Yes, it’s different — but rural Albertans are making the best of it

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Making the best of it

Friends Clint Jackson, left, and Walter Moebis have found a fun way to beat the winter blues this year.
photo: Supplied

Music fills the cul-de-sac, a familiar Christmas carol that draws the neighbourhood children outside and their parents right behind them, hastily throwing on coats and boots and gloves against the December cold.

The night is a cacophony of noise — cheering, yelling, singing, screaming — and the noise grows only louder when the source of the music comes into view. Bedecked in lights and decorations, the white truck crawls through the neighbourhood, trailing children behind it as it finishes its slow loop past every house.

No, it isn’t Santa Claus — only farmer Walter Moebis and his best friend Clint Jackson spreading some Christmas cheer through central Alberta.

“You turn on ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ full blast and all of a sudden, you’ve got people coming out of their house dancing in the streets — in the middle of winter in Alberta,” Moebis said with a laugh.

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The solution to this year’s winter blues came to Moebis and Jackson one night when they were sitting around watching the news.

“We were getting so wrapped up in everything and just sick of the doom and gloom,” said Moebis, a semi-retired farmer from the Olds area. “So Clint and I got to talking, and we said, ‘Why don’t we decorate a truck and drive around in the evenings to lift everybody’s spirits?’”

Jackson, a custom airbrush artist, created a magical Christmas scene for the box of the truck. The friends strung up some Christmas lights, plugged in a loudspeaker, and the rest is history.

“The first night we went out, I said to Walter, ‘If we can make one little kid’s night, it would be worth it,’” said Jackson, who also owns a tire shop in Olds. “The first night, we probably had 80 or 90 children come out to wave at us. That’s well worth it.”

By the time they wrap it up by the new year, the pair will have visited Olds, Sundre, Bowden, and Didsbury.

“When we got in the truck the very first night, it made our hearts swell so much. We said we’ve got to do it whenever we can get out. That’s why we’re doing it — it makes us feel good,” said Moebis. “It has just turned out fabulous — way better than we could have ever imagined.”

The pair typically starts their tour just as it’s getting dark out. That’s when local seniors are sitting down to dinner in their nursing homes.

“We feel sorry for these seniors who can’t get out for a walk and can’t see their grandchildren and children,” said Jackson. “They’re locked up in these homes, and they’re only allowed to go from their room to the dinner table. That’s their social activity — having dinner. So we thought we’d go over there at dinnertime, turn on the music, and drive really slow a couple of passes. Every one of them was waving at us.”

After that, they choose a small area of town to tour. Word has got out and people in these communities have come to expect them, with some even driving in from out of town to take in the show.

“We’re getting hundreds — hundreds! — of people out on the street every night,” said Moebis. “We’re one truck — we’re not a parade!”

But for as much as these friends are spreading cheer to their communities, they’re “getting it threefold back,” he added.

“We both get so much joy in spreading that kind of joy to other people,” he said. “Once we did it once, we were hooked. It just makes us feel good.”

And for Jackson, this has been “a lot more positive” way to spend his evenings than watching the news.

“This year is gloomy,” he said. “I had a bad depressive year, and I just wanted to cheer it up while cheering other people up.

“I’d say it’s working so far.”

— Jennifer Blair

No idle hands on this farm

Cross-country skiing is just one of a host of activities that the very busy Townsend girls — Natalie, Miranda and Erica Townsend — are involved in this winter.
photo: Supplied

Normally at this time of year, Lee Townsend and his family are looking forward to a warm-weather holiday.

Although his parents have a house in Arizona, Townsend, his wife and their three daughters won’t be heading south of the border this winter.

“We’ve basically been hunkered down since this all started in March,” said the Parkland County beekeeper. “We got home from Arizona March 6 and the pandemic basically took over March 12. This has just been our life for the past eight months like everybody else.”

Well, maybe not just like everyone else — unless they have three kids under the age of 10 with a seemingly endless thirst for learning new things.

It started with home-schooling, which is something new for the family.

“The first month was a challenge because there was a learning curve,” said Townsend. “But now the girls are flying with it. That’s been refreshing. The lack of socialization is hard, but we’ve just been spending a lot of time together as a family.”

