Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Childhood Christmas Memories

Elder recalls childhood Christmases: Cold nights, Dog sleds

By Lasha Morningstar
Catholic News Service

EDMONTON, Alberta (CNS) -- The northern lights danced through the sky in Fort Murray, Alberta, as the ring of dog-sled bells filled the air.

Out into the cold a little Alvena Laboucane, her six brothers and sisters and her mother hurried through the snow to Christmas Eve Mass at St. John the Baptist Church. The older children hauled the little ones on toboggans. It was so cold -- 40 below zero -- that the trees cracked and split.

Father Patrick Mercredi greeted them as they came through the church door. The fragrance of incense, burning candles and freshly cut Christmas trees filled the young girl's lungs.

The church was packed with the faithful who traveled by dog sled from Anzak, Fort Chipewyan and Fort MacKay.

"All the friendly faces, and the Christ Child was there to greet us," said Alvena Strasbourg, now an 85-year-old metis (of mixed parentage) elder with 23 grandchildren. Her face softened as she recalled her childhood Christmases and said, "Without faith and love, there is no life."

Strasbourg, author of "Memories of a Metis Woman: Fort McMurray Yesterday & Today" and president of the Metis Child and Family Services Society, acknowledged the strength she developed from her devoted and hardworking parents -- one French Canadian and one a member of Canada's native peoples.

As she recalled the Christmas concert days before Christmas Eve, she said: "You could hear the people coming, you could hear the people coming.

"They came from all the reserves. Nobody was any different in those days until the government came along and tried to separate us (metis from First Nations)," she said.

"And it was all dog teams," she said.

"You had to tie the dogs separately because they would fight. And they were big dogs," said Strasbourg.

As the visitors filled the town, Strasbourg said she would marvel at the beaded parkas, mitts and mukluks. Even the dogs wore beaded blankets and the harnesses were studded with bells broadcasting their way through the night.

"The women must have sewed for months," she said.

Strasbourg said her mother welcomed travelers as they arrived through the night.

"My mother would take in anybody," she said. "She was friends with everybody and would make beds all over."

Although Strasbourg's childhood house always had a tree, decorations were sparse, she said. Her mother would cut silver strips of empty silver tea packages and green and red tissue paper to decorate, she said.

Strasbourg said that as she, her mother and siblings went to Christmas Eve Mass, her father stayed behind saying, "I'll stay and watch for Santa Claus."

The Christmas Eve Mass was celebrated in Latin, and the hymns were sung in French, English, Cree and Chipewyan.

On Christmas Day the boys received little toys and the girls received dolls.

Christmas dinner featured a turkey, potatoes from the cold cellar, carrots that had been buried in sand and dried onions. For dessert, the family would eat apple and raisin pies and steamed pudding with sauce.

"Mother could not read or write, but she could cook the tastiest meals," said Strasbourg.

After dinner, entertainment was produced by family members.

"My mother played the violin and accordion, and we would dance and sing," she said. "My dad was a dancer and he taught us how to dance. And I still do the 'Red River Jig' today."

Christmas today is not as good as decades ago, she said.

"It was much better then than it is today because everything is so superficial now. There is nothing about Jesus anymore," she said. "It's about how many toys you can buy and how expensive can they be.

"We never thought about things like that. We believed," she said.

Strasbourg said if there is no belief in Jesus there is nothing.


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