When I became a university student, I discovered not only that there were many events and celebrations other than the ones that I had been instructed in, but also that there were different ways of celebrating the ones that I had known all my life.
I grew up in a Nova Scotia town where Christmas – perhaps the most important holiday of the year – was celebrated in two stages. First there was an extended family dinner where – faith and begorra – there was a choice of soft drinks and candies. Never mind the turkey with all the trimmings which was, after all, only food. The thrill was in having unbridled access to sugar. The best of all these sweet provocateurs was my Aunt Ada, who as near as I can determine, had a personal mission to make us all ruddy-cheeked, tops and bottoms.
In time, I would leave these small town experiences behind me. I left Cape Breton for Halifax, there to attend the University of King’s College. I became an undergraduate at an institution that had been established almost 200 years before. What I discovered was the classic (and classical) ivy-covered college, students in academic gowns, a formal meal every evening, and more customs and traditions than I believed possible.
It was a shock to dress in jacket, tie and gown for dinners that began with Latin grace, experiencing a full place setting and a three course meal. At home one had soup or meat and potatoes, never both. I learned the practice of the old admonition: “No talk of sex, politics or religion during dinner please.” We avoided contentious issues and stuck to what they call “light topics.” We learned the gentle art of polite conversation.
Before I knew it, December arrived. I found myself immersed in term exams that I, like many others, was totally unprepared for. To get through this trial, we all had to study long into the night – every night. We went without everything but our books. We took on haggard looks, and experiencing all sorts of sleep and food deprived ailments. We were the walking dead.
When it seemed that we just might not survive this terrible ordeal, we were advised there would be a “King’s at Home” in the Haliburton Room. What on earth was this, I wondered. I was told the university, in its in loco parentis role (in place of home and parents) would hold a Christmas celebration so that we might experience the friends and fellowship now being denied us. We had to work, though all of us were thinking of being home with our folks.
I was utterly unprepared for that evening. It began with one student reciting A.A. Milne’s King John’s Christmas – a child’s poem. That was followed by another reciting A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Then, another read one of Charles G.D. Robert’s animal stories. The event became quite hilarious when we all sang, with gusto, children’s Christmas songs like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. I was getting over my shock at seeing sophisticated university people sharing what were clearly child-like activities.
Then, things became much more subdued. Several told interesting and somewhat humorous stories about their past Christmas experiences, all of which seemed very different than mine. Someone appeared at the piano. We sang carols – which now seem to me to have been not a little sad. Tears well when I think of how Silent Night and Silver Bells sounded that evening, as a fire crackled in the fireplace.
Cookies and hot cider were served, and I found us all clutching our mugs and reaching out to each other. I thought, as others must have, that we might just survive this awful experience called “education.” Too soon, it came to an end. We broke off and drifted to our rooms, to study once again. Somehow though, our university – acting as our absent parents – had given us the courage to go on until we could be re-united with our families………..and once again have our choice of soft drinks and candy.