To those who might not be familiar with Cape Breton Island, here is a brief orientation via Wikipedia:
Cape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. The 10,311 km2 (3,981 sq mi) island accounts for 18.7% of the total area of Nova Scotia. Although physically separated from the Nova Scotia peninsula by the Strait of Canso, it is artificially connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the 1,385 m (4,544 ft) long rock-fill Canso Causeway. The island is located east-northeast of the mainland with its northern and western coasts fronting on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; its western coast also forming the eastern limits of the Northumberland Strait. The eastern and southern coasts front the Atlantic Ocean; its eastern coast also forming the western limits of the Cabot Strait. Its landmass slopes upward from south to north, culminating in the highlands of its northern cape. One of the world's larger salt water lakes, Bras d'Or ("Arm of Gold" in French), dominates the centre of the island.
To Everything Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story, by Alistair MacLeod [McClelland & Stewart, 2012] harkens back to the 1940s, but like most rural communities, including the Ontario one in which I grew up, its roots go back to a much earlier time. Indeed, in Cape Breton, its roots go back to a time when:
"...the English set out to destroy the clans of Scotland, [and] the most independent of the Highlanders left their homes with the pipes playing laments on the decks of their ships. They crossed the ocean and the pipes played again when they waded ashore on the rocky coast of Cape Breton Island."- Hugh Mclennan
In the 1940s, rural communities were predominantly `closed' communities with a proud, self-sufficient way of life, i.e.
"Most of the families, if they did not live in the town or work in the mines, would have a small farm where cows and sheep and pigs and hens and a small garden provided a living. Things would be easier with the help of the wages of a husband or son who worked on the fishing boats or in the woods or, like young Neil in the story, on "the lake boats" in Ontario."
There were few indulgences, therefore, except for Hallowe'en and Christmas, and MacLeod--in his flawless and evocative style--has captured this anticipation in the voice of an eleven-year-old boy.
"We have been waiting now, it seems, forever. Actually, it has been most intense since Hallowe'en when the first snow fell upon us as we moved like muffled mummers upon darkened country roads."
Indeed, this entire story is a collection of evocative memories, seemingly random at times, but always moving the story forward at the same time.
"The ocean is flat and calm and along the coast, in the scooped-out coves, has turned to an icy slush. The brook that flows past our house is almost totally frozen and there is only a small channel of rushing water that flows openly at its very centre. When we let the cattle out to drink, we chop holes with the axe at the brook's edge so that they can drink without venturing onto the ice.
"The sheep move in and out of their lean-to shelter, restlessly stamping their feet or huddling together in tightly packed groups. A conspiracy of wool against the cold. The hens perch high on their roosts with their feathers fluffed out about them, hardly feeling it worthwhile to descend to the floor for their few scant kernels of grain. The pig, who has little time before his butchering, squeals his displeasure to the cold and with his snout tosses his wooden trough high in the icy air. The splendid young horse paws the planking of his stall and gnaws the wooden cribwork of his manger."
For those of us who grew up on a family farm one can almost hear, feel and smell these scenes, and for those who didn't it is a wonderful glimpse of a simpler time, when Christmas meant more than frantic trips to Walmart.
And if this isn't enough, it is generously illustrated with the marvellous sketches of Peter Rankin--of the same Rankin clan as the world-renowned "Rankin Family" musicians.
This is a short story (only 47 pages long) that you will want to make part of your Christmas tradition. Five bees.