RECOLLECTIONS OF NEW YEAR'S EVE by Mel Robertson
This article appeared in "The Advance" about 30 years ago when I was writing under the non-de-plume of "The Onlooker". It is being repeated at the request of a number of people who have phoned or stopped me to say that they liked "Down the Road to Christmas". I would like to thank those who let me know.
The "Dead pond" referred to in this article is a body of water on the left side of the maple Ave. North one mile north of Burford. It is the former bed of the creek and in the 1920s was a favourite skating place for children. There were no houses on maple Ave. North between Muriel Miller's and Mr. DeMunck's and it was a pretty cold stretch of the road. However, kids who wanted to skate thought nothing of making the mile walk to "The Dead Pond", day or night. Parents never seemed to worry as they know that their kids were familiar with the creek area from their summer activities and would avoid any dangerous places and during my many trips to the "Dead Pond" in winter I cannot recall that
anyone suffered any injuries.
WHEARS AND years ago when sleigh-bells rang everywhere and leather-legginged little boys tumbled like cotton roly-polys in the fence-high snow, when shovels rasped endlessly with the voice of asthmatic billy-goats trying to maintain the difference between the street and the sidewalk, and when we were all less complicated, New Year's Eve was a second Santa Claus Night. It was a time when children could hang up one stocking and expect one gift without feeling that they were being spoiled. This practice was traditional in many homes, No one expected anything elaborate, but just a hint that Santa Claus, or someone, had had an afterthought. Of course, no child put out a lunch for the over-worked Spirit and bed-time did not come while it was still light. However, during Christmas week, a feeling of mystery hung about the rather dry and brittle tree in the back parlour, and looking at it in the dark just before supper, made you feel that it still had something to say.
Toys still hovered about the old cheese-box in which the tree stood and on the table sultana raisins and hazel nuts remained in lessened abundance just as they had rattled from the long, white, giraffe stockings in the shivery dusk of Christmas morning. 0ver on the fern-stand a celluloid "noddler" in the form of a Samurai warrior bobbed fiercely when you poked through the fronds and found him. New Year's Eve made you look hard at the old tree because in it was compounded both the mystery of Christmas
and the feeling that the end of the year must be marked by some physical or celestial demonstration.
I don't know just what I expected to happen at midnight on the last night of the year. Would a great door slam somewhere? Would a mighty page be seen to turn in the heavens, giving us all a fresh start? Would a voice on high say, "That's it, folks," or would there merely be a star falling endlessly through the ice-crackling skies? I expected almost anything and I wanted to see it, but bed-time was always before the magic hour and i was never present to witness the phenomenon that undoubtedly took place. Still the prospect of a new year was rather frightening and looking back, I guess that i felt like the people who gathered in the churches at midnight of the year 999, fearful that the world would end with the 1000th vear. Northina
luuuui year, worming happened then, but could a six-year-old boy be really sure that an exception might not be made?
In the early 20s a child's day was not taken up with television, radio, improving mass activities and appointments. Much of his world was in his imagination and playtime was composed of a series of self-made situations rendered brighter by the kindly assistance of aunts and family friends. The week between Christmas and New Year's was like the dying away of a siren or the fading echoes of a great shout, you remembered the climax and as it faded during the week you waited for the joyful sound to bounce back once more on New Year's Eve and New Year's day. You hated to let go of the magic completely, for each year, as you grew older, part of it was blotted out by the reality of everyday.
One of my clearest recollections of New Year's Eve, when I was a boy, is that of the remarkable peace and quiet in the house after supper. Then, the big hanging lamp in the back parlour was lit and as the light danced from the prisms when Mother's hand moved them, shadows leapt about the old Christmas tree and we rushed to draw the heavy red curtains that shut us off from the moon-lit mysteries of the front parlour. Sometimes, before the mysteries could accumulate, I would creep into the Sunday afternoon atmosphere of the front room and peek from dark, frost-filagreed windows into the Arctic streets where horses, steaming like resting locomotives, shook bandaging straps of bells and snorted magnificently under their blankets. Through snow-muffled streets late shoppers staggered with duck-like tread, ham-handed with mittens and dumpy under moth-eaten buffalo coats. Voices and distant laughter mingled in a whirlpool df crystal for one moment before you realized that you were cut off in the prim shadows of the front parlour on the very night when something was bound to happen. Then, hastening back to the lamp-light of the other room, you stood panting while the curtains, agitated by the speed of your passage, waved quietly, cutting you off from the increasing mysteries of the Sunday parlour.
Back in the bear-hugging warmth of the big stove with flat-irons warming for bed under the iron funeral urn on top and the fire leaping behind the coloured micas, you could curl up in the high-backed chair and wait for some sign from the old tree. No television exercised its laxative-advertising tyranny and radios were just conversation topics in barber shops. The only entertainment was a phonograph in the cold front hall with a stiff spring to wind and needles "Guaranteed good for
one record." A trip into the dark hall w too much of a hazard for New Year's Eve and besides, the head-shattering music of Arthur Pryor's band might drown the sounds of the anticipated pageant of the changing year.
Sometimes friends appeared after supper, aunts most certainly, dropping snow, ice-cleats and overshoes in the echoing hall and pounding up the carpeted stairs like the last call for Noah's Ark. Then there was quiet conversation of other New Year's Eves, the turning of the Century and Watch Night Services.
