December 17, 2006
A friend from the flying club who used to be a commercial pilot told us yesterday of how he once carried a ‘plane load of Inuit villagers to hospital in Toronto all suffering from food poisoning after sharing the carcase of a walrus that had washed up on a beach on the north east coast of Hudson Bay, at a wedding feast. The bride did not survive the journey.
In the midst of the Christmas party season further south, at least we don’t have to worry about being served plates of putrifying walrus, though there is usually far too much other food at the various festivities. The North American potluck tradition exacerbates this, amateur chefs vying to outdo one another with their contributions. Food ought not to be the focal point and indeed, in the living room of our friends Jennie and Bill it was the piano, for the main objective of their party was to sing as many four-part Christmas carols as we could manage before our voices gave out. This is an annual event, eagerly anticipated by the regular participants and as midnight approached last night we were still singing, though the quality of music had deteriorated from earlier in the evening (when we’d sung Elizabeth Poston’s 4-part unaccompanied arrangement of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree) to Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell, rock!
At my first party of the season, a week ago last Friday, scores of diplomats were present, in particular a Slavic group who sang a medley of carols from Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Ukraine and Estonia, wearing the head-dresses and embroidered skirts of their respective countries. They looked magnificent. There followed an impromptu dance around our buffet table, decorated with an Ikebana centrepiece created by one of the Japanese ladies, and then, with everyone already on their feet, we gave a spirited rendering of the 12th century British counting song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, accompanied by appropriate movements. The press photographer’s eyes widened at our depiction of the three French hens and six geese a-laying, I’m sure.
The following day, more of a family affair in the groundschool classroom at the Rockcliffe Flying Club, with the log fire ablaze on the video screen looking surprisingly atmospheric, though I did overhear a keen member of the ninety-nines saying she’d rather be watching “Top Gun”. A couple of the toddlers there were Santa-phobic, one of them hiding his eyes even from the silly hats worn by some of the party goers, but when Santa Claus himself, landing his sleigh at 5 p.m. on runway 27, showed up in full regalia, the little fellow screamed at the top of his voice (though he liked the present he got). A cruel business, this deception of children. When ours were small and we lived in the Netherlands, they were terrified of Zwarte Piet.
Midweek I sat in the balcony of a Baptist Church to hear the Ceremony of Carols with a harpist accompanying as Britten intended and the ladies of the Ottawa Bach Choir, “Ottawa’s best choral ensemble”, singing the boys’ parts. A polished performance with the syncopation spot-on, but somehow it lacked the fire it had when my father used to conduct it. The medieval words Britten set, with asides in Latin, are right for Christmas, in no way sentimental. Behind the altar at the Baptist Church stood three, giant, spot-lit cut-outs, silhouettes of Mary, Joseph and the baby’s crib, though unfortunately that object in the middle looked more like a shaggy sheep than a manger and tended to put me off.