Every fall when November rolled around, each class started practicing for the Annual Grade School Christmas program. Parts would be learned in individual classrooms and during the weekly music classes. I wouldn't term these particular exercises "fun" in the traditional sense, so we were often called on to create our own "fun".
You see, the standard for excellence for Christmas programs had been set very high by the college. The annual Christmas Music Night at Prairie drew people from all over the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Some brave folk even traveled up from Montana. The logistics of a small town and college putting on a such a grand production like this were mind boggling. A 180 voice choir, 60 piece orchestra, various small ensembles and soloists made up a two hour production of sacred music. Conservative . . . absolutely!, but well done, no argument there. The large tabernacle would be full to overflowing. In those days, the "tab" as we called it, sat close to 4500, making it the largest religious auditorium in Canada. In later years as fire codes were enforced, the bench seating was spread out, reducing the capacity.
Every two years the entire entourage would travel to both Edmonton and Calgary and perform the program in the Jubilee auditoriums. With seating for about 2600, these beautiful, acoustically correct concert halls were built to commemorate Alberta's 50th birthday in 1955. Both were filled to capacity when the Prairie Music Night came to town. When the school first started going to the "big cities", everyone would load up on the train and make the journey. The kitchen staff would go along to prepare meals for close to 400 people! As busses and vans became more readily available, they became the preferred mode of transportation. When I was in junior and senior high school, I was privileged to be be part of the sound and light crew, learning a great deal about working with various equipment, leaders and musicians.
Back to our lowly grade school program. After several weeks of practicing, it was time to start proper rehearsals in the tabernacle. Single file, we made our way, class by class, down 6th Avenue, for a number of practices before the big day. We sat by class and our teachers tried their best to maintain some modicum of law and order. With 300 kids, this was much easier said than done. A group of us would get particularly creative when it came to lyrical re-writes. All very childish, we would sing with gusto, "While shepherds washed their socks by night all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down and passed the soap around", and "We three kings of orient are; tried to smoke a rubber cigar; it was loaded; it exploded; now we are no more". And on it went . . . you get the point.
In kindergarten and grade one we participated in a "rhythm band". Having a rhythm band at Prairie was a complete anathema, but for some reason this was encouraged. Little did they know they were influencing a whole generation of rockers! We were all given instruments like triangles, wood blocks, shakers, bells, etc. and off we would go, accompanied on the piano by our music teacher. This auspicious group was led by Phil Callaway. He was given a small baton and instructed to wave said implement from side to side in time with the music. Phil, always the class comedian, determined early on that if he moved his derriere to the opposite side as the baton in a rhythmic fashion, he could elicit giggles from the girls and laughs from the parents! Wonder of wonders, on the night of the big performance, we actually knew the right words and the programs usually went off without a hitch. None of us had the guts to sing our version of the songs.
One of the highlights of the evening was the candy bags. These ample brown paper bags contained a mandarin orange, nuts of various kinds and a plastic bag full of candy and were handed out to every student and child at the end of the program. Older teenagers would meet in the butcher shop to help assemble the bags a few days before the big night. Mr. Butler would keep a wary eye out for any who dared sneak a candy or two!
There were always the odd wing-nuts that had some wacky, misguided idea that we shouldn't celebrate Christmas because of it's pagan origins, etc., and didn't allow their children to participate in the program. I remember even as a young child being angry with those parents and feeling so very sad for the children.
The Christmas program signaled that the holidays were about to begin and this notched up the excitement one more level. Christmas vacation was the best time as a kid growing up at Prairie. We boys pretty much lived at the outdoor rink and played hockey in every kind of weather from the melting ice of a chinook to the bitterly cold freezing temperatures of a blizzard. Revolving games of shinny would entertain us from morning to night, pausing only to duck into the skate house to warm up or to hurry home for some grub or a bathroom break. The big flood lights were turned on around 5 o'clock as it was getting dark. If we could enlist some of the lady folk, lively games of crack the whip, pom pom pull away or duck duck goose would ensue. At one time there were five rinks on campus alone. If the weather was warm enough and the snow would actually stick together, we would build snow forts and have snowball fights. Many times the packed drifts along the snow fences were so high we could walk up and over the fences. As we got older we would trek out to the Three Hills for some tubing. The annual Christmas basketball tournament would also be played. I usually had a couple of uncles who were involved in that, making for a lively discussion at Grandmas house. Both gyms would be utilized, ending in a big championship game on the final night. On really cold days we would go to the boys dorm and play ping pong.
