Never having spent Christmas anywhere but at home, I wasn’t sure what Christmas in Nova Scotia with my daughter, Bess, and her family would be like. They live in a small town on the southwest shore called Shelburne. There are two inns in Shelburne, but they are both closed at holiday time. The few sightseers who make the drive down from Halifax are long gone at this time of year, and most of the handful of second-home owners are elsewhere, too. Maybe in part because of this isolation, the sense of community is strong.
My son-in-law, Paul, is a naval architect who builds wooden boats. After he gave up the West Coast, my daughter and he wound up in rural Nova Scotia in large part, frankly, because of the cheap real estate: They needed a home, as well as a waterfront property where he would be free to work in his boat shop without disturbing other homeowners or breaking any zoning regulations. (There aren’t many boatbuilders who could afford to buy a waterfront shop, with deep anchorage out front, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., obviously.)
Shelburne has a huge, lovely harbor — ideal for sailing and other water sports — which might elsewhere be a magnet for suburban development, but there aren’t enough people around for that. A few “from away” outliers have been drawn to the town’s cinematically picturesque historic district, it’s true, but fishing and lobstering remain the mainstays of the economy. Like everywhere else, fishermen are enduring hard times in Shelburne County.
There is one big, chain supermarket in town, and the most popular of the few shops downtown, Frenchie’s, sells secondhand clothes, delivered in bales from Boston (hence a very magnificent selection of Red Sox T-shirts on any given day).
On Christmas Eve, not long after dark, my husband and I joined in caroling with a couple of other families who live on nearby streets. This is a town where night actually is silent. Only an occasional car passed as we walked along in the road. Knocking or ringing, we were greeted with unsuspicious smiles and open doors. There were seven kids in our group, ranging in age from 31/2 to 14, and even the littlest knew the words to “Frosty the Snowman,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (the first verses, anyway).
My husband, who walks slowly and with a cane, outdid himself. Our little band circumnavigated the darkened historic district visiting the houses of friends, and then, as we made our way back along Water Street, we stopped in a pharmacy and sporting-goods store to give the few still at work a laugh.
On Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day, my daughter and son-in-law visited neighbors with plates of gravlax, cookies, or tiny mince pies (Paul’s specialty). Several sets of neighbors stopped by, bringing treats in return: a Middle Eastern dip I’d never tried before, dark English fruitcake, more cookies, more mince pies.
In New York — and the East End, despite its past, like it or not, is a part of the great metropolis — everyone is always in an irritable rush. In Shelburne, by contrast, everyone has time to make “good tidings” more than just empty words. I can’t imagine such unselfconscious conversation, such natural camaraderie at home. As my daughter likes to say, living in rural Nova Scotia is a bit like living in the past. Civility-wise, 40 or 50 years ago, at least.
Christmas morning was what we hoped it would be. Santa was generous. Even our stockings, the grandparents’, were full. My granddaughter Nettie, who is 4, and my grandson Teddy, who is 2 (and who had never experienced a true Christmas before, having earlier been living in a care center in Ethiopia) were every bit as giddy and amusing as children are supposed to be.
We’ll be home in time for New Year’s, though I’ll be thinking of the quiet, warm hearths we left behind in Shelburne.