Despite kind people, cold winters and Tim Hortons, people told me that a Canadian Christmas is something that makes this experience complete. What is it like for an international to celebrate this time in a different country with a different family?
Christmas does not start on the 24th of December like in other countries. The 12th of November is the very first day that people get in the Christmas mood. Trees get bought and houses get decorated from that day on. People would replace their Halloween decorations with Christmas decorations the day after Halloween, but there is the unspoken rule that you can decorate your house with lights the day after Remembrance day. People literally lighted up their houses on the 12th of November at 00:01 in the morning. Just to show how important Christmas is to many families over here.
My own Christmas season had its kick-off on the 19th of November. The church in which both my host parents are highly involved, held a Fall-Fair that day. It was a lunch, provided by The Catholic Women’s League(CWL) a group of women who helps the church wherever they can. My host father was providing the music with and the lunch ended with the entrée of the one and only Santa Claus who the children could take a picture with. There’s of course no such thing as being too old to sit on Santa’s knee, so I took my chance and heard from Santa, while crushing his knee, that I was not on the naughty list this year. A personal victory.
Christmas is of course not complete without a Christmas parade. The parade in Sydney, the city I live in, was on the second of December. I went out with two jackets and extra thick pants and around me were Canadian children in shorts and a summer jacket and all they said was, “Just wait for the real winter to kick in.” The parade itself was awesome. It was like the entire city took part in it by either walking in the parade, or standing on the side watching. People spent months preparing their cars, which resulted in a beautiful show of lights and music passing by. Again, as the big final, Santa was the last car in the parade in a sled with his elves, who were handing candy to children.
The eight of December was the big day for us as a family. We had a day off from school and we bought and decorated our Christmas tree. After an hour of searching for the perfect tree, the four of us(my host parents, host brother and me) went all to the basement to grab each two boxes full with decorations. It took us about three hours to decorate the tree and the house and it was at that moment that I realised what decorating your house truly is about. With every decoration one of us grabbed out of the box, one of my host parents told me who gave that one to them and when. My host mother explained to me that every single piece of decoration has a special meaning. They even have decorations their great grandparents had, who passed them on to them. Decorating your house is partly about making your house look nice, but it is more about tradition and standing still by all the people you love. Those who are among us and those who are not anymore. Those you see on a daily basis and those who you saw for the last time 40 years ago. All these beautiful values come together during Christmas and all I can say is that I am really happy that I am able to share this with my host parents.
The next Christmas highlight was two days later. The setting was my host parents’ church and I was about to hear some of Cape Breton’s(the island I live on) best quires and singers in one afternoon. It was a full afternoon program with nothing but beautiful Christmas songs. All the singers were absolutely brilliant and it brought me and everyone around me even more in the Christmas mood than we were before.
Christmas is of course not a real Christmas if you did not decorate cookies and your personal stocking, so that is exactly what we did on the 15th of December. We came together with about 35 international students and we sat down with Christmas music in the background and started full of spirit decorating. It was something very relaxing and calm to do and even though it might not be the usual way to spend your Friday night, I can highly recommend everyone to do something like that. Because getting together and having a fun time with your friends and family is after all what Christmas is all about.
The Christmas period on your high school is also one full of excitement. My high school started their Christmas season the fourth of December with having a special Christmas related activity every day. From ‘ugly Christmas sweater day’ till ‘green and red day’, there was always something that made every school day in December special. However, there were two days that stood out. International Christmas day and the Christmas coffee house.
International Christmas day was not during school time, but in the late afternoon and evening. All the fifty-two internationals and about fifteen Canadians came together to hear what Christmas is like in other countries, to have something to eat and to just be together and laugh with each other. All the sixty-seven people that were there had the chance to say what Christmas means to them and the amazing part was that literally nobody said the same. This shows the beauty of Christmas. Even though it is considered as a holiday celebrated everywhere in the world, everyone has their own traditions and habits that are related to Christmas. For the majority Christmas is about coming together with family, but for me Christmas is about going on a vacation with my parents and friends.
The second high school Christmas highlight was on the last day of school before the Christmas break. Our school organised a so called coffee-house, basically a free concert with nothing but high school students performing in it. The acts did not necessarily had to be about Christmas, just whatever people wanted to perform. It was unreal to see all the talent my classmates have to offer. Each and every act was good enough to win shows like ‘The Voice’ or anything like that. The perfect way to start the holidays. I went to bed very early that night, because we had something planed the next day that would be, without any doubt, one of the milestones of my time in Canada.
My alarm went off at a decent 5:50 in the morning, I ran in the shower, ate a piece of toast, stopped at a Tim Hortons for a cup of coffee and drove to the church. It was still completely dark outside and there was no sign of any other people that were awake, but that was not true. A bunch of cars arrived at the parking lot, one by one. All with drivers with a Tims cup of coffee in one hand, and the other hand covered with a glove. You might wonder what we were doing at 7 in front of the church, so this is what we were up to: My host mother is a proud President of a society called the Sydney River Saint Vincent de Paul. A society that helps the poor and provides Christmas dinners and presents for over fifty families who are not able to afford that during the Christmas period. A job that takes months to prepare and that morning, Friday the 22nd of December was the big final. We first drove about half an hour to a groceries store where we would pick up all the food. After that, we went back to the church, where we divided all the food in 52 boxes, and drove to all these 52 families and brought them their food and presents. It sounds like something that would take a couple of days to do, but because of the amazing support of over 40 volunteers, the job was done in about 4 hours. It is difficult for an eighteen year old like me to already talk about life-changing moments, but seeing in what conditions a lot people have to live, even in a great country like Canada and seeing the happiness and thankfulness on the faces of those where I brought the groceries, is definitely something I will never forget and it encourages me to do more volunteering wherever I can. Whether it is handing groceries to poor people during Christmas, or something small as helping your parents empty the dishwasher.
After a month and a half of preparing and getting hyped up the day finally arrived. Christmas Eve. It started with a mass at church and even though I don’t go to church very often, I really enjoyed it. Our priest, Father Devereaux, held a very moving talk about what his idea of Christmas is. The general idea was that the best gift to give, that is given by everyone, is the gift of self. What he meant by that is that Christmas is about getting together and spending a nice time with those you love. We carried that idea with us during the Christmas period, with almost not a single moment in which we were just with the four of us. After church, my host mother’s parents came over for supper and stayed for the night. We had a delicious soup and went to bed early again, because in the highly unlikely case of us all being good the last year, Santa would come by and bring us all presents. I gave away my double-bed to my host grandparents and I ended up on the couch, which was not ideal, but completely worth because it would make it possible for us to spend Christmas day with each other.
12, the very end
We got woken up by Santa’s Christmas bells in the morning and when we walked in the living room, we saw bags full with presents. I guess we all did something right this year.
We unwrapped our presents and had our turkey dinner at lunch time. After a terrific lunch, we did something very unusual. Because of all the early mornings we had in the days before, we held a Spanish siesta and everyone had some time for themselves to do whatever they want. The majority decided to take a little nap.
We all were fresh and awake around 6 again and we drove to our host grandparents, where many other family members were and Santa dropped a couple of presents for us all there too. The next days were all like that. We either had family or friends coming over, or we went to family and friends.
We all got a lot presents and I realised that Father Devereaux was fully accurate when he said that the best gift to give is the gift of self. Initially, I was not able to celebrate Christmas with my real family, but now that Christmas is behind us, I realise that I did celebrate Christmas with my real Canadian family, just not with my real biological family. My family here treated me like I was part of theirs and that is the best present they could possibly give to me.