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Uncle Elmer's enduring lesson of joy

By David Wilson

This time of year brings to mind the Christmas Eve many years ago when my uncle Elmer taught the small country church my family attended something new about the meaning of the holy season.

Every kid should have an uncle like Elmer. Despite the rigours of supporting a family of seven on a carpenter's wages, he possessed a playfulness, even into old age, that delighted kids and made kids again out of grownups. His eyes sparkled with the promise of mischief.

He was born of Swedish parents on a farm in Saskatchewan and married my father's sister after the Second World War. His background (he was passionately Swedish but didn't speak a word of the language) and his wartime heroics (he never fired a shot) were his two favourite flights of fancy.

He and my aunt were visiting from Vancouver on the Christmas Eve in question. Elmer was at the top of his game that night, regaling us with claims about his royal Swedish lineage and the natural superiority of Swedish hockey, affecting a Swedish accent and softening his j's so they became y's.

We were a jolly bunch who cleared the dinner dishes and drove to church for the Christmas Eve service. We made our way inside and settled into the bough-decked pews, Elmer enthusiastically chatting with my parents' friends and anyone else who crossed his path.

He enjoyed the service thoroughly, singing boisterously and prodding others to belt out the Christmas carols with him. He also had that familiar glint in his eye; all of us who knew that look could tell something was brewing.

We found out what it was when we rose to sing for the last time. The organist tapped out an introduction, and as the congregation and choir joined in, a loud, woefully off-key voice soared above all the others: "Yoy to the world/ The Lord is come...."

"Yingle Bells" followed. I will never forget the "Oh, Elmer" look on my aunt's face, the tears that rolled down my father's cheeks as he tried to keep from exploding in laughter, the bemused grins of the people sitting around us. Throughout, Elmer wore an expression of angelic innocence. By the time the song ended, the rest of the congregation had caught on and snickers rippled across the sanctuary. There was electricity in the air and people had a spring in their step as they exited into the cold, dark night.

I think Elmer, in his own way, preached a simple yet enduring lesson about Christmas to us all that night. He reminded us to make room for the spontaneous in the midst of the season's traditions and rituals -- to admit and celebrate sudden bursts of light, to come and behold the Spirit and the unpredictable ways it moves among people seeking its presence. Elmer offered a gift of the Christmas truth, proclaiming, "Joy happens" -- no matter how you pronounce it.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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