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The Christmas Can

Something ordinary often means much more during the holidays

By David Wilson

My family moved a lot when I was young. No matter the city, no matter the house, there was always one constant. We called it “The Can.” It was just that — a tin can that we flung loose change into after running to the corner store, or lifted down from the cupboard to pay the paperboy. My mother still uses it.

The Can was such a fixture in the various places we lived that no one ever gave it a second thought. It was just there. I had forgotten about it until last year at this time when the subject of The Can came up as my mother reminisced about Christmases past. It turns out that The Can was more than a place to dump pocket change. It was a treasury that held the story of how my parents spent their first Christmas together.

They were married in September 1950 and lived in a small industrial city in southwestern Ontario, where my father was a hardware store clerk and my mother worked as a stenographer in the office of a factory that made precision lathes for heavy industries. They earned very little but were saving diligently to buy their first home. The Can, with its slotted lid and green lettering advertising a long-forgotten paint company, was part of their savings plan.

Despite their modest means, Mom and Dad were excited about their first Christmas. My father’s mother, who was prone to mood swings, was less so. She told my father she would not be celebrating Christmas that year and that they could have her tree ornaments.

A couple of days before Christmas, my parents brought home a little evergreen in their 1929 Durant. Late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, my father went over to his mother’s to pick up the ornaments she had promised. He arrived to discover her tree set up and decorated after all.

My father had a stubborn streak. He left his mother’s house more determined than ever that their first Christmas tree was going to have decorations. It was getting late but Woolworth’s was still open. Only one problem: he was flat broke. He went home and told my mother what had happened. They looked at each other. They looked at The Can. Then my father reached for a can opener.

My parents eventually bought that first house; over the years, they went on to buy several more. The Can, minus its lid, followed them everywhere they went. So did the glass ornaments they bought that first penniless Christmas. More than 60 Christmases later, my mother still has some of them. Each year, she carefully removes them from their tissue-paper wrapping and sets them out on display.

One of the enduring miracles of Christmas is that the themes of grace, mercy and love in the story of the first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago still shape Christmas stories today. Maybe your family has its own special Christmas story. Maybe it’s still waiting to be told. Whatever it is, cherish it. It may be about something as ordinary as evergreens, ornaments and tin cans, but it means much, much more.

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