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christmas reminds us to celebrate community

If there's one thing Christmas can do, it's bring people together. The season of good cheer. Office parties.

If there’s one thing Christmas can do, it’s bring people together. The season of good cheer. Office parties. Family dinners. Carolling. Gift giving. Even the shopping sprees.

Forget the rages at the commercialization and the banning of Christmas carols and trees as well-meaning idiots try to flatten the world into annoyed boredom.

Community means just that - a group of people living in a specific locality. Each of these people rely on each other. When someone breaks the web, the community itself breaks, so we find ways of repairing it. For everyone who injures the web there’s others who retie it. That’s the glory of local living and the greatest glory of its festivals ... like Christmas.

Unfortunately, too many among us keep to ourselves, living self-serving lives, not wanting to bring trouble to our door, or go out there when we are needed, thus missing our chance to dance on that glorious web in the sunshine of its self-healing. We help our neighbours too little. We too seldom say: “I’ll be right there.”

When I brought my father to our island in 1990 and drove him up to our farm, he glanced toward the riot at the Byron farm, the giant pigs mugging cars beside the road, the defiant geese, the fruit trees. And he said: “That looks like a real farm. You should get to know that guy.”

Father being father, he completely ignored the old adage that it takes two to tango, two to run a farm. Beverly and Mike Byron. What we were witnessing was a wonderful coalition of common sense and hope.

Beverly and Mike Byron became a public force in my community in 1960. Mike first arrived in 1933, left at the age of 17 to finish his public schooling, and found himself a principal in the toughest school in Vancouver at the age of 18.

When Bev met him she was a young school teacher and he wore a three-piece suit - a handsome man, and the principal of a school. Where could she go wrong? Before she knew it she was on Salt Spring, cooking on a wood stove, with no running water, using an outhouse, and still teaching. Island living at its best.

The Byrons are legendary for their generosity since the day they arrived. Bringing in every waif, hitchhiker, and student kicked out of the dormitory for the high-schoolers. Mike even brought one home on his tractor. He’d spent his childhood walking to church and school and work, and insisted on giving a ride to any child he encountered on the road - famously saying: “Mother throw another bucket of water in the soup pot. We’ve got company for dinner.”

As most of us know, work on a farm can escalate, and take you into surprising zones. Especially when you had Mike dealing with the day. One of their young guests was smart enough to announce at breakfast: “Eat as much as you can as fast as you can because you never know when you’re going to eat next.” Plowing fields and hauling cattle out of wells don’t follow human schedules.

We tend to take for granted people like the Byrons. Every community has good people who just go out and do it. Bev Byron has spent countless years as a ‘pie lady’ making delicious pies (that the health gestapo are constantly threatening to ban for silly reasons) for public events to benefit needy charities like the Children’s Hospital. It was something done invisibly. Naturally. She also became known as one of the most common-sense members of the Island’s Trust, our local governing body. Common sense and government seldom go together but she proved it was possible.

After our Fall Fair failed, everyone said it was over, but not the Byrons, several years later they rebuilt it. The family decided they would enter every event in the new fair, and the children worked like slaves, along with their parents. When they discovered that Salt Spring sheep were too submissive for a professional lariat tosser, the Byron children “volunteered” as wild livestock and ran around the corral, expecting to be lassoed.

Community service doesn’t mean just sitting on committees or being a local politician. It also means coming home with a temporary foster child with two suitcases and a fluffy white cat. Mike’s first words were “Don’t let that cat down!” And when the child let the cat down and it escaped out the door he spent the night looking for a white cat in the wild, and found it. That’s the hidden side of community service.

My latest book, Trauma Farm, is dedicated to the Byrons. I thought I knew a lot about local living until I met them. They’re teachers to this day.

We have learned to respect traditional knowledge from Native elders, but we sometimes forget traditional knowledge is everywhere; our own local knowledge is right next door. You only have to pick up the phone or knock on a door. In every town there’s a farm elder, a teaching elder, a mechanic elder, an artist elder. The list is endless.

That’s why it’s so important to honour people like the Byrons, their grace and their giving and their huge store of local knowledge. They’re Christmas 365 days a year. This is what our island did two weeks ago, celebrate them with a community event and a lovely plaque to honour their many contributions. The event was attended by many.

Some years back, when our island was still that kind of neighbourhood, Bev asked Mike, as they were going away for a week: “Should I lock the house up?

“What for?” Mike said. “Somebody might want something.”

That’s community. That’s the web that holds us together. And I can’t think of a better time to honour our elders than during these days of Christmas warmth and community spirit.

Brian Brett, poet, journalist and novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His new book, Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, has just been released by Greystone Books.