December 05, 2011

Christmas windows and manhole covers

I’m not sure if I written about this before. If so, I apologize.

Christmas window displays in department stores seem to suspend time, stopping us in our determined shopping tracks and sending us into a revery of memory and a bit of nostalgic longing.  Simpson’s in Halifax, Eaton’s in Toronto, Ogilvie’s in Montreal, Woodward’s in Vancouver. Elves, toy maker’s shops, Santa and the missus checking lists, baking cookies, animals on Hans Brinker skates seeming to  glide on mirrored glass, one leg pinned to the ice, the other stretched out behind like a scarf in a stiff wind. All animated. Hammers gently up and gently down on a train car or a doll’s shoe,  a bunny pirouetting on a skate, defying the laws of physics in its languid speed or lack thereof , a woodsman in an eternal effort to chop down a Christmas tree with a tiny hatchet that always falls short of the tree trunk. A dozen alternating up-down-sideways and back movements, jerky and stiff – enchanting to kids and a lift to the hearts of adults.

And then there’s Mill Brothers in downtown Halifax,  the clothing and cosmetics store, not the singing group.

Our first Christmas season in Halifax lacked snow but was gripped with cold. I was walking home late one December night on the street side opposite to Mill Brothers store, and from a half block away, I saw the lights in the window and some small figures moving in the familiar slow manner of  old clockwork animations. I felt a lift and a brightening of my mood which has been less than sunny that first year home. A Christmas window display. I bounded across the street.

Some swear by instinct to save them from undue unpleasantness, but I lack that gene. If I had it, I would not have crossed that deserted street and trotted up the sidewalk to gaze in at the display. I would have kept on walking down the silent street, on to my home and its abundant creature comfort.

When I reached the window, I was buoyed  by the thought of a cheery little tableau. What I saw was a snowy scene of misery. There, in a little coffin, lay an almost dead Snow White, hands folded just below her heart which every seven or eight seconds would rise up briefly and fall back into her still body. Around her, seven distraught dwarfs silently grieved. Tiny fists were curled up close to their bright eyes as if to stop the teardrop crystals that had been glued to their cheeks. Snow White continued to lie in her chilly repose, her breast thumping out a weak swelling every three or four imagined breaths.  A few animals gazed on, bewildered and frozen.  It was horrible and sad.

I walked home pondering what kind of thinking compelled a merchant to say yes to that. Santa’s Workshop – no. Skating Bunnies – no. Victorian Family Decorating Christmas Tree – no. Dying Snow White – yes. Just the ticket.

When I reached the corner of my street, I cut across on a diagonal to save a second or two of time. As I stepped on a manhole cover, I looked down and read the embossed name on it. “Silent Night” it read. It was somehow sweet, and made up for the Mills Brothers Christmas Window, but I wondered how it came to be. “Silent Night” – a wish and a promise, I guess.

A wish and a promise, I guess. Before Christmas, I’m going to try to snap some pictures of the aforementioned scenes. Please write me if you have similar stories and/or pictures. It can’t just be Halifax, can it?

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