How an N.B. man’s teen prank led to a 63-year exchange of Christmas cards

December 23, 2021
How an N.B. man's teen prank led to a 63-year exchange of Christmas cards

Every year at this time, Saint John resident Hugh Brittain wonders if that one certain letter will show up in his mailbox.

Last week it arrived: a Christmas card from a friend he’s never met. 

For the past 63 years, Brittain and his American pen pal, Wayne Anderson, have been exchanging Christmas cards.

They’ve never met, they’ve never spoken on the phone, they don’t even have each other’s email addresses.

But for the past six decades they’ve kept in touch, sending each other gifts and postcards and letters — and never once missing sending a Christmas card.

Hugh Brittain says he couldn’t understand why all of a sudden strangers were sending him letters stuffed with canned food labels. (Submitted by Hugh Brittain)

Teens were fond of practical jokes

It all started as a teenage prank.

Brittain and his friend, Gerry Johnson, were 16 and fond of playing tricks on each other. 

“We grew up together in Saint John, did a lot of things together and, you know, played jokes on each other,” Brittain, now 79, said. 

One day, unbeknownst to Brittain, Johnson sent his buddy’s name and address to a teen magazine, saying he was looking for pen pals. He said Brittain collected canned food labels and Canadian coins — the latter being true — and within weeks, Brittain was deluged with fat envelopes from all over the world.

“They were full of canned food labels,” Brittain said, chuckling at the memory of it. “They were dropping all over the floor as I opened them up and I thought, ‘What is going on?'”

But people were so obliging (although many remarked on his “unusual hobby”) and Brittain was so touched by the effort these strangers had put into peeling the labels off cans for him that he decided to write back to some of them.

He kept in touch with some of them for several years before the letters petered out. 

But one of the pen pals stuck.

Over the years, Wayne Anderson and Brittain forged a long-distance friendship, bonding over their shared passion for collecting and their genuine interest in each other’s lives.

Brittain would send Anderson stamps for his collection, and Anderson would keep a lookout for Canadian coins to send to Brittain.

Brittain went on to become an elementary teacher. Anderson became a university professor. They shared details of their lives, work and travels. They sent photos and talked about visiting each other some day, but lives get busy and somehow, it never happened.

Brittain fully expected that, over time, the cards would stop coming.

But they never did.

Childhood pals Hugh Brittain, left, and Gerry Johnson, seen here in a 2019 photo, remain ‘fast friends’ to this day. (Submitted by Hugh Brittain)

Why canned food labels? Prankster himself isn’t sure

Gerry Johnson laughs when asked about the joke that sparked a lifelong Christmas card exchange.

“I don’t really remember how I came up with that idea,” he said of the canned food label prank. “Probably tried to think of something different.”

Now living in Fredericton, he said he and Brittain are still “fast friends,” and that Brittain always lets him know when he gets his annual greeting from Anderson. 

Johnson thinks it’s remarkable that their exchange has continued on, unbroken, for 63 years.

“I think it’s quite fascinating,” he said.

Brittain’s card this year featured a photo of the Sierra Buttes in California, taken by his pen pal friend of 63 years. (Submitted by Hugh Brittain)

Each card could be the last, Brittain says

This year’s card, like most of Anderson’s cards, features a photo taken on his travels.

He’s a world traveller, and “quite a photographer,” Brittain noted.

Past cards have featured beautiful churches in Ukraine or buildings in Mexico. This year’s features the Sierra Buttes in California, where Anderson lives.

“It’s just a few lines,” Brittain said, but it’s touching that Anderson still takes the time to write them.

After all, he said, he knows the day will come when one of them doesn’t get a card. 

“Every time I drop a card, I think, golly, this is the last one,” Brittain said. “You know, I’m almost 80 … and I keep thinking, well, am I going to get one this year? You wonder, maybe something’s happened to him.”

That has added extra poignancy to the annual exchange, he said, and extra joy in finding that card in his mailbox. 

“I received his this year, so I know he’s still around.” 

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