It seemed like even the administration let down its austere legalistic guard to take part in the Christmas spirit. They would plan a number of activities for those on the campus and in the community over the holidays. In those days, many students stayed in the dorms for Christmas as travel was costly and dangerous in the tough Canadian winters. All of these students were invited into staff homes for meals and game nights.
One of the organized activities was a couple hours of movies, or films as they were called, in the afternoons. For a couple of weeks the High School auditorium was transformed into a movie theater and 16 millimeter films were rented in for our entertainment. The Sound of Music, Where The Red Fern Grows, Follow Me Boys, Laurel and Hardy films as well as more serious movies like The Drylanders and National Film Board of Canada documentaries were projected up on the screen. To us staff kids, who were not allowed to have televisions in our homes, this was a big deal. Never fear though, the high standards did not completely go out the window! One year, during the showing of Sound of Music, a hand quickly went up to cover the lens when the Baroness made her entry, as it was deemed the neckline of her blouse was too low.
For many years a "Boxing Day Program" was planned with zany skits and funny musical numbers. Hot chocolate and treats were served. I remember Vernon Charter playing a hand saw with a violin bow and George Bryant and Bert Shelton lip syncing to some funny song. At the ages of 4 and 6 my wife Cathy and her brother John Kirk made their acting debut in a parody of college students, alongside Mrs. Pulliam who played a young grade school girl in pigtails.
The Dining Hall was the scene of another highlight of the holidays. Every Christmas Day for decades, the school invited all staff, students and families for a formal dinner. A full course turkey meal with all of the trimmings was served. The Dining Hall was decorated with a large 20 foot Christmas tree at it's centre. The mounted deer heads were given red noses in honor of a missing Rudolf. The kitchen staff prepared for and fed close to 1000 people. For us kids this event was terribly exciting. We would dress up in our finest, every hair in place, often wearing new clothes we had just received that morning. Mom was from a large family of 12 children and many of my Aunts, Uncles and cousins travelled a great distance at considerable cost, braving perilous conditions to be in Three Hills for Christmas. It was exciting to see people we hadn't seen for a year or more. Staff kids that had grown up and left the nest would often be home for Christmas, accompanying their parents to the Christmas dinner. Tongues would wag about which girl's dress was the shortest, who wore the most makeup and jewelry, or which boys had their hair over the ears and collars. These "worldly" actions were the subject of great interest and gossip for weeks after the big event.
To say that my mother LOVED Christmas would be a huge understatement! Because she had endured some pretty bleak Christmases as a child, she did everything in her power to make them extra special for our family. The baking and decorating would start weeks before. Mom had the house decked out in festive lights and colors and would host parties, meals and game nights for various church groups as well friends and relatives. We boys helped pull taffy, make chocolates, decorate cookies and squares and wrap presents. Mom gave presents to everyone! At least it seemed like it to us kids. She gave presents to students she had gotten to know, people in the church, relatives, friends, neighbors and always had a few extra gifts wrapped, "just in case". She organized large food hampers and gifts for needy families and married students in the community. Mom had the "It's more blessed to give than to receive" thing down pretty good. We were made keenly aware of the less fortunate and were taught to be grateful and thankful for what we had.
Both Dad and Mom made a great effort and sacrifice to see that we were given nice gifts at Christmas. Usually, we received one "big" present like hockey equipment and several smaller gifts. They always included a book or two as reading was very important around our house. There was one family gift as well. I remember a toboggan one year. We would save up our allowances and do our best to get both Mom and Dad something we thought they would like. Dad would always try and determine what was in the package so we would go to great lengths to disguise the contents using rocks for extra weight and large boxes to keep him from guessing. It was fun watching them open their presents. Mom would use some of her creativity in making our Christmas stockings extra special. Along with the standard gum, candy and orange, she would include our favorite Archie comic book, jacks, a puzzle or two and maybe a small game. This gave her a great deal of pleasure and she was always delighted as we opened them. On Christmas morning, we were up at some crazy hour, bugging Mom and Dad to wake up. When we succeeded, Dad would read the Christmas story from Luke, chapter 2 and then we were allowed to open our presents. After Christmas dinner we would make the rounds to Grandpa and Grandma's, Uncle's and Aunt's to see what everyone had received for Christmas. Many were the hours spent around Grandma's kitchen table playing a lively game of Pit or Stock Ticker, consuming Grandma's special popcorn balls and other treats. By the end of the day we were tired out and ready to say with jolly old St. Nick, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!", and with Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!".
These are just a few of my memories of Christmas as a Prairie Boy . . . I wouldn't have wanted it any other way!
Thanks to Darrell Wilson for the pictures circa 1971
© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.