at the naval base for a festive cocktail or two. Prior to leaving, they instructed us kids to make sure the fire didn’t go out, to clean our rooms, and finally, to make sure the dinner table was set when they returned at 5pm. And with instructions given, they climbed into our old Rambler and drove off into the snowy afternoon, and we got busy with our assigned tasks.
Around 4pm the phone rang, and my brother answered it. He listened intently, adding a few “Uh-huhs” and “Okays” before finishing with an enthusiastic “bye!” Once he’d hung up and gave us the big news: It was mom saying they’d be home soon, and to set an extra place at the table… They were bringing home a guest to spend Christmas with us!
The thought of having someone new and interesting to talk to was exciting to us kids, so we bustled around to make sure everything was perfect before they arrived. Once I’d completed my chores, I ran to the window and peered into the darkness, looking for any sign of the rambler making its way down the quarter mile long driveway that lead to our house. I didn’t have to wait long.
As the car turned off the highway, the two tiny lights appeared, and then they grew as the car snaked down our driveway towards the house. Soon they were close enough to illuminate the fluffy blanket of snow that covered our front lawn. “They’re here! They’re here!” I cried out, and we all ran to the door to wait for the adults to come inside.
Almost immediately, the front door sprung open; and standing next to our parent was -much to the thrill of my fourteen-year-old sister-a handsome young man about 25 years old holding an overnight bag and guitar case.
As he shut the door behind them, my dad bellowed, “Carol, Joe, Paul and David, this is Dusty Miller; Dusty, these are the kids!” Dad then explained that Dusty was far away from his family for the holidays, and they’d invited him to join us so he wouldn’t spend Christmas alone.
Dusty threw us a big grin; and when dad finished, he remarked just how happy he was to meet us, and to spend the holidays with us. And with this declaration, my brothers whisked him upstairs to get settled before dinner.
Over dinner Dusty told us about his family, his hobbies, the ports of call he’d visited–he was a terrific conversationalist and very easy to be around (especially for my sister). Once the meal was over, we sat in front of the roaring fire listening as Dusty strummed a few tunes for us on his guitar, all the way until it was time for us kiddos to go to bed; it was Christmas Eve after all.
The next morning we woke up to discover that Santa had come! We knew this because he’d left everyone a stocking filled with goodies… even Dusty! After we’d pillaged through those, we headed down to find presents under the tree for all of us… even Dusty! This was because my mom had the foresight to know we’d have a visitor, so she planned to have gifts there for them. (Well played, mom)
For the rest of the day Dusty, played with us kids, helped prepare Christmas dinner, washed dishes, and of course, played guitar for us in front of the crackling fire again on Christmas night. He no longer was a stranger, but part of our family.
When Boxing Day came, it was time for Dusty to get back to the base. As he bid us farewell, he gave each of us each a big hug, and told us how wonderful it was being with us for Christmas. He then placed his things in the back of the car, waved goodbye one last time, and as we watched as the rambler disappear down the driveway, we were happy to have a new friend.
Dusty was the first of many naval personnel who, rather than being alone at Christmas, my parents would invite to come spend Christmas with us. They lovingly referred to them as “Christmas Orphans”, and they brought a lot of happiness and friendship to my earliest holiday memories.
Flash forward to 1999: I was living at Sun Peaks Ski Resort in the B.C. interior, where I was the proud owner/operator of a busy restaurant. Unfortunately, I was also going through a difficult divorce, plus my mother had recently passed away, six years after father. It was a challenging and difficult time, for sure.
I closed the restaurant on December 25th so the staff could be with their families, something I realized in hindsight also meant that I’d be alone Christmas day, a thought that left me feeling alone and depressed… that was, until I had an idea.
Remembering my parent’s tradition of taking in Christmas Orphans, I put the word out through my network that if there was anyone who was alone at Christmas and wanted to join me for dinner, to call me. Within ten minutes, my phone began ringing!
When people called, I explained the “rules”, which were these: People:
- Needed to be on their own, and not anywhere else to spend Christmas
- Must bring a bottle of wine, like any agreeable guest would
- Would take part in serving the meal and cleaning up
I spent the better part of Christmas day preparing a traditional Christmas turkey dinner– a straightforward task since (a) I’m a chef, and (b) I had a restaurant kitchen at my disposal. Come 5:00 pm, guests began arriving one by one, after trudging through the knee-deep snow towards the warmth of the restaurant. All told, twenty-four strangers arrived.
As stipulated, everyone pitched in to serve the meal, pour the wine, clear the dirty plates and serve coffee and dessert to the group. As they introduced themselves to each other, it was like the big family style Christmas dinners I remember from my youth!
After dinner, I shared the story of how my parents invited “orphans” for Christmas holidays each year, and noted that mom and dad would have gotten a kick over our dinner this evening. I then asked each guest to stand up, one by one, tell us where they were from, and say what this Christmas dinner meant for them.
People mostly spoke about what they missed from home, but also of their gratitude for being a part of a “family” style Christmas gathering. One young Australian woman—I think her name was Sandra— said she’d spoken to her mother earlier that day and told her she was having dinner with us. Her mom was so overjoyed, she began crying! As Sandra told her story, she also cried. Pretty soon, we were all wiping away tears with our napkins.
By the final testimonial, we all agreed it was truly a very special Christmas indeed, and one that we soon wouldn’t forget. It was time to clean up; and as promised, everyone pitched in until the restaurant was reset and re-organized for tomorrow’s lunch crowd.
Twenty-four people arrived as strangers, now left in clusters of three and four friends, laughing and walking together out the door and into the chilly, snowy night. I know for a fact that some friendships born that night are still intact today, twenty-plus years later.
Once the last guest had left, I took a last look at the space where we’d shared an amazing Christmas meal together just an hour earlier, but was now set up and ready for service. At that moment, I realized two things.
First, I realized the evening was a fitting tribute to my parent’s memory, and their legacy of using kindness and food to turn strangers into friends. And second, I no longer felt alone.
I turned the lights out, went outside, and locked the restaurant door. Pulling my coat close at the collar, I looked up to the snowy night sky, tipped my cap and said, “Merry Christmas Mom and Dad–I love you.”
With that, I walked off into the cold, crisp night, towards home.
Author Bio: David Knapp-Fisher
As founder of The Inspired Humans Project, David loves sharing inspirational stories. His TEDx talk, “Discipline or Regret, a Father’s Decision” been viewed over 100,000 times, and his first book, “Punch Failure in The Face, The Buy It a Beer” has 36 five star reviews on amazon.ca.
David lives in Victoria B.C. where he spends most of his time trying (& usually failing) to stump his son with movie trivia, or planning his next big adventure; both while drinking great coffee, of course.