A MOST UNUSUAL CHRISTMAS FROM THE PAST.

Salmaniw McFarland NewellThis story about the most unusual Christmas day  my wife and I and our family has ever experienced, goes back  to the 1980s.

The suburban Montreal church that we were members of, a United Church, was one of many which  over the years has offered sanctuary to people who were, for a variety of reasons, in serious danger of being deported by Canada’s immigration authorities.  The man, who we called “Julio”, not his real name, was a union organizer who had fled Chile in fear for his life.  He had spent more than a year in our church, not being able to set foot outside for fear of being arrested by the authorities, and helped  the Sexton by doing odd jobs around the building.

Julio’s sojourn in our church extended through December of this particular year, and since it would not have been much of a Christmas for him to be all alone in an empty church building, my wife Mary & I decided that Julio should join us for Christmas dinner.  Under normal circumstances having a guest for dinner would be no big deal, but our intended guest was, in effect, a fugitive from the law.

Photo right - Dr. Walter Salmaniw (left), Ian McFarland (center) and your editor, Colin Newell at the right...

On Christmas morning after we had all opened our gifts and set about preparing  our traditional Christmas turkey dinner, I drove over to the church, feeling somewhat like a secret agent heading for a meeting with a confidential informant.  I had a good look around the area outside the church, just to make sure there were no Mounties lurking in the bushes Hell bent on “getting their man”, and quickly hustled Julio into the car and over to our house.  Having Julio as a dinner guest was not the only thing that made this particular Christmas memorable though.

Some weeks before Christmas our congregation had been informed that there were a lot of university students from overseas who would be on their own over Christmas,  and would appreciate being able to spend Christmas day with a family.  So, we said why not.  The more the merrier!  Let’s really spread the Christmas spirit around!

Ian Mcfarland 2017

After I had spirited Julio out of the church basement and over to our house, I headed into Montreal on a much less furtive mission to pick up our other dinner guests, two student teachers from Kenya.  As I recall they had only been in Montreal for a couple of weeks, and were getting their first taste of a frosty Montreal winter.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those two young men to be confronted by weather far, far colder than either of them had ever experienced, or even thought about.  When I picked them up neither was wearing gloves. 

When I asked them if they had gloves, they said no.  They were trying to harden their hands against the cold they said.

While we were getting everything cooked for dinner Julio and the two students were off in a corner of the living room deep in animated conversation, while our five kids looked on in fascination.

It was quite a crowd that sat down to dinner this Christmas day:  My wife and I, our five children, my mother, a Chilean refugee claimant, and two newly arrived African students.   When the large turkey and all that goes with it was put on the table, we couldn’t help but wonder what was going through the minds of our young African guests.  It was no doubt more food than they had probably ever seen on a table at one time.  A feast fit for a king!  Seeing the wide eyed look on their faces when they saw the large turkey and all the other food  on the table, we felt rather embarrassed, realizing that we had so much, so much more than our African guests had likely ever had in their young lives. For us it was just a normal Christmas dinner, however, for them it was probably anything but a normal Christmas meal.   For our family though, it was  a most wonderful and memorable Christmas day. 

One we’ll never forget.


Ian McFarland - lives quietly in Duncan British Columbia, Canada. Ian had a long and illustrious career with Radio Canada International as well as a multi-year stint with NHK in Tokyo. His many retirement pursuits include volunteering at the Cowichan Valley food bank. Never a moment of rest for one of SW Broadcastings most beloved on air personalities.