The Parade

Every year, on the first Sunday evening of December, the fine citizens of Belmont, Ontario are treated to our Santa Claus Parade, complete with the big guy.  And every year since 1846 I’ve dressed up as Charles Dickens, handing out candy to the short people.

Yesterday morning I got a call from John, the owner of FreshMart.  He sponsors the float that I start off walking beside.  Every year, I’ve never been able to keep up with the rolling hay-bale bed full of kids, because children at the curb deserve their candy and a few words of greeting.

“Bruce, I have 250 candy canes.  Do you think that’ll be enough?”  The Belmont parade has always been a popular destination but as we spoke the freezing rain was coating the world.  I’m no meteorologist or predictor of consumer trends.  However …  “No.  Make it 400.”  I have no idea where that estimate came from.  It didn’t feel like it grew out of my cognitive mind.

I arrived at the staging grounds at 5:30, a half hour before the big rollout.  My task was clear: find kids on floats.  They’d be candyless and probably would remain so for the duration of the parade.  I bet I gave out forty candy canes before the proceedings started proceeding.  Right away, I saw the challenge before me.  Candy canes have their hooked ends, which in a bag tend to resemble a glob of clothes hangers.  Try to get the buggers apart.  Happily, my finger dexterity skills improved as we hit the streets (actually just Main Street).

And now we begin.  Just a sprinkling of kids on the first block, but they were already loving the glitz and glamour that passed before them.  The candy wasn’t bad either.  I saw a girl I had volunteered with three years ago in Grade 6.  She opened her arms for a hug.  I asked if she was under 12, my fictitious limit for bestowing canes.  With a smile she said “Yes”.  During the parade, I asked many adults the same question.  The hardy souls who uttered the same lie got rewarded for their bravado with one of the little hooked things.

In a parade, if a candy dispenser has a favourite line to say, he can do that over and over again since every person is new and fresh.  I loved approaching a little girl or boy and saying “Would you like candy or lettuce?”  I’m sure you can figure out the predominant response, but there were a few kids who bubbled up with “Lettuce!”, to which I replied with “Oh, I just gave out my last bunch two blocks ago!”

So many wide eyes looking up at me with their bags open, hoping that this guy in a top hat, fake moustache and trenchcoat would drop something in.  I didn’t disappoint.  I have a certain radar when it comes to locating children.  I encouraged their nutritional awareness by often commenting “Candy is one of Canada’s Four Major Food Groups … Sugar!”  The parents smiled, knowing that I had spoken the truth.

With two blocks to go, the FreshMart float was long gone, and I was passed by Santa Claus himself.  He and I made eye and wave contact and I silently uttered an oath in favour of a red Lambourghini.  Santa zooming ahead meant the parade was over and families were drifting off to their cars.  Still with candy in my bag, I chased folks down a side street, foisting my wares on unsuspecting but grateful young ones.

I ended my evening walking back towards my car.  Within the festive beauty of Belmont Community Park, I rummaged in my bag for the dregs.  Four adults approached.  I could tell they were all under 12, and so they received candy canes in their palms.  I went to a Christmas display and dumped the contents onto the frozen grass.  Merely fragments of candy remained.

Hey, John … 400 did nicely!  And all was well in the world.


As a teenager, I sang in the Melrose Park Presbyterian Church Choir in Toronto.  In my 50’s, I sang in the Port Stanley Community Choir.  Throughout the years, we made beautiful music in the blending of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.  I was a bass … and I still am.  I love singing.

Now I’ve moved to Belmont, Ontario, and there’s a new group on the block – the Belmont Community Singers.  I went to hear them this afternoon at the United Church.  Part of me still wants to sing exquisite songs with others, but I lean towards doing that in a folk music group rather than in a formal choir.  Still … there I was in the front row, only a few feet from a violinist.  Twenty-five singers and an small orchestra.  Lovely.

I was the only one in the front row.  Otherwise the church was pretty packed.  Perhaps I’m odd.  As I sat there, I journeyed back to other Christmas concerts, at the Port Stanley United Church.  How I loved singing O Come All Ye Faithful with the audience, listening to Gord Stacey give us O Holy Night in his deep bass voice, and finish the concert each year with the delightful A Special Night.  As the last note hung in the air, I always wondered if that would be the last time I’d sing this precious song.  One year … it was.

The Belmont Singers walked to the church sanctuary from the back, and soon Break Into Song did exactly that.  Most of the faces were shining.  I only knew one singer but it felt like I knew them all.

A woman strode forward for her solo.  It was Gord’s song – O Holy Night.  She was nervous.  Within the first few notes, her voice cracked.  She apologized.  She coughed.  Amid the beautiful melodic moments, there was more cracking.  I moved my spirit inside her and wished her well.  I stayed inside her the whole time, loving her, willing that her best would emerge.  Near the end of the piece, there’s a very high note.  She nailed it!  Waydago, my unknown friend.

“Brian” was the choir director.  He kept drawing out the beauty of the music from twenty-five mouths.  They were so very much with him.  And so were we.  For one thing, he was a major comedian.  At one point, he was requesting that we leave our e-mail addresses after the concert so the Singers could let us know about future musical events.  “Okay, that’s enough selling!  Back to the songs.”  Perfect.

