Growing up in a suburb of Willowdale, in the north end of the city in the 1960s was remarkably ever changing. As developments sprung up, and roads were being built, Passer’s Farm stood as a reminder of what used to be. My brothers and I spent a lot of time outside, scouting out the building sites, carrying home bits of lumber, so that we could build a fort in the back yard.
I particularly enjoyed the winters. Crawling around in the snow, tunneling through the moats we made that led to our snow fortress. And while we did not celebrate, my favorite time of all was Christmas, with all of the family traditions that accompanied it. Christmas Eve was filled with the joy of watching ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’, and ‘Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol’. It seemed like I had to wait forever for the annual airing of these shows. We stayed up late and watched ‘Its A Wonderful Life’ with my mother, and then retired to our beds. It was strangely quiet on Christmas Eve, so quiet that you could actually hear the snow fall, as it piled up on our lawn, glistening in the pale yellow street lights that dotted the landscape of my life.
In the morning my brothers and I raced outside and shoveled the driveway, so that we could play ball hockey, while my father took the garden hose and flooded the backyard in an attempt to make us an ice hockey rink. It was always uneven, and there were patches that didn’t freeze due to inadequate water placement, but it was wonderful fun, skating up and down the rink, body checking each other into the waist high snow drifts that lined either side. Our laughter seemed to echo across galaxies, as we pulled our heads out of the drifts, our faces covered in the untainted snow, making us all look like Santa himself.
In the afternoon, we all piled into the Ford Country Squire Station Wagon, to begin the first leg of what had become our family Christmas tradition. ” You guys better get yourselves outside.”, the old man chanted as he stood at the front door of our house. “I”m leaving in 2 minutes.” The old man hated to be late for the movies. If he wasn’t in his seat at the theatre before the cartoon or the coming soon features started, it was a Christmas catastrophe. We headed off to the Willow Theatre, located on Yonge Street, just south of Finch Avenue, at break neck speed.
“Slow down.”, my mother would say. “Let’s get there in one piece.”
“I been through worse than this.”, my father would answer.
“Go faster, faster.”, we shouted from the back.
When we arrived at the theatre, we ran up the stairs to the balcony, with my mother following behind us, and my father at the concession stand buying us popcorn. There was always a western showing in those days. My father adored westerns. Over the years we watched ‘The Sons Of Katie Elder’, ‘Nevada Smith, ‘The Way West’, and countless others. One Christmas Day, my mother, who was a huge fan of musicals, managed to coerce the old man into attending a revival of “Calamity Jane’. It was the last time she was ever permitted to select the movie. We sat in the balcony, 1st row, with our parents in the row behind us, popcorn in our hand, and our eyes glued to the screen as six guns were drawn, and rifles were cocked. It seemed necessary to advise the ‘good guy’ that trouble was behind them, or waiting for them around the next corner. We shouted it out with delight, certain that he could hear us, and followed up with the disappointing “if only he had listened”. If there was a coming attraction feature, and it was a western, my father would lean forward, pat us on the shoulders and guarantee that we would be seeing that one. Particularly if the cast included Jimmie Stewart, Randolph Scott, or Audie Murphy.
With the movie over, we piled back into the wagon, and headed out for what was the highlight of the day. We did this only once a year. We did this every year, but only on Christmas day. As we pulled into the parking lot, the huge neon sign, seemed to scream out at us, beckoning us inside. “Let’s try to behave in there, shall we?”, my mother remarked.
“Oh, they’ll behave.”, my father stated. “Won’t you?”
“Yes. We’ll behave.”, proclaimed the unanimous children’s chorus.
“Okay then.”, he said. “Let’s go.” We jumped out of the car, and ran up to the door. And there scrawled in Chinese Style writing of English letters, were those words we waited all year to see: ‘Sea-Hi Famous Chinese Food”.
If you had never been to Sea-Hi Famous Chinese Food as a kid in the 1960s or 1970s, your childhood was incomplete. Nestled in the Bathurst St, and Wilson Avenue area, it was a cultural phenomenon. Every Christmas Day, for as long as I can remember, everyone who did not celebrate Christmas, for whatever reason, living in the North end of this city, wound up at Sea-Hi for dinner. It became a tradition for hundreds of families, perhaps thousands. It was, without a doubt, the crowning achievement of a Christmas well spent.
As we poured over menus, we would laugh at the names given to the dishes. Things like moo goo guy pan, and egg foo yung brought us great joy just to read them aloud. And, in those childish, politically incorrect times, we found great amusement in ordering in what we considered, Chinese. “I want flied lice.”, someone would inevitably request.
“Stop that.”, my mother scolded.
“Can I have clispy chicken?”, someone would shout from the table.
“We’re just going to go home.”, my mother offered her final warning. Regardless of what we wanted, my father always ordered the same thing, year after year after year. Vegetable fried rice, egg rolls, chop suey, mushroom egg foo yung, and hot and sour soup. We ate, and laughed, and attempted to use our chopsticks, and when that failed, we inserted them in our mouths and became walruses. There was one occasion when one of my brothers inserted them up his nose. This caused quite a commotion, as one became stuck, and had to be forcibly removed by my father’s tugging, which caused his nose to bleed right there at the table, all over the starched, white tablecloth, and my mother to begin the almost daily ritual of dying of embarrassment. The highlight of the meal, for me anyway, was the fortune cookie, which always seemed to carry some profoundly meaningful Eastern words of wisdom, written on the small, white paper hidden inside of the crunchy, tasteless morsel. I was certain that those ancient words would somehow transform my future.
The car ride home was eerily quiet. We were tired, and we were full, satiated with enough rice and noodles to carry us over until next year. This tradition carried on throughout my childhood, and one by one, each of my siblings and myself dropped out of the ritual when we entered adolescence. It seems we were more interested in hanging with our friends, than we were in tradition. When I began to have kids of my own, I jump started the whole family Christmas, Willowdale style. It was never quite the same. We would watch Rudolph, but my daughters were frightened of the abominable snowman, and they found Its A Wonderful Life boring, as it was in black & white. Sadly, Mr. Magoo was no longer aired on Christmas Eve, but it did become available years later you tube. We moved north of the city, and Sea-Hi Famous Chinese Food was too far of a drive, so we settled on East Moon. The tradition continues to this day, however we now watch a movie on Netflix, and order in from South China Chinese Food. Sadly, it is difficult to maintain a family tradition in the face of ever changing technology, and free delivery. But those days, all those years of a Willowdale Christmas in my parents’ house, well, I miss them, and I carry those memories around with me like a badge of honor.