91: A Canadian “Family” Christmas

91: A Canadian “Family” Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Canadian “Family” Christmas

We only need to look at what we are really doing in the world and at home and we’ll know what it is to be Canadian.

~Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada

My mother lost her battle with breast cancer right before Christmas when I was twenty-one years old. Losing your mother is never easy. But being an only child, without a father, and losing your mom only two days before Christmas is just awful.

Christmas is, by all accounts, a time for family. The dining room table is decked out with the good china and piled high with the home-cooked dishes that make Christmas so special. One is surrounded by warm smiles on the faces of mother, father, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. A familiar and friendly mix of laughter and Christmas carols fills the air and creates a feeling of good cheer for this annual tradition. Outside, snow falls softly and adds to the ambience. This is the stuff memories are “supposed” to be made of.

But what happens if your family is all dead? How then do you orchestrate the perfect Christmas scene?

We were a small family, it was true, but we had always spent Christmas together, opening gifts on Christmas Eve, eating traditional German food based on recipes my mother had brought with her to Canada from her homeland, and enjoying one another’s company. Each year we decorated a real tree. The stars which my great-grandfather had made of straw in Berlin almost a hundred years ago were now wrapped carefully in paper and packed away each year until my mother and I decorated the tree and delighted in these family heirlooms once again.

How would I manage without her?

That first Christmas without my mother was a pretty dark and miserable one. I was determined not to let my mother’s untimely death steal this most special part of the season from me forever, so I set out to create a new kind of Christmas in my home, one that honoured her memory and the spirit of the season.

At the time, my husband and I were volunteering at a local refugee reception centre and around the middle of the following November, an announcement was made at church that families were being sought to invite a refugee into their home for a Canadian Christmas dinner. The idea was that we’d extend the hand of hospitality to our new friends, many of whom had never experienced an authentic, home-cooked turkey-and-cranberries-and-pumpkin-pie dinner before. Most of the would-be guests were separated from their own families — some by thousands of kilometres and others by death, thanks to whatever vicious war was raging in whatever country they had managed to escape before arriving safely in Canada.

After consulting with my husband we decided to open our table to as many families as were able to make the trek on Christmas Day from the downtown refugee centre to our small West Toronto home.

A large turkey had been donated by someone at our church. A volunteer stepped forward to cook and deliver the turkey, if my husband and I would prepare the rest of the food. We agreed we would. And of course we invited the turkey cook and her family to join us.

On Christmas Day, our little house was fairly bursting at the seams! With the approximately twenty-five refugees who had accepted the invitation, along with our friends and volunteers who were on hand to help cook the feast and clean up afterwards, the total count was over thirty!

At the last minute, a number of local businesses had opened their hearts as well and donated enough gifts that each person had at least one parcel to open at dinner. (Don’t ask how we managed to get everything wrapped and under the tree on time!)

Oddly enough, sharing my house with thirty-two strangers turned out to be the best Christmas experience I’d ever had. So often in the past I’d been caught up in the anticipation of receiving. I would eagerly tear open my presents, only to be disappointed at the junk bought in haste by someone who had felt obligated to give me a gift at Christmas. But this year was different. There was something extraordinarily fulfilling in sitting back and watching so many people, whose families were scattered all over the world, come together courageously to make a new, Canadian “family” theirs for a day.

As I ate the wonderful meal, I looked up briefly at our Christmas tree, adorned with the straw stars made so long ago by my mother’s grandfather in Germany. I thought then about how I missed my mother’s presence at the table on this special day. But I knew that she, too, must be enjoying this scene from her place in Heaven, along with the other mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who were looking down on their own beloved family members starting a new life here in Canada, and sharing a traditional Christmas dinner in their new country.

That was the year when I learned that it truly is better to give than to receive.

~Vera C. Teschow

Toronto, Ontario

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