Christmas is omnipresent, reaching out even to people who don’t celebrate it in any traditional way. I grew up in a Jewish family, and our observance of Christmas consisted largely of getting into the family car on a fine evening in late December and driving around certain neighbourhoods to admire the extravagant displays of ornamental lighting that some householders had taken the trouble to put on show. This was not the whole story of Christmas, of course, and school filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was a pupil in Montreal’s public education system, a peculiar religious bifurcation prevailed: if you were Catholic, you were enrolled at a Catholic school; if you were not Catholic, you were sent to a Protestant school. This made me an honorary Protestant. (Religious duality persists to this day in the Ontario public education system, with its separate Catholic schools.)
Pupils at my “Protestant” elementary school, the majority of us Jewish, encountered a largely secular atmosphere. We were not exposed to the unrelenting religious propaganda that some of our Catholic contemporaries can recall quite vividly. But there were certain rituals we were expected to observe.
One of these rituals was the singing of traditional Christmas carols. Although the religious significance of these carols was lost on me, I rather liked some of them, with their haunting melodies and poetic lyrics. “Little Star of Bethlehem” and “Away in a Manger” come to mind. Others were more contentious, in particular “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” with its repeated refrain of “Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me.” This, however, I regarded more as a seasonal annoyance than as a cause of dismay.
What the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal lacked in year-round religious zeal, it made up for in not so subtle political messaging. At the front left corner of each classroom in my elementary school, near ceiling level, hung a Union Jack – not the Canadian pre-1967 ensign, with its scaled-down Union Jack, but the full-bore symbol of Canada’s colonial past. Every morning we were led in a pledge of allegiance “to this flag and to the Commonwealth for which it stands.” The school authorities would most likely have preferred the word Empire, but history had got in the way, much to their chagrin. Nevertheless, Stephen Harper would have been enchanted.
The PSBGM (replaced by a non-confessional board in 1998) got some things right. It dispensed a quality of education that, over the generations, produced relatively large numbers of university entrants. But it did have its weaknesses. A glaring example was the teaching of French, which it seemed to treat as a foreign language. Some of its French teachers were hampered by their own shaky grasp of the language, and this was reflected in the many cohorts of high school graduates who, all too often, emerged functionally unilingual. Changes began to occur in the 1970s. Students started becoming better prepared to function in a majority-French society, though by then the damage was done, contributing mightily to Montreal’s Anglo exodus in the final quarter of the century.
But I digress. Christmas is as good a time as any to think lofty thoughts. It falls just half a week after the winter solstice. It is the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Yet we often associate Christmas with light. This holiday, so important to so many, can play a powerful role in evoking memories. It has a way of penetrating our subconscious. And this is not a bad thing.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator who takes heart in the gradual lengthening of the days since the winter solstice.