how christmas arrived at a railroad line shack

It’s the first white Christmas in nearly 40 years. When I heard that on the late night news it made me smile.

It’s the first white Christmas in nearly 40 years. When I heard that on the late night news it made me smile.

I can’t remember the last time that I had to go through an Arctic blast like we’d had lately. I can’t recall feeling the truth in the words of that old refrain ‘well, the weather outside is frightful…’

“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” There’s such charm in the rustic simplicity of old Christmas songs. Just as there’s charm in the way people begin to feel once the advent of Christmas is upon them. It surprises me to acknowledge that because for years I slid awfully close to Grinch-hood.

See, my life hadn’t been conventional and Christmas had become a drudge, something to get through, a season of regret and woe. It’s taken me years to realize that I caused that. It was my choices in life that had reduced the holiday magic to a bruise. But on these mornings when the cold is deep and the fire crackles invitingly, I can see how Christmas touched me without my even knowing it.

Like1974. I worked on a CNR section gang in northern Ontario. Our crew stayed in old Atco trailers outside a junction town called Shebandowan. There wasn’t much to the place. Just a postal office/convenience store, a hotel for the local miners’ families to stay when they visited and a scattering of houses.

The job wasn’t much either. Every morning we piled into the jigger car and patrolled long miles of track. When the foreman found a section that had settled unevenly our job was to tamp the gravel bed back under the ties to level the track. Or we’d clean snow from the switches, replace old ties or chainsaw brush back away from the line. It was labour and that’s all it was.

 There were four of us on that crew. Barry and Donnie Guthro were from Sydney, Nova Scotia. They were a coal miner’s sons and they’d seen their share of difficult Christmases. My friend Joe Delaney and I were street kids from St. Catharines, Ontario. We’d been hitchhiking across Canada and found the job in the late fall.

Winter came like winters did in those pre-global warming days: steadily, stealthily like a great white bear. By Christmas there were tall snowbanks along the tracks and the road east to Thunder Bay was often closed. It was cold too. Nights it got down to minus 40.

No one said anything about Christmas other than grousing about the fact we’d lose four days. None of us paid much attention to the music on the radio. We’d switch to one of the other of the three channels we could get on television when the Christmas shows came on. There no cards in the mail and no phone calls home for any of us.

That was fine with me. My home life had eroded and disappeared a few years before and I was growing content with bleak days of Christmas. I had a small pile of books I was working through and I’d shot a deer and planned on a nice thick venison steak Christmas Day. What happened was a lot different.

Around nine o’clock that morning, Barry and Donnie knocked on my trailer door. They had an axe and talked me into walking into the bush with them to gather a tree. It was frigid but we hauled a small spruce back and we made popcorn strings to decorate it. Barry played carols on his guitar and I cooked steaks. When we’d eaten we moved to the living room. There were presents on the chairs.

There was a pair of winter mittens in mine. But they were covered with oil and grease. There was a card attached to them. Barry wrote that he knew that I’d always admired his mitts and that my hands were always cold in the ones that I had. He wanted me to have his warm ones. Donnie gave Joe six stamped envelopes to write his father.

I forgot that for a long time. Nowadays though, my life is wonderful. There’s a wonderful woman and a great home in the mountains and Christmas has become a time for other people. It’s a time of gratitude for all the gifts we are given and it’s a time for remembering things like the Christmas of 1974.

You don’t have to offer glitz or the newest, coolest thing. You don’t have to spend enormous amounts of money. You only have to reach out in simple heartfelt ways to create the magic of Christmas. I learned that on a railroad gang 34 years ago. I forgot it for a long time but I remember it now and it’s indeed, a very merry Christmas.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at

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