Next door: A True Christmas Story

Christmas, 2011.

We’re new here. Moved in a few months ago, renting half of a house near railway tracks, the Corktown Pub, and the Bruce Trail. We don’t know many people.

Corktown is an old neighbourhood, one that has weathered the rises and descents of a steeltown like Hamilton. You can see century homes on the same stretch of block as faceless apartment buildings, and you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes and 30 seconds to see the whole range of then until now. And sometimes you can guess who’s renting and who owns their small patch of this railside neighbourhood by how many mailboxes you can see or how well the gardens are tended. The remnants of hard times are becoming scarce, though, as the old homes get bought up by professionals who prefer café-style lattes to coffee from Tim’s.

You can look in through windows, like anywhere, and get the briefest of glimpses into how others live their indoor lives. Especially at Christmas. Hamilton’s a city that hasn’t yet shrugged off the Christian side of the holidays – there’s still a crèche downtown, where baby Jesus looks out at Gore Park and Jackson Square. And for a few weeks at the end of every year, Christmas trees in living room windows shine like friendly beacons, winking at everyone that walks or drives by as if to say, Yeah, us too.

We know our neighbours enough to say hello, maybe hear tidbits about them here and there, about their weddings, their trials, their children. Our little corner generally keeps to itself, which is fine. A typical encounter you might recognize: “Morning,” one of us will say. “Morning.” “How’re things?” “Oh, fine, fine. You?” “Good, thanks.”

It’s Christmas Day. Corktown’s quiet. We don’t sleep in all that often, but I manage to make it until 7:15. Rosalee makes it another ten minutes or so, with me tiptoeing around in my tan moccasins and trying to make coffee on the quiet. Then I hear a cough and the rustle of sheets as she gets out of bed. I confess that I’m little excited she didn’t stay in bed too long – I was strategic last night as we got into our PJ’s. “Hey, I have an idea,” I said. “How about pancakes tomorrow morning?” “That sounds nice.” And then I asked her to make them, hoping she’d say yes, planning my offer to make them if she didn’t. She did, of course, but sometimes you need to plan your offer, just in case.

“Oh, no,” says Rosalee’s voice, muffled by the open fridge door. “We’re out of eggs.”

I’m about to move on and suggest oatmeal, then remember who suggested the pancakes in the first place. I mention I saw our neighbour getting stuff from his car, so they’re definitely awake. “I can go next door.”


I slide on my rubber shoes and unlock the door, expecting a blast of real cold, pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t come. It’s cold, but not cold. Mild Christmas, they’ve been saying, something about 95 percent of Canadian urban centres not having a white Christmas this year, even frigid places like Winnipeg and Edmonton. I head out, doing that strange walk we do when we’re underdressed for winter temperatures, a stiff, lurching blend of hop and shuffle.

Christmas morning in full swing
Next door, I climb the stairs and listen for a moment. I smile. There’s a Christmas morning in full swing in there, seven kids, two adults, and 364 days of pent-up anticipation rattling the windows. Mom sounds tired, tells the kids there’ll be no whining on Christmas morning, and the decibels dip for a solid three seconds before I decide to knock. I’m too timid, though, and they don’t hear my first one. The second one prompts a cheer and an excited exclamation from the oldest boy, “Leo is here!”

Five little girls in their best flannel PJs in primary colours and cartoon characters and stars all over them, and two boys in boxers and t-shirts open the door with one big collective smile. I’m not Leo, but these kids don’t miss a beat.


They all yell it at the same time, blessing someone they don’t really know even though he’s supposed to be someone named Leo. The girls are wiggling all over and crowd around me at the door, perfectly pleased with themselves, while the boys hang back, trying to be a little cooler even though their eyes are spilling their excited secret.

“Merry Christmas,” I say, notching up my enthusiasm a notch. “Did you know your house is shaking because you’re so excited?”

They laugh. That’s so nice.

Angel hugs
And then those little girls put a bigger smile on my Christmas morning. They all rush the guy at the door they don’t know from Adam, blessing his legs with a group hug worthy of the angels. I’m a little speechless at the display, but I hug them back, even as I realize I’ll never be able to match the enthusiasm and happiness of five hopped up little ladies who could care less who the bed-headed guy at the door is but who are still going to pile on him the purest Christmas cheer the world has seen since the shepherds knelt beside that squalling baby in Bethlehem.

“Um, we’re making pancakes and don’t have any eggs,” I finally manage. It’s hard to speak normally when your face is smiling itself to split at the seams. “Could we borrow one?”

“Absolutely,” say Shannon and Glen.

The girls are still hugging my legs, fiercely, eyes closed and lips grinning, as Glen hands over an egg carton and Shannon puts a gift wrapped in Christmas-tree green on top.

“Merry Christmas,” she says.

“Merry Christmas.”

I can’t stop grinning as I head back to our place next door, shaking my head a little at the goodness that has just been poured all over me. I can’t wait to share the story with Rosalee – tell the universe, maybe – about ten strong little arms that could’ve lifted this stranger straight up to heaven.


  • Brent van Staalduinen

    Brent spent six years in the Middle East and Asia teaching, writing, and trying to make sense of the borders people create. A graduate of Redeemer University College and the Humber School of Writers, he is now working towards an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. He works and lives in the Westdale neighbourhood of Hamilton with his wife Rosalee and baby daughter Nora. For more information, follow him on Twitter@brentvans or visit www.brentvanstaalduinen.com.

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