13: A Canadian Christmas After All

13: A Canadian Christmas After All

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Canadian Christmas After All

There are no strangers on Christmas Eve.

~Adele Comandini

By October of my second year at the University of Guelph my grades were in trouble, for sure. Beyond the help of even Coles Notes, I dropped my courses instead of flunking out. Unsure of what to do next, I decided a few weeks in Mexico working on my Molson muscle would re-energize me. I packed my knapsack and drove my beater the fifty-or-so kilometres to Kitchener to let my mum know what I was doing. She asked where I was going.

“Oh, I don’t know. The States, then somewhere in Mexico,” I said, not realizing how that vague answer must have alarmed her.

“But don’t worry, Mum,” I added quickly, trying to reassure her. “No way will I miss Christmas, eh?”

She wasn’t convinced, but I was determined to go. Besides, I already had my ticket to fly from Toronto to Atlanta, where I would visit a friend and then head south by bus. After a few weeks away I planned to be back for Christmas with enough time to spare to enroll for January classes.

But somewhere between Atlanta and Ciudad Juarez I came down with a bad case of wanderlust. By the time I crossed the Mexican border I was determined to stay away as long as my money held out. I figured with some miserly spending that might be a couple of months. With that decision, getting home to Canada for Christmas took a back seat.

An entry in my Fodor’s about San Blas convinced me that it might be a nice stop. Described as small, quiet and out-of-the way, it was a once prominent vacation spot but now just a run-down resort town on the Pacific Coast. It sounded ideal.

In early December I stepped off the bus in the centre of town and knew immediately this place was right for me. Transported back in time by its dusty, cobblestone streets, central church of peeling-plaster skin, and the sight of old men and dogs napping under shade trees in the zócalo I was convinced I’d found paradise.

Seeking cheap accommodations, the guidebook led me to the Playa Hermosa Hotel. Located on the outskirts of town it used to be a high-end inn but was now a run-down shell, and possibly not even open anymore. I headed towards the harbour and turned left to follow a rutted, overgrown path that ran parallel to the beach, and found the hotel at the end of the road. After waiting in the empty lobby for a while, the middle-aged housekeeper and her daughter finally appeared and rented me a room on the deserted second floor. It overlooked the entire grounds to the beach, had meagre furniture and an odd odour. There was no hot water or even electricity!

As the days passed a few more travellers checked in, and soon an interesting group was residing there. Bonded by our adventures we felt at home away-from-home, but as Christmas drew closer and I realized I wouldn’t make it back in time I began to feel bad.

To lift my spirits I suggested we organize our very own Christmas celebration right there at the hotel. Everyone was excited and got into the spirit of the occasion as we divvied up the chores and set about planning a Christmas Eve feast.

In charge of obtaining much of the food, I realized my memory of a traditional Canadian Christmas dinner was out of the question, with its fare of pineapple-glazed ham, broiled back bacon, mashed potatoes smothered in beef gravy, tourtière, homemade beans baked in a crock of molasses and brown sugar, butter tarts and minced meat pie for dessert, and all washed down with near-frozen homo milk. Instead we settled for rice and beans, tortillas, pork, chicken, locally grown vegetables and a variety of fresh-caught seafood. While shopping for these ingredients I also bought some inexpensive gifts and, as there were only a few in our group, it didn’t cost much for these trinkets. Anyway, what was Christmas if not a time for gift giving?

Christmas Eve day we gathered on the unkempt grass courtyard. Wood tables from the abandoned dining room were strung together and dressed with an embroidered tablecloth borrowed from the housekeeper; cooking utensils and place settings were scavenged from the hotel kitchen; candle remnants from unused rooms lit the night and tropical flowers were arranged in an assortment of vases. Everyone contributed to the holiday atmosphere with whatever fun and festive items could be found or supplied from our own belongings. The scene was thus set with a colourful collection of bandanas, bikinis, scarves and T-shirts along with an imaginative assortment of scraps and strips of everyday things like tin foil, ribbon, twine and shoelaces.

Anointing a nearby shrub as our official Christmas tree we decorated it with all manner of dangling, sparkling jewelry, accessories, washed-up shells and other castoffs from the beach. Beneath it we placed presents wrapped in assorted paper and cloth.

As Christmas Eve folded itself into a black night of winking stars, we cooked dinner over a large stone fire pit and watched the firefly sparks escape. We feasted on the food purchased fresh that day in town, drank plenty of pop, wine, beer and tequila and enjoyed a dessert of iced-sugar treats. Sated, we gathered around the Christmas shrub to exchange gifts, sing, play games and tell stories of Christmas past. Friendship deepened while we sipped coffee brewed over the dying fire pit embers. We relaxed, full of food and Christmas spirit.

For sure, it was a very different Christmas than back home in Canada, with its rambunctious hustle and bustle, last minute shopping and Boxing Day hangover. We were without the traditional evergreen tree dressed in expensive glass baubles, ornaments, keepsakes and mementos, wrapped in endless strings of popcorn and glittering lights and proudly displayed in the living room window. Of course, no snow blanketed our Christmas scene and I missed that most. Unable to peer out from a frosty window upon a billowy blanket of fluff, tinged moon-blue and stretching far out to the horizon of dreams, I really pined for home.

Yet for all the contrasts of place and time it turned out to be a very Canadian Christmas after all. We had friendship, kindness, caring, and more; we were no longer strangers thrown together in a small corner of the world but had become a true family at a bountiful table, getting — and more important — giving gifts. For a short time on a most memorable day we shared a meal, a moment and a prayer; for ourselves gathered there and for the rest of the world so very far away.

~Brian Wettlaufer

Franklin, Wisconsin

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