Five brothers and their Christmas Pony, throwing water on a burning tree-and other reminiscences of rural life.
Each Christmas Eve during my childhood, my father shared a wonderful gift with me: his stories about the yuletides of his youth. A talented raconteur, he told tales of sleigh rides that sparkled with the crystalline clarity of a December frost. His words took me back in spirit to the days of his childhood in rural New Brunswick, into the sharp cold, the brilliant moonlight. I imagined myself huddled beneath dusty buffalo robes recently pulled from pegs in the stable, where they were in hibernation over summer, with bricks hot from the oven warming my feet. I could almost hear the great team of chestnut Percherons snorting and blowing while they lumbered along the rough, broken road, harness and sleigh bells jingling as they pulled the family to Christmas Eve celebrations at the little country church five miles from the farm.
In the days before electricity had reached my father's small community, the Christmas tree in the church was lit up with real candles. Regularly assigned to the bucket brigade in the event that the tree caught fire, my father recounted how he and his four brothers would eagerly await the need for their services. When the tree finally did burst into flames, the Fowlie boys had the responsibility of extinguishing the conflagration before it seriously threatened the church-and its congregation. It was the highlight of their Christmas Eve celebrations.
In spite of being entrusted with this seemingly adult responsibility, my father and his brothers weren't so different from kids today. They, too, had Christmas wish lists. Granted, the items weren't as numerous, expensive or high-tech as they frequently are today, but they were still costly and not always possible given the family's income and the economics of the day. They asked for oranges and store-bought candy, and skate screws to fasten blades to their boots so they could go gliding across the millpond below their home. And like so many kids today, they asked for a means of transportation.
Oh, nothing so grand as a bicycle. A pony. A small, manageable means of getting about. They were still all far too young to be given access to one of the farm horses.
The first Christmas after they made their request, their wish came at least partially true. They received a small sled, a mini-harness set…and a bull calf.
"We did manage to wrestle him into the harness and get him attached to the sled," my father recalled. "But then he took off bucking and kicking. It took all five of us to catch him."
The brothers decided to try a new strategy. They would take the bull calf down onto the slick ice of the millpond. There he wouldn't be able to get much traction on the slippery surface, they reasoned, thus rendering him manageable.
The idea, like so many others, sounded good in theory but didn't prove effective in fact. Once on the ice the little bull slipped, fell, then lay sprawled and inert, terrified on this foreign footing. The boys took him back to the barn and retired him from a career in transportation.
Undaunted, they renewed their request for a pony the following Christmas. This time their wish came true. Christmas week a sturdy, brown pony appeared in the stable. Excited, they harnessed it, attached it to the sled the bull calf had failed to manage the previous year, and headed out for a drive.
And drive and even ride they did, until spring arrived. The first day after warm weather had melted the snow cover on the bridge that led across the brook between the farm and the main community road, a totally unanticipated problem reared its head. It happened one sunny April morning.
My father had decided to visit a school friend on the other side of the brook. He mounted Christmas Pony and loped out of the farmyard. All went well until the pony's hooves hit the bare boards of the bridge. As if struck by lightning, he shrieked, reared, and bucked in such a sudden and unexpected sequence that my unsuspecting father was tossed clear over his head.
Farm boy tough, he quickly scrambled to his feet. Looking back to the spot from which he'd so swiftly been propelled, he saw Christmas Pony standing at the edge of the boards. Ears pricked he was gazing round-eyed at his former rider, as much surprised by the chain of events as my father was. Apparently, my father deduced, Christmas Pony had been terrified by the hollow sound of his hooves on the bridge planks. Not easily deterred, he immediately tried to fathom a solution to the problem.
Crossing the stream, which was swollen with a spring freshet, definitely wasn't an option. So home my father went to enlist the assistance of his brothers. En masse the five youngsters returned to the bridge determined to help the little animal overcome his phobia.
They pushed, prodded and pulled but it soon became apparent that nothing short of carrying Christmas Pony over the boards would get him to the far side of the brook. The boys were forced to accept the fact that whenever the bridge was bare and the stream beneath it too deep to ford, they'd once again be travelling au pied.
Then there was the story of the Christmas in 1919 when my father as a teenager went a-wooing and got himself the rural-New-Brunswick-version of grounded. In an attempt to impress the object of his affections and make a dashing exit from an evening of courting, he urged one of the Percherons with family sleigh attached to a full gallop. As he attempted to round the gatepost at the end of her drive at top speed, the sleigh hit a bump and overturned. Thrown from the sleigh, my father suffered a broken nose and two black eyes when he struck a nearby fence post. Fortunately the horse was unharmed but the family sleigh was a shambles.
These days a teenager would have the car keys confiscated. My father was given a similar punishment for the times. He was denied access to the new sleigh and, when spring finally rolled around, the buggy. As a result, he spent the next several months travelling to visit his lady fair on horseback, the Percheron's only trappings an old plaid blanket and a working bridle complete with draft horse blinders-and no sleigh to take her out in. Years later, after he'd had an opportunity to read Cervantes, he commented that he would have made Don Quixote at his worst look good.
That comment was typical of the dry wit my father frequently incorporated into his stories. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I never tired of hearing them. And, he told them with such glowing and intense attention to detail. All the warmth and love they rekindled in his heart with each recounting shined out to brighten even the darkest hours of the solstice. They were as much a tradition of the holiday season for me as The Night before Christmas and A Christmas Carol were to other children.
My father died in 1983, but he lives on through his stories. His ability to take the events of ordinary, everyday life and turn them into delightful yarns has been one of his greatest legacies to me. I'll always cherish the stories and, as I pass them on to my children, I hope they remain a part of our family's Christmas traditions for many years to come.
Gail MacMillan is the author of 11 books, among them A Breed Apart: Nova Scotia's Duck Tolling Retriever and Biography of a Beagle.