And a lot of time learning new things.

In addition to receiving lessons from dad on beekeeping, Natalie (age 9), Miranda (8) and Erica (6) have tried their hands at woodworking, mechanics, and carpentry. There’s piano lessons to keep up with and the three sisters have also taken up cross-country skiing.

“They’re like little sponges, so we’ll fill them up with as much information as we can when they’re young,” said Townsend.

The girls are also learning some Spanish.

“Whenever we’re allowed to go back into society again, they’ll have a little bit of a head start on other things,” he said. “That’s the extent of what winter is going to look like to us.”

The family’s version of hunkering down sounds pretty exhausting but Townsend said it will pay dividends.

“Short-term pain for long-term gain is never a bad thing,” he said.

— Alexis Kienlen

A cosy country Christmas

Charlotte Wasylik planned a Christmas Mini Market at Chatsworth Farm near Vermilion for some family fun in the fresh air.
photo: Supplied

Charlotte Wasylik had a Christmas vision: Bring together a small number of local vendors and neighbours one Sunday afternoon to enjoy hot apple cider and some family fun in the fresh air ahead of the holidays.

But just like so much else in 2020, those festive plans had to go online — but that hasn’t robbed them of their magic.

“We knew (moving) online was a really high possibility,” said Wasylik on Dec. 9, three days before the market was set to take place (virtually) at Chatsworth Farm near Vermilion.

“If we’d planned for an earlier weekend, it would have been a go, but I’m glad we made the decision before it was made for us.”

She and her mother were looking for a way to make farm pickups possible for their farm-direct customers when they “stumbled on the idea of a winter market,” said Wasylik, whose family produces beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and grains for milling.

“We know that a lot of other farms have little pop-up shops and farm stores, but we don’t have anything like that yet,” she said. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we do something that can include other local producers and local makers?’”

Wasylik reached out to a few local vendors, including a local cheese maker, a distillery, a baker, as well as artists and crafters, to create a Holiday Mini Market at Chatsworth Farm.

“We just wanted to give people a chance to come out and enjoy the fresh air where there’s lots of space to spend time as a family,” said Wasylik. “We wanted to give people an opportunity to just have fun with the season.”

While the latest provincial restrictions don’t allow that, the online version was still an opportunity to show what ‘truly local’ looks like.

“A lot of people talk about the 100-mile diet, but when you think about it, 100 miles is a pretty big area,” she said, adding her market vendors all live within a dozen miles of Vermilion. “Our area is very small but very bountiful.”

— Jennifer Blair

A landscape to play in

Even though they’re staying at home these days, life on the Taylor farm is pretty busy. Far left is William (holding Fetchy LaRue), Mark (with Meeps, a bottle-fed baby goat), Elias, Nathan (with Finn), Jacob, and Tamara (with Allen and Gilbert).
photo: Supplied

For some Alberta families, isolating can get pretty crowded.

On the Taylor farm near Caroline, 15-year-old William starts the list of residents with his three brothers, parents and grandparents; moves on to pets (two cats and several dogs); and doesn’t attempt to itemize the menagerie of goats, rabbits, ducks, geese, chickens, cattle and horses — except for Meeps the bottle-fed goat who either think she’s a dog or a member of the family.

It is, needless to say, a busy place.

“With everything being shut down, we are fortunate to have such a landscape to play with,” said William.

The ice rink is a popular place, especially for eight-year-old twins Elias and Jacob, and caring for the animals takes a lot of everyone’s time.

But they also find time for contemplative, indoor moments.

“We have a journal time with our family together and one of our family members picks a topic and we all write about it and share,” said William. “That’s been a pretty big hit with us.”

While the holidays will be just immediate family this year, it will be as special as ever, he said.

“We’ll have just as much joy as always around here, with our animal friends and family.”

— Alexis Kienlen

Quiet times can still be good times

Kevin and Sara Bender and their five children plan to spend a lot of quiet family time together this winter.
photo: Supplied

Making backyard hockey rinks has become a craze across the country as housebound families look for a way to beat the winter blues.

