John and Mary Lou Stewart mark final Christmas in family home
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Christmas has always been a time of celebration for the Stewart family of Blyth, as it is for many, but this year’s holidays will bring about change for a family so firmly rooted in the village.
John and Mary Lou Stewart will be celebrating their 46th Christmas in their Westmoreland Street home this year, but it will be their last. They have sold their house and will be moving to the new subdivision in the north end of Blyth early next year.
Both John and Mary Lou say they have made plenty of happy memories in that house, both during the holidays and throughout the year, so it will be hard to leave, but it was time to downsize.
They said they look forward to closing the book on nearly 50 years of memories in their current home, but making new ones in their new home, beginning with Christmas of 2021.
John has a holiday history in Blyth that dates back much farther than 46 years. As a small child, John’s father owned a grocery store in the village, so Christmas was always a busy time for the family thanks to the business.
John’s father would always pack parcels as gifts for residents of the village, as well as the local police chief, telephone line operators and others who worked all year for the benefit of the residents. As a child, John said he would make those deliveries with his father, seeing just about the entire village in the lead-up to Christmas. They were tokens of appreciation for those helping to make the village a better place.
While he didn’t know it at the time, John said that in reflecting back on it, making those deliveries were instrumental in connecting his family to the rest of the village and he’s happy to have taken part in it.
Once the holiday rush on food and other provisions subsided, John and his family were able to settle into the holidays, which always included Christmas lunch next door at his grandmother’s house for a meal of roasted goose with all the trimmings, followed by a traditional Christmas turkey dinner with the other side of his family near Donegal. John says he remembers ending those days being very, very full.
While the lunch with his grandmother would be a tight-knit affair, the other side of his family, in Donegal, was big, so Christmas dinner was usually enjoyed by dozens of people.
Because there were only so many chairs, John said it was customary for the men of the family to eat first, followed by the women and children. When he turned 10 and was seated with the men of the family for dinner for the first time, John said it felt like quite an honour.
Growing up on a farm near Lucknow, Mary Lou says one of her most prevalent Christmas memories is cutting a tree from her family’s property for the holidays. It was always snowy in the back bush of the property, so it was a large undertaking to get it cut down and brought back to the family home.
There were always gifts of hard candy and oranges in her stocking as a child and she remembered her mother’s cooking around the holidays. She would prepare a full Christmas feast every year, but begin baking even earlier.
Her mother’s specialty was fruit cake, Mary Lou said, and as she grew older, probably when she was about eight, she would help her mother prepare it, cutting the fruit for her in late November to prepare for the holidays.
This year will be challenging for the Stewarts, as they won’t be able to celebrate with Mary Lou’s mother, who is 98 years old and living in a retirement home. There will be phone calls and window visits, she said, but with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, they won’t be able to celebrate together as they have for decades.
With both John and Mary Lou serving as long-time members of the Blyth Lions Club, the service organization has played a big role in their lives for decades, especially around the holidays.
John said the Lions Christmas dinner was always circled on the family’s calendar, allowing them to enjoy a holiday dinner with friends and having their children visit with Santa Claus as well.
The community inherent in the club is a big part of the Stewarts’ lives and that is especially true during the holidays.
When John and Mary Lou married and started a family of their own, traditions changed as they hosted their own celebrations.
One particular Christmas rings a bell for John and Mary Lou, literally, as they remembered being at the former Blyth Town Hall for a Lions Christmas celebration one year when a bunch of the young kids found their way to the town’s bell tower, ringing it for the entire village to hear.
During another Christmas, Mary Lou employed their children to help with the Lions Club’s gift bags, assuring them they were acting as Santa’s helpers for the year. She said that was a strategy the kids loved and it turned them into very effective workers.
At home, the Stewarts said they were always practical with gifts for their children. With younger children, there were always toys, but they tried to buy their kids clothes or things they would need for school in the coming year. They also instilled in them the practice of giving to those less fortunate around the holidays and not simply spending just to spend.