I was an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and posted to a one year technical staff course at the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, England. The course started in early January so in mid-December, my wife and I plus our two ankle-biters (sons - three and five years old) departed for the UK. We were not too worried about housing as it had been arranged for us to take over a rental unit from a Canadian officer who was returning to Canada after completing the same course.

On arrival in Britain, we spent several days in London so I could make all the necessary arrangements with the Canadian High Commission. It was very pleasant as the weather was mild and there was lots to see and do. Finally, we caught the train to the Cotswolds and it was from this point on that our fortunes went rapidly downhill. For one thing, we were dragging along far too much baggage, and I don't just mean the kids! We weren't aware that you had to manhandle all the luggage yourself if you wanted it to arrive with you. Otherwise, if checked, it might take several days! If it hadn't been for a kind Vicar's help when we got off at Swindon, the nearest rail centre to the college, our luggage might have continued on to Bristol. Also, the weather had turned very chilly and damp. At Swindon I caused a minor international incident when I tried to hail a taxi in the pouring rain, without queuing up for it. Eventually we got our taxi and made it to Shrivenham and our hotel, the Barrington Arms.

On checking in, we received the rather devastating news that the house we were to take over had been quarantined as one of their children had measles! So we steeled ourselves for a prolonged stay at the hotel over the Christmas period. Now to many this might seem to be a fortuitous event as hotel life can be most pleasant - no cooking or housework, attendants at your beck and call, etc. But this was a very old hotel with few amenities. The rooms were small and heated only by a gas heater which gobbled up shillings at an alarming rate. The children were located in a room down the hall, not adjoining as we had wished considering their age. We literally knew no one in the town. Even our Canadian confrères were wrapped up with preparations for moving back to Canada or conversely moving into their rented accommodation and had little time for us. So it seemed we would be at our own devices for the holiday season. Adding to this was the fact we didn't have warm clothes as we had expected to be domiciled quickly and reunited with our possessions which we had shipped from Canada earlier. Things did not look too bright for this, supposedly the merriest of seasons.

But things are seldom what they seem. In no time we became relatively acclimatized to the weather and local habits. The cool rooms were compensated for by thick down quilts and sherry. The early morning wake-up with hot, strong tea served us in bed, made getting up a pleasure. The English breakfast was a cholesterol nightmare but incredibly tasty and fortifying. And we were pleasantly surprised to find that the British are not at all reserved, (except perhaps in London). The innkeepers, an elderly couple, doted on our children to the extent that one night they heard the youngest crying in his room and comforted him until he went back to sleep. We didn't find out about this until several days later. The pub in our hotel had a wonderful fireplace that beckoned you to sit and stare at it over glasses of brandy. The "regulars" became friends in very short order.

A few days before Christmas, we noticed wheel barrows filled with holly, free for the taking, brought in by the local farmers. The High Street was decorated in the Olde English tradition. Then on Christmas Eve, the street in front of the church filled with the local townspeople all joining with the Vicar in singing carols. We did as well, making it one of our most memorable occasions!

On Christmas day, we were invited to a fellow officer's home for dinner. We had a splendid time and the children were visited by Father Christmas. Several days later, we finally moved into our new home. Our British neighbours made us most welcome offering advice and assistance. "Come in for a spot of tea and biscuits, dears; you must be weary." We were truly made to feel at home!

The rest of our tour was just as pleasant. But we'll always remember this particular holiday season. To us it exemplifies the true spirit of Christmas.

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