We the audience got to sing with the choir.  What a blessing.  Armed with our lyrics sheet, we blasted out It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and then (!) O Come All Ye FaithfulJust like the good old days.

As we let the last notes of We Wish You A Merry Christmas fade away, we were a community.  Singers and players stood in response to the standing audience.  Smiles were flying across the room.  Merry Christmas, dear friends.


Will I allow the good old days to return?
Will that be me on the stage a year or two from now?
Hmm …

Kids’ Party

It was happening tonight at the St. Thomas Library – performers singing, playing instruments and telling stories. Kids showing their stuff to other kids taking it in. Wide eyes from the little ones.

First up were the “Jingle J’s”, children singing as well as playing guitar, ukulele and drums, along with adults grooving as lead guitarist, bass guitarist and backup singer. Songs ranged from Silent Night to Momma Rock Me – beautifully eclectic! The young’uns were hopping around and warbling their tunes. They urged we the audience to sing along to classics such as Feliz Navidad but very few of us grabbed the golden ring. I, however, grabbed. Life is short … go for the gusto.

Then it was time for a lovely lady storyteller. She sat on the floor, leaning against a chair, with a semi-circle of five-year-olds spread around her. As she recounted the innumerable adventures of Santa and friends, tiny faces watched her every move. One two-year-old decided to bounce on an upholstered chair while checking the traffic outside. All those cool red and white lights! Her smile aimed at mom would melt the grumpiest heart.

The story creator then turned to song, specifically Jingle Bells. She just happened to have enough wrist bells for every child, and they shook, rattled and rolled for all they were worth. Such delight everywhere l looked.

As Gerard took the stage with his acoustic guitar, a little girl and boy professed their love for each other in dance. Around and around they twirled as he sang, oblivious to any idea of “performance”. Let’s just have fun.

Our fearless leader favoured us with Ricky Nelson’s Garden Party and inspiring lyrics from John Lennon:

A very Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And our mini-couple danced on.

As Gerard started in on Blowin’ in the Wind, one of my favourite singalongs, the woman sitting beside me leaned over and proceeded to tell me all about the children she sponsors in Africa. And in that moment I had a choice: indulge my singing needs or be with her. I decided to look into her eyes and celebrate the kids. It was a good choice.

Now our evening together is over. I spent time with many fine people and I am the better for it. Folks wanted to communicate. I wanted to listen. It works well that way.

Christmas Eve

My goal yesterday was to go to four carol services and one lovely dinner with friends.  It ended up being 3 and 1.  And what adventures I had!

Stop number one was a service at Belmont United Church at 10:45 am.  Oh we sang, as did the choir.  My favourite moment was when the minister stood in front of us.  He’s retiring next week.  He told the church members that he had made mistakes as their spiritual leader, and with his hand on his heart, asked for their forgiveness.  A stunning moment in time.  He was so genuine and so naked before us.

Service number two was out in the country near Belmont, Ontario, at St. James Presbyterian Church.  I didn’t expect to know anyone.  As I sampled the goodies laid out before the service, a fellow in a clerical collar approached me in welcome.  A lovely thing to do.  He was perhaps 70.  Minutes later, a woman probably in her 30’s came by to talk.  Her last name was the same as the minister’s, and I blurted out unthinkingly, “I just met your husband.”  “Oh … that was my dad.”  My yappy internal voice launched into “Bruce, you’re so stupid.  Look at the age difference.”  But then a remarkable thing happened:  My quiet voice simply said “It’s all right, Bruce.  You’re a human being and you made a mistake.”  And poof!  My embarrassment and fear disappeared.  Magical.  And I’m so blessed that sometimes I can pull myself out of prolonged pain.

An old colleague of mine invited me to sit with her and her family during the service.  More bold singing filled the sanctuary.  At the end, Elizabeth asked me what I was doing on Christmas Day.  I said “Nothing”, which is true.  After an exploratory conversation on her part, she invited me to Christmas dinner.  My mind raced.  I sure didn’t want anyone feeling obligated to have me.  At the same time, here was a woman offering me a gift.  What a disservice it would have been to say no.  So 5:00 pm today finds me in a lovely home with an old friend and some new ones.

Dinner at Leah’s place.  What an amazing chef she is.  Drop the librarian job, my friend, and open your own restaurant.  I had a great time with her family and a “bestie” couple.

My wife Jody and I enjoyed watching “The Polar Express” just before Christmas, but since she died I haven’t seen the film.  It makes me sad.  So what does Leah do after supper but pull out the book and read us the story!  Someone somewhere (my dear wife, I expect) is looking after me.

I had a phone call scheduled with my friend Sarah in New York City.  We met during the three-month meditation retreat.  I had promised to recite “Twas The Night Before Christmas” … normal speed and super fast.  So I did it, drawing forth little squeaks and laughter from Sarah and her roommate.  It made me happy to make my friend happy.

