Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace
— From “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” 15th-century English carol, author unknown
The sense of excitement and anticipation you feel on Christmas Eve has always made Dec. 24 my favourite day of the year, and not Dec. 25.
And my family, like most, has traditions we like to keep.
Ours involve ham and scalloped potatoes, raisin sauce and rum cake, and the opening of one gift — a practice that extends to our dog, as well, since he is every bit as excited about Christmas and presents as we are.
My biggest challenge this year was lugging his new bed into the house without him seeing it.
“Don’t look!” I admonished as he followed me down the hall, tail wagging, as I tried to stash the present.
He didn’t listen. In fact, it’s hidden with other gifts in a closet and he sneaks a peek at it every chance he gets.
Our Christmas Eve traditions also include an exuberant singing of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Don’t ask.
The Christmas music we like is decidedly eclectic — everything from a hilarious version of Bob Dylan lustily belting out “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” to Sting’s atmospheric “Lullaby For An Anxious Child,” to Mahalia Jackson’s powerful “O Holy Night.”
There’s something completely magical about Christmas Eve. Families are usually together, for one thing. It’s all about home and warmth and love.
It’s the payback you get for all those harried moments spent rushing through the mall or stuck in traffic in Big Boxville or cooling your heels in a checkout line.
The stores close, traffic dwindles, the sun goes down, the tree lights come on and the Christmas music gets cranked up. There’s nowhere else you have to be or want to be.
But that’s not how Christmas Eve used to be when I was a kid.
Back then, there were a lot more unexpected visitors.
And while I love the family time we share at Christmas now, I still feel the odd twinge of nostalgia for earlier Christmases, when you never knew who was going to straggle in through the back door, bringing in a brisk whiff of salty air and spicy wood smoke along with them.
Living around the bay, Christmas Eve was the launch of the holiday house crawl, when a crowd of men in town would start from one end of the place and stop in to visit every house along the road, having a swally or two along the way.
It didn’t take too many houses before the swallies kicked in, and that made for some hilarious — if not quite politically correct — moments.
And yes, I know all that drinking was unhealthy, but we were child observers, and the revellers were quite a contrast to my mostly teetotalling parents.
There was one Christmas Eve when my nephew was still a baby. One look at the cute little fellow sleeping in his crib had all the men reaching clumsily into their pockets and showering him with money. Soon, he was lying there blissfully under a blanket of crumpled ones and twos and fives.
“Here’sss sssssomething for the baby,” they slurred affectionately.
It was always the same crowd every year, and they’d badger my father until he dug out the accordion and played a few songs: “Black Velvet Band,” “Wild Colonial Boy” — all the old standards, as some of them sang along or displayed an impaired ability to keep time to a beat with their hands and feet.
Dropping by for a nightcap
Some years, the pack of rowdies would start at the other end of town and wouldn’t arrive at our house until quite late. Those years, we opened our presents after the midnight church service quite hurriedly for fear of being interrupted by their clamorous arrival.
Most years, if they approached your house late and saw that the lights were all off, they took pity on your family and moved on next door.
But not every year.
My mother always tells the story of how she and Dad and I — the youngest child, then around age three — were sound asleep in their bed one Christmas Eve when a band of very merry men staggered into their room en masse, one of them clutching a walking doll intended for my older sister.
“Santy Claus left this for the baby,” one fellow said helpfully, proffering the doll, before being shooed out of the room by my unimpressed — but still smiling — parents.
It’s hard to imagine that now — a time when you would leave all the doors unlocked at night and your first impulse at finding unexpected visitors in your bedroom was not to reach for the baseball bat stashed under your bed.
But those were simpler days and, in truth, the men congregated as much to share the Christmas spirit as to enjoy other types of spirits.
Looking back, in their own way they were like Santa Claus himself, going from house to house and spreading cheer, leaving gifts and enjoying a few refreshments for their efforts.
Luckily for them — and us — no one ever came down through the chimney.
Most of those men have passed on now.
I like to think that they’re up there somewhere, excited as children and gearing up for a night of Christmas revelry.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.