I cried all the way on the train from Saint John, New Brunswick to Ottawa, Ontario. I was leaving behind grandparents and cousins. My entire world.
In that long-ago time, housing in Ottawa was at a premium. Especially for families with children. Accommodation for a couple with three small children was almost non-existent. But I didn’t know that then.
One of my favourite memories of that time is the magnificent Roman Catholic Church on Laurier Ave East. If ever your faith was in doubt, attending Christmas Midnight Mass in L’Église du Sacré Coeur, a heritage stone building, brought your faith back into focus.
Sacred Heart Church, a Sandy Hill landmark with its central bell steeple flanked by two smaller spires, stood on guard like a sentry since 1889. The Church’s interior was massive. Oversized ornate paintings of Jesus, Mary, angels, disciples and biblical scenes surrounded endless rows of wooden pews. I recall the sweet fragrance of incense during Christmas Midnight Mass.
Christmas Eve was a total boarding house affair. Tenants brought food to share in the post-Midnight Mass meal called the Réveillon. (My mother always contributed minced meat pies. Once a week Mme Doucette would pay her to bake pies. They were ‘so perfect’ and her made-from-scratch pastry legendary).
“Réveillon” comes from the French word “réveil,” meaning “to wake up.” Mme and Monsieur Doucette invited all boarders to attend Midnight Mass with them as their special guests and then return to eat, drink and ‘wake up’. With the arrival of dawn, we all fell back into bed.
The Doucette home sparkled with festive lights. A heavily decorated fresh fir tree protected gaily decorated gifts beneath it. My mind still inhales the blissful scent of fresh evergreen.
To be in that grandiose church the moment Christmas Day began and hear the hymn “O Holy Night” at the end still sends shivers of anticipation up and down my back. After Mass, when the congregation spilled out into the black night, the snow inexplicably began to fall. Soft, billowing flakes floated down, landing on our noses, covering the most mundane object in dazzling white.
“Mon petit cochon,” she flirted. “My little piglet…”
It was all part of the Réveillon.
All part of a perfect childhood Christmas memory.