I wasn’t born there, but Listowel, Ontario is basically my hometown. My family moved to this place west of Waterloo and north of London in November 1990. I’ve left and come back a few times due to whatever direction my life was going in but I’ve never missed a Christmas at home in Listowel.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about it. Agriculture and manufacturing are what keep the place going. The politics are conservative, there are 12 churches for about 6,000 people, one bar, and two sets of traffic lights. The biggest additions to the community over the past year were a new school and a traffic rotary/roundabout on the west side. But amidst the ordinariness, it’s home, and it has its charms and memories this time of year.
The annual Santa Claus parade used to be on a Saturday afternoon. Now it’s in the evening with floats, tractors, and trucks covered with lights. An empty storefront got converted into “Santa’s Place” for a week or two before Christmas so children could visit Santa Claus. Polaroid photos with Santa cost $2.00. In high school, there was always the lengthy Christmas assembly on the last day before the break, one of many dates unofficially known as “National Skip School Day.“ The audience always got smaller as the assembly dragged on.
In the years since, Christmas at home is more of a homecoming. There’s a steady stream of visitors at the Morgan house, and we’re part of the steady stream of visitors at the homes of others. Around town, I like to sit and work at one of the big tables in the front of the public library and look up from the screen to slyly observe people I haven’t seen in years. Thoughts go through my head like “Wow, I can’t believe how those kids have grown up” “I wonder if they still live in the same house?” or “I can’t believe she married that guy.”
It’s heartwarming to go for an evening walk past the town light displays and stop in for a hot chocolate at Diana Sweet’s Restaurant, Listowel’s oldest eatery, continuously operating since 1920. I go in still expecting to see Bill the former owner behind the counter, standing in front of a shelf of old Greek liquor bottles and portraits of Queen Elizabeth. The hot chocolate is still the best. It comes in a big cup with tons of whipped cream on top and only costs $1.58.
The Listowel Banner newspaper always publishes a free “Season’s Greetings” section. They print children’s letters to Santa verbatim—complete with spelling mistakes. I always read these, along with the Merry Christmas advertisements from local businesses. In a place as conservative as Listowel, the advertisements are often more like miniature sermons or Sunday School lessons, containing Bible verses and reflections on the Christmas story.
As Christmas Eve approaches, there’s a huge rush. Minor traffic jams develop at the corner of Main and Wallace. By dusk, Tim Horton’s is closed and coffee addicts go into withdrawal. Families gather in homes. Worshipers gather in churches. It’s the same routine every year, but it’s the home routine, and that’s what makes it special.