Posted by: alexhickey | December 22, 2019

Silent Santa © Alex Hickey – 2019

St. Jacques, Newfoundland

Christmas Eve is one of the most surreal days on the Advent Calendar. It’s a non-event, in that the only recognition afforded it is the distinction of being simply a day which precedes the internationally recognized December twenty-fifth.  Yet, many businesses close early, government offices empty out well before the usual five o’clock exodus. And, in many homes around the world nervous excitement invades the hearts and bodies of small children, their older siblings and parents. In fact, it is so contagious, near everyone but the occasional Scrooge feels it grow in intensity as the day wanes.

Whether you grew up in a neighborhood of downtown London where Charles Dickens penned the perennial favourite, A Christmas Carol, or in Lycia where the fourth century St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, the poor and prostitutes was born; or in a small sea-side harbour on the south coast of Newfoundland the feeling is much the same.  It’s hard to put your finger on that feeling even though it brings on a smorgasbord of emotion which ranges from euphoria to despair.  The lens of nostalgia, polished and tempered by years, yellows warmly with age and accentuates with fondness most of the memories we retain of that day, even those of a less pleasant nature.

My grandmother often spoke of the barn animals receiving the gift of speech on Christmas Eve which lasted until daylight, Christmas morning. Even as a child skepticism must have shown on my face for she challenged me to visit a barn myself to find out; knowing full well my primary goal on that night was to snuggle beneath the covers with ears attuned to every sound within and outside the house.  I must admit, I did wonder what the hens might say to one another or what thoughts the horses would share there in their stalls. I also imagined their voices; high, clipped and frantic in the hen house while those in the horse barn drawled in low resonating, gravelly tones, each moving their heads accordingly. Molly, the auburn mare would probably tell stories from the pages of the Black Stallion while Trigger, an elderly Newfoundland Pony, paid little attention as he reminisced out loud about his experiences hauling wood from the Horsechops or Joey Francis Pond in winter.  The vast majority of my visits to the barn as a child was to shovel out the stalls in the morning.  If any of them talked the night before the evidence on their floor certainly didn’t suggest lofty philosophical ruminations.

Inside our house there was a flurry of activity.  The firebox of the wood and coal fired Renfrew kitchen stove swelled and radiated, as last minute baking added delight to the late afternoon.  Cinnamon, cloves and allspice hung in the air and competed with wafting hints of light-skinned, simmering raisins. The distinctive mouth-watering scent of gingerbread cookies, cut to resemble hearts, diamonds, bells and Christmas trees escaping the oven, teasing those of us who ventured temporarily into the house to ward off frost bite. As a small child these things were expected and accepted without wondering about the amount of work that lay behind them.  It was much later, astronomical time in the life of a child but so few short years in retrospect, when the façade and veneer of the season began to crack and crumble.  It was then I began to develop a more complex appreciation for Christmas Eve, and see the enormous human effort of my mother on that day.

From early that morning the mothers in our houses labored tirelessly with the usual demands of children accentuated with anticipation and restlessness.  Christmas Eve meant there was no early to bed for them.  Nor would they get much rest when they finally folded their tired bones into the mattress for in the shortest of hours would be heard the creaks of floorboards and the furtive question, “Can we get up now?”

Getting young children to bed on Christmas Eve was a two-edged challenge.  On the one hand, they needed to be in bed before the critical mass of decorating could be done; while on the other, if they retired too early they would be awake long before daylight.  It seems to me that this was the only night of the year children begged to go to bed early!

Once they were tucked in, admonished not to come down stairs and to go to sleep right away, the tree was brought into the house. The chill of winter emanated from it as its branches thawed and chunks of attached ice melted and dripped to the floor. Sometimes it took an hour or more before the incredible smell of the forest began to permeate the room. We took that as a sign to begin the decorating.

Even where there were sufficient older children to assume responsibility for decorating the tree, the process was watched and managed by mom. She would retreat upstairs following each progress review, to the bedroom she shared with dad.  There, she wrapped gifts that had been hidden beneath the bed, in the closet and anyplace else something could be stashed away from our curious and prying eyes.

It was usually well past midnight by the time the last decoration was hung, the last gift placed strategically beneath the tree, the last stocking stuffed, and the tree festooned with a cloak of tinsel draped between the bells, baubles and angels on each limb. A glance at the clock, another at the stove, then a quick appraisal of the Christmas tree, and a few adjustments to gifts and stockings was followed by a collapse into a chair. After catching her breath it was off to bed in hopes of catching a few hours of rest before the chaos of morning erupted in the living room.

She wasn’t superhuman or all that different from other mothers in the community. They all lived with the same expectation of making the magic of Christmas appear on Christmas Eve – the expectation of transforming the spaces of our ordinary lives into exotic colourful wonderlands. By morning, red, green, silver and gold shiny snowflakes and bells danced across the kitchen ceiling to the rhythm of heat from the stove.  Silver tinsel encrusted wreaths hung in windows still covered in layers of frost, its intricate patterns interrupted only where someone had placed a warm hand against the pane or had blown their breath across it to peek at the outside world. Soon, that too would melt away as the stove was fed a steady diet of dried spruce from the well-stocked wood box.

Our lives felt transformed.  We had stepped from the bleakness of cold short snow-blown, winter days into a carnival of brilliant colours reflecting from every branch of the tree, exotic tastes of oranges and grapes from foreign shores, luxurious textures of woolen sweaters and socks, and smells of peppermint and apples that linger still. It was a place of warmth made ever so much warmer because of the silent Santa Claus whose tireless efforts were willingly rendered invisible to create the magic.




  1. “I remember Mama.” You’ve out-Dickened Dickens and composed a post that should be repeated every Christmas ad infinitem. I chuckled when I read Molly’s name. I once wrote a school composition on Molly, my favourite horse. Unfortunately, I got the letter ‘m’ confused with ‘n’ and spelled her name Nolly. To this day, my sister Kathleen reminds me of my “Nolly” composition. When my brother, Maurice, was a child he threw a little stone at Molly hoping to make her run. Uncle Charlie Pearcey yelled “Mars, Mars, you get away from my ‘ars.” Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas. John

  2. Alex:Yet again,you have taken us home..Yesterday the residents here(60 showed up) at Christie Gardens for a talk on A Newfoundland Christmas…a great response and many questions…thirteen kids…..thirteen stockings ( not really,as each grew up,Christmas for the youngsters…)..Joan came over from her place along with her son to enjoy.. my reminiscences. Happy New Year: John


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