Christmas in Canada

By Dale Sproule

Canada suffered as badly as anyone in the world during the Great Depression of the 1930s, so when money started to flow after the Second World War, everyone was happy and many babies were born. I was one of the children who caught my first breath during that "baby boom".

I grew up in the northern part of Alberta, where it is a normal winter when snow covers the ground from October until April. For month after month, it can be so cold that your hands and feet will go numb before you can walk two blocks. You must have very good winter clothes and you must plug in the block heater that warms up the engine of your car or it will not start in the morning. On really cold nights, an engine could freeze, and a full bottle of liquid left on a car seat would quickly turn into a pile of ice and broken glass.

As cruel as the winters can be in the Canadian prairies, they can be beautiful as well.

When dark grey clouds lie thick and heavy over the grey streets of downtown Edmonton, it can feel like you are being crushed between two huge slabs of steel. Although this may sound depressing, weather like that used to put a smile on my face because it meant that snow was about to fall. And as the snow fell, the temperature usually rose. In the glow of the streetlights, the air began to glitter. And all of the sounds of the city were softened as though I was hearing them through a layer of cotton. Of course, I was wearing a toque (wool hat) and earmuffs (furry pads that cover the ears) and had the hood of my coat up and had a scarf wrapped around my whole head, so it was always quiet. But new snow made it even quieter.

The sense of magic never lasted long. Soon big yellow snow plows were roaring up and down the streets, pushing the freshly fallen snow to the sides of the road, so that drivers who parked on the side of the road would have to dig through a snow bank to get their car out and go to work in the morning. Many mornings I woke up to the whine of wheels spinning on the ice and the cursing of angry voices. At the beginning of December every year while I was growing up, radio and television stations started playing popular Christmas songs by artists like Elvis Presley and Andy Williams. One song I heard many times was called White Christmas. It was from the Bing Crosby Hollywood musical, also called White Christmas. I thought it was a stupid movie. How could anyone with half a brain in their head actually wish for snow?

I'm sure that the people in the prairies and the north of Canada became more excited about this holiday than people who lived in warmer parts of the country. Christmas was a beacon of warmth and light in the middle of the long, icy winter. Christmas was filled with music. For some people it was filled with God, as it celebrates the birth of Jesus, the son of the Christian God. For most people, even those who did not care about the Christian religions, it was filled with tradition. From putting up a Christmas tree to kissing under the mistletoe to the truckloads of toys sold by the department stores during the season - Christmas was everywhere!

In schools, Christmas plays were performed, Christmas carols (songs) were sung and Christmas cards and decorations were made out of coloured paper and foil. Many Canadian holiday traditions have European roots - like Christmas trees. Many ancient peoples in Europe worshipped trees. In Great Britain, priests called Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits. But using small trees as decorations began in Germany. Martin Luther, who broke away from the Catholic Church and started a branch of Christian faith called Lutheranism, is said to have been the first to put candles and decorations on a Christmas tree, as symbols of the stars that looked down over Bethlehem on the night when Christ was born.

In the house where I grew up, we seldom went to church. The Christmas tree was decorated mostly to make sure that Santa Claus came to our house to bring us presents wrapped in bright red and green paper. Children's stories about Santa Claus described him as jolly fat man in a red suit who rode a sled through the sky, pulled by eight tiny reindeer. He would come down the chimney and leave gifts under the Christmas tree.

With all of the people now coming to Canada from around the world, schools no longer pay as much attention to Christmas as they once did and Canadian children get a chance to hear about other winter festivals and celebrations from other cultures, including Indian Diwalli, Jewish Chanukah, Muslim Ramadan, Japanese Shichi-Go-San and Korean Daeborum.

But newcomers will still experience Christmas - at school, at the office and especially in the stores and in the advertisements that fill the newspapers. If people give you cards and presents, you are not expected to give something back, but if you would like to get into the spirit of this important Canadian holiday, keep in mind that giving people a Christmas card will often make them as happy as receiving a gift. If you do buy a gift, you should not spend much money. Try to avoid practical things like toothpaste or motor oil - but instead give items that people would not usually buy for themselves like scented candles, fancy bath soaps or little boxes of candy or baked goods.

In some houses and offices, sprigs of mistletoe (a plant with small white berries) are hung over doorways. The custom says that when two people come together under the mistletoe, they are supposed to kiss.

You can simply relax during the Canadian holidays on December 25th (Christmas Day) and December 26th (Boxing Day), and enjoy the happiness and good will of Canadians all across the country.

CNM