You can put Kevin Bender on that list of do-it-yourself ice-rink makers but he’s actually scaling back this winter.

Normally, the Sylvan Lake-area farmer builds his hockey rink to NHL-size dimensions, but since this year’s version won’t be hosting large gatherings, the father of five will make a family-size version.

“We’ll make a big hockey rink here, and the kids can use that,” he said. “And usually I push up a big pile of snow, and they can snowboard on it, and sled off of that.”

The family plans to do some skiing at the Canyon Ski Resort, but the annual week-long family gathering in Fairmont for Christmas has been called off.

“When all of us are there, there are 28 people, it’s quite a crew,” said Bender. “That’s not going to be happening either.”

But the family has found other activities to pass the time.

“We played board games and card games, which has been good,” he said.“We’re just sticking closer to home, which is fine. We’re good with that.”

— Alexis Kienlen

Mrs. Claus moves her Christmas visits online

Mrs. Claus can’t do any in-person visits this year because of the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped her from spreading a little Christmas cheer over Zoom.
photo: Supplied

Every year in December, Mrs. Claus would clear her busy schedule and make her way down from the North Pole with a bag full of goodies and a list of her very own.

Those on her list were lucky ones indeed. They were getting a visit from Mrs. Claus herself.

With Santa working away back home, it was up to his better half to spread some Christmas cheer — baking cookies, telling stories, and sharing the magic of the North Pole with little ones across central Alberta.

But like everyone else in Alberta right now, Mrs. Claus will be doing her Christmas visits over Zoom this year.

“I’ve been able to bring the kids to the North Pole instead of Mrs. Claus coming to visit them,” said Mrs. Claus’s alter ego Kerry Ringness, who raises bison near Rocky Mountain House (when she’s not at the North Pole, that is).

“I didn’t know how it was going to work or if it was going to be strange because you’re not right there in person, but it has been so magical. The kids are super excited, and we’ve had so much fun.”

Ringness had been doing home visits for about five years when the pandemic derailed her usual Christmas plans this year. But after learning about How to Save Christmas — a group of Santas and Mrs. Clauses doing meet-and-greets over Zoom this year — Ringness jumped on board.

“It’s been so fun,” she said. “It has made my heart happy, and for the kids I’ve got to visit with, it’s been really good as well.”

Joined by her behind-the-scenes helper elf Mary-Belle, Mrs. Claus virtually welcomes her new little friends into her workroom at the North Pole, where she uses some magic to light the Christmas tree.

Then out comes Santa’s most prized possession: The list.

“Santa has let me borrow his Book of Names,” she said. “It’s a giant book that has children from zero to 110 in it. If you’re in that range, your name is in the book, and there’s information about each child in it. I love to share that with them.”

That’s usually when the questions start: What are Santa’s favourite cookies? (“Store bought and homemade — everybody knows that.”) What do you feed the reindeer? How many reindeer are there? How many elves are there? Are the elves busy? What is Santa doing right now?

“It’s really fun,” she said. “It seals the deal that Santa’s real for kids. If Mrs. Claus is real, then Santa must be real, and the kids will say, ‘Mom, that was the real Mrs. Claus.’

“It seals their belief in Christmas and the magic of the North Pole.”

But it’s not just the little ones who get caught up in the magic, she added.

“I’ve had some parents stay on the call, and they’ve been right up there with the kids,” she said. “That’s so fun. You can see they’re just children as well. We’re all somebody’s kid.”

And during a recent visit with a seniors’ home, Ringness was tickled to learn you’re never too old to wonder what reindeer like to eat.

“They asked questions, and they were the same questions the kids ask. They were just as happy as the kids. That’s what I think is beautiful. We all need that Christmas magic.”

Having the chance to spread that Christmas cheer “means everything” to Ringness, who has connected with families as far away as Ontario and New Jersey this year.

“It’s made my heart happy that I can bring a little joy right now,” she said.

“Everybody’s Christmas is going to be different this year, and for Santa and Mrs. Claus, Christmas is different as well. We’re not doing the same kind of in-person visits because we’re trying to be safe, but people still need a lift.

“They need to know that Christmas can still be magical.”

— Jennifer Blair

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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