The mention of "Watch Night" heightened the mystery of the evening with visions of ghostly, candle-lit processions shivering up bat-black belfry stairs to ring a frosty bell and watch for something. The fact that some Churches did not have bells seemed to have made little difference to the "Watchers" although, in later years, I often wondered what mixed groups did in the absence of a bell or what happened if the midnight spectacle included the simultaneous snuffing of all candles. Nevertheless, sometimes at midnight the bells roused little sleepers and sent their fearful feet in search of the now cold irons at the foot of the bed. At other times the stillness of the house was broken by the sound of Father's voice declaiming like an auctioneer at Pompeii, "Ring out the old, Ring in the new." However, complete assurance never came until the laughter of the "Watchers", returning from Church, was heard. Surely this was an indication that the people who had really been watching had not seen anything to upset them. Only then, as the crunching footsteps and merry voices disappeared in the street, could I turn over, confident of another 364 days of calm.
Later, as I grew older and was "allowed out" after supper, the search for the New Year's mystery went farther afield and expeditions were organized to the creek and the summer abode of "The Fearless Hunters". Why there, I cannot say, except that since the creek was the scene of our summertime playtime fantasies, possibly it would be the stage for the mid-winter revelation. So with Bulldog skates and candle lanterns we would fare forth in the early darkness and crash along the north Road, talking loudly and boasting recklessly to dissuade the lurking unknown. 'My cousin knows a Mountie", one would say. "My aunt plays the slide-trombone" (a sound to charm the spirits). "My Uncle shot a whale", and other brave, fatuous assertions whose authenticity we would never need to prove. As the valley of the creek drew near a 'Get-back-you-go-first" feeling would possess us for we were certain that someyhing horrible would spring fro the bushes bellowing "Antidisestablishmenarianism" or some other big word like 'elephant" and the world would change in a trice. When nothing happened we would build a little, bright fire among the willows and glide up and down the "Dead 3ond" wondering all the while if it would 36 there in the morning. Then when the distant Post Office bell announced that it was nine o'clock there was a rush for home with many a backward glance just n case... Sometimes a creaking bobsleigh would take us aboard to chime swiftly into the village behind flatulent horses. If no sleigh came, we walked.
Walking home from the creek on a New Year's Eve had a particular fascination, 60 years ago, due mainly, I suppose, to the absence of houses and the general quiet on the north road. Behind us was the mystery and darkness of the flats with snow and ice reaching to the north Pole, as far as we knew. In front, the lights of the distant village, dominated by the great pale eye of the Post office clock, urged us on. Away to the west, across snow-levelled fields, the dim line of trees crouching at the big bend of the creek menaced our passage^ like watching panthers. From somewhere off there among the stump fences, a little, wandering, wind whispered in the dead grass that we had better be home before the last page was torn from the calendar. Overhead, unencumbered by trees, the stars wheeled and the moon sailed in preparation for their part in the coming activities. In the Eastern shadows, a dog barked and someone said it was a wolf
racing over the frost-dried stubble to swallow us all in one gulp. We gripped our skates and wondered who would volunteer to stay behind and be eaten like the Russian postillion, while the others made it to safety. No one volunteered and the distant wolf, dismayed by our resolution, became someone's collie dog again, as cold as we were. On we trudged, five or six little boys hemmed in by the circles of light from our candle lanterns and the snared imagination of the just-read Christmas books. Now "The Boy Allies" plodded through the slush of the Somme or "The Radio Boys" searched the frozen wastes for the lost balloon. Overhead, 'Tom Swift and His Electric-Pneumatic Commode-Chair" dashed through the skies confounding his enemies and then we were cold again and hoping that there was still some hot potato soup on the back of the stove at home.
Always it was cold and the wires hummed as they raced over our heads to the northern edge of the world and the poles rang with an endless message. Occasionally, a high-flying bird called down to us through the crystal night - a homing pigeon, undoubtedly, bearing news of great events, or a flock of journeying pelicans, or something equally preposterous, passed across the moon and was gone. This was taken to be a sign that even the birds were clearing out before midnight and we would pull our heads deeper in the high collars of our mackinaw coats and try to quicken our steps without letting the others know it.
At the edge of the village, the little wandering wind would leave us and the tiny, cold, sounds of the winter fields were replaced by the far-off voices of mothers hallowing us home, each call was like a signature, or a finger print, and while the name was never ^distinguishable we recognized the sound like sheep dogs and pounded on over the creaking snow. Sometimes our steps made so much noise that we fancied we were pursued by left-handed giants or flat-footed owls and we would walk backwards to fool them. The old school bell marked our faltering passage, peering down from its dark tower. And then we were home again, suddenly bratfe, windy and bragging. "I cut a figure-eight backwards", said Scott and someone made a sound of ducks quacking. "I wrote my name", said someone else and then we scattered, hoping to seem fearless in the morning. In the background, the village clock which had noted our progress along the north Road, returned to counting off the year.
Eventually, the passing years replaced antasy with reality and New Year's Eve became a time for feats of endurance and stupidity, such as skating around a rink behind the public School one hundred times without stopping, the search for the mysterious transition of midnight was ended and the candle lanterns were put away for the last time. "The Fearless Hunters" knocked the snow from their eather leggings and melted with it into the lamp light.
And so, as I sit easy by the fire while "the happy bells ring 'cross the snow" I realize that the storms of many winters have long since erased the footprints of those little boys on the north road. Their childish Dursuit of the unknown revealed nothing. A/as it a failure and a waste of time? I don't know, nor do I care particularly if it was or wasn't. All I do know is that they enjoyed themselves in a frightened sort of way and harmed no one. They marched on to many thing/^in later life, unharmed by their little fantasies of long ago, but uncertain all the time, if, at the midnight stroke of New Year's Eve 'The Dead Pond" does, or does not, break up into 5,697 ice cubes, or if for one moment the sparkle of a little bright fire is seen among the willows.