The ‘last’ Christmas

This time of year is usually about arrivals, not departures.

Little ones eagerly wait for Santa Claus to slide down the chimney or show up at the mall. Christians celebrate the arrival of God’s son in their world, while also preparing for Jesus’ return. And we all prepare to welcome relatives and friends home for the holidays.
However, this is a bittersweet Christmas for me, as I recently took part in a couple of last-hurrahs for two institutions that I was once foolish enough to characterize as endless and, in at least one case, completely take for granted.

On December 11, the Highland Guitar Society held their last-ever gathering at the Judique Community Centre, wrapping up 20 seasons of regular get-togethers for musicians and music lovers alike. Three days later, Cathy and I made our final trip to Glad Tidings Christmas Shoppe, which is closing its doors on New Year’s Eve after an astonishing 24 years in business on the outskirts of St. Peter’s.

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In both cases, I wasn’t there from the very beginning but felt it surreal and even a little humbling to be present as the last grains of sand slipped into the bottom of the hourglass.

I didn’t start attending the Highland Guitar Society sessions until the beginning of their third season. By that time, they had outgrown their original home in the upstairs mezzanine of the Judique Community Centre and moved downstairs to the then-new hall’s main floor. It was the only way to accommodate the hundreds of musicians – from communities as diverse as Cheticamp, Canso, Antigonish, and Samsonville, ranging in age from six to 86 – who set up shop in front of the giant on-stage fiddle and filled the place with their favourite tunes.

Truthfully, I didn’t plan to sing during my first visit in the fall of 1999, because I was there to take pictures for The Reporter. I didn’t even have a guitar with me. That didn’t stop Bill MacDonald, the society’s president and the jams’ most frequent MC during their 20-season run, from inviting me onstage. So I came on a regular basis, becoming one of a small number of singers who would depend on the kindness of the regular strummers to back them up.

To kick off the fourth season, I started bringing the bright orange guitar that I hadn’t used since the eighth grade. I’m still only a passable guitarist at best, but having such a supportive environment for the past 16 years has brought me farther with that instrument than I ever imagined. (I still have the calluses on my fingertips to prove it.)

The society’s demise was probably inevitable. Bill and his wife Leona were quite possibly the only members of our board of executives that could genuinely commit to the effort required to ensure the jams ran smoothly, and it wasn’t fair to expect them to carry out those duties ad infinitum. As well, other communities inside and outside of Inverness County were setting up their own jam sessions and variety concerts, giving casual musicians more opportunities to have some fun and share a tune.

Similarly, we shouldn’t have expected Glad Tidings Christmas Shoppe to keep the “CLOSED” sign buried forever. I imagine this labour of love occasionally took a lot out of Marion MacLeod-Stone, even with the support of her long-time husband Don. Still, it felt oddly surreal when we visited the shop last week and, instead of ooh-ing and aahhing through multiple floors and hundreds of ornaments, found the entire stock reduced to the business’ small front entrance.

Despite growing up in Grand Greve, I didn’t make my first visit until a decade ago, when Cathy encouraged us to stop in, early in our relationship. (When I apologized to Marion about this, she smiled and told me not to worry about it, admitting that she had a similar “it’ll always be there” attitude towards Rita’s Tea Room in Big Pond.)

And yet, the memories linger on. Cathy and I might have picked up a few extra ornaments in St. Peter’s last Wednesday, simply to remind us of the fun times we’ve had at Glad Tidings.

Back in Judique, the final jam session – which ended with a rousing sing-along of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” – gave way to more tunes, including a lot of rousing Christmas carols, and “tea” at Bill and Leona’s place in Judique. (What Leona modestly calls “tea” could feed an army.)

The memories may be bittersweet, but I’m grateful that Glad Tidings and the Guitar Society now make up even a small part of our Christmas experience.

Enjoy the holidays, everybody. See you in 2017!