We were having a snowstorm and I decided during the call to skip my last plan of the day: going to a carol sing in the Old St. Thomas Church, circa 1824, 20 kilometres away.  It’s a beautiful old white building … and unheated!  After I hung up, I sat on the couch, my face tightening.  I remembered when Jody and I were visiting her brother Lance and his family in Drayton Valley, Alberta one winter.  We were staying in a motel and one night around 3:00 am Lance phones and says “You have to get up and see the Northern Lights.  They’re spectacular!”  Drowsily, I thanked him and pulled up the covers.  (Sigh)

“Not this time, Bruce.”  So I headed out into the weather, armed with a toque, mitts and four layers of warm stuff.  An hour later, thirty of us held candles and songsheets.  I blasted out the bass part of “O Come All Ye Faithful” with breath before my eyes and heart soaring.

It was a day.

Belmont Aglow

I love my village.  Belmont hosts 2800 souls in Ontario, Canada.  And tonight it’s snowing, about an inch so far.

Down Main Street, about 15 glowing snowmen look down from power poles, ushering me towards Belmont Community Park.  It’s a cozy place … paths through parkland surrounding a pond, with land climbing sharply towards an arc of backyards.  Around the pond, spotlights show me wondrous displays:

A replica of Belmont United Church, and a wish for Christmas peace

Another of St. Andrews United Church, with little boxes of Love, Hope, Peace and Joy – some of my favourite words

A mini fire truck from the Belmont firefighters, the cab light flashing

A mom, dad, daughter and son … all bundled up and singing merrily

The red outline of a huge star perched on the far hill, guiding us on our way

Santa’s workshop in full toy-making force

Big Peace, Love and Joy signs beside the path, reminding me of my recent retreat

Santa and his reindeer, caught midflight in the minds of childhood

Moving white lights bringing a horse and carriage to life

Neon outlined gifts, ready for Christmas morning


And through it all, the snow keeps falling
Happy am I


Twelve years ago my friend Carol, who was working at the library in Port Stanley, Ontario, came up to me with a request.  Would I “do something” at the Christmas talent show for the kids who attend library programs?


Then Carol whips out the sheets of paper she was hiding behind her back.  Behold the words for “Twas The Night Before Christmas”.  Once I calmed down, and found out that I’d be wearing a nightgown and a stocking cap, and hoisting a candle onstage, I agreed.  “Okay, I’ll read the poem to the kids.”


“What do you mean ‘no’?”

“No reading.  Lots of memorizing.”

That was October.  After many visits to Sebastian’s restaurant in London, and much caffeine, and two months of cramming, I actually knew all the words.  And my performance at the show was a rousing success (or so I fantasize).

The next year I decided to take my act on the road.  I was an itinerant teacher of visually impaired students, and visited a lot of schools.  I asked my elementary teaching friends if they’d like me to recite in their classrooms, and many said yes.

So began years of Santa poem renditions.  Thousands of kids watched and listened. There was much happiness within me and, I think, in the hearts of the young’uns.

Which brings me to today.  My friend Heather had arranged for me to speak to ten classes, ranging from kindergarten to Grade 5.  I hadn’t done Twas last year, since my heart was heavy with Jody’s death.  But now I was eager.

The kids were so close to me, typically sitting on a carpet in front of my rocking chair.  Those young faces in the front row looked way up at me.  And I got on a roll.  Words tumbled out and so did audience smiles:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer

His eyes how they twinkled, his dimples how merry
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry

He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle

There was enthusiastic applause as I finished.  I was pleased.  But I knew that Part Two follows Part One.  I told the kids about a moment three years ago.  It was early December.  I had accompanied Jody to the doctor’s office and was sitting alone in the waiting room.  Alone except for the receptionist, that is.  I then did what any normal person would have done in this situation:

“Would you like me to recite ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’?”

“Uhh … sure.”

Ignoring the woman’s somewhat muted enthusiasm, I launched into my shtick.  And I’d say she was much happier as I ended with “Merry Christmas to all … and to all a good night.”

And here came Jody out of the inner office, accompanied by a nurse.  Once more I offered my services.

“No, Bruce.  We don’t have time.  We need to get home, wrap those presents, and get them to the post office today, or they won’t get to Alberta by Christmas.”

I was scared, but decided to carry on.

“Well, what if I say it fast?”

“Do you know how to say it fast?”

“I’ve never tried, but let me give it a shot.”

“Okay, but hurry.”

And thus began my second “Night Before Christmas” career – “Speedy Twas”.

Oh my.  Kids laugh and laugh.  And so do I.  My record has been one minute and twenty-eight seconds.  Today, one class of small people challenged me to go low.  As the second hand closed in on 12, there was a hush.  And then bursts of excitement as I sallied forth.  Small cheers erupted as I blurted out “His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.”  One minute.  I heard “Go, go, go!” in my head.  It was 1:10 when Santa sprang to his sleigh.

I collapsed into “And to all a good night” while one young soul yelled out “1:19!”  Oh my goodness.  It’s a new world record.  And what a good boy am I.

I looked at all those upturned mouths, with several bodies lying flat on the carpet, in various stages of writhe.  And I knew … I was home.

May Christmas come every year
May the words always fill my head
And may children laugh