2: Under One Roof

2: Under One Roof

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Under One Roof

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

~Norman Vincent Peale

On the day of my fourteenth birthday, in late October 2013, a huge winter storm rolled in as if from thin air. So instead of celebrating outside around our backyard fire pit the way we’d done the year before I had to move my party inside our small Toronto bungalow. Then, on the heels of the chill that disrupted my birthday came a frost that covered the lawns in early November. It was our first sign of the long, cold winter ahead. By mid-November, snow already covered the porches and driveways of Toronto homes. Although it was early, I was absolutely delighted because I loved snow. It was already starting to feel like Christmas!

I was in my first year of high school, majoring in vocal at a special school for the performing arts. It was now mid-December, and our annual Christmas Concert was finally finished. This followed weeks of high tension and struggles simply getting to, and especially home from late rehearsals because of the intense early winter weather, and the continuous, large quantities of snow. Every morning I would wake up surprised to find it had snowed yet again. The holiday season was finally in full gear, and everyone in my family was ready for the Christmas break.

Despite the excitement of Christmas fast approaching, people around me were getting edgy. As the presents and parties grew in numbers, so did the fears that a power outage could occur at any time. Short summer outages in Toronto aren’t uncommon, but losing power in the summer seemed more of an inconvenience than a hardship. A day or two of barbequing was fun, and my family found it was a good excuse to go camping at Sauble Beach!

This time it was different. The snow was piling up, the thermometer showed negative numbers, and worst of all was the biting wind chill. With all this non-stop snow the possibility of losing electricity was becoming a real concern. A power outage in winter meant no heat, no lights, no cooking — and often no hot water. And there would definitely be no barbequing outside, or going camping to escape. I began reconsidering my thoughts about snow and how much I loved it.

It was the Saturday before Christmas when the freezing rain started. I woke up to a cold house and an eerie silence. My dad is an electrician and a sound engineer, so our home is filled with electronic devices that announce things — like the house is at the right temperature. But the house was silent… and cold. It had finally happened.

When my parents told me that most of Toronto was without power and covered in ice, I had no clue what to do. So, being a lazy teenager, I decided to just sleep through it. I figured it would last an hour at most. Hopefully by the time I woke up from my nap the lights and the heat would be back on. Surely people wouldn’t be able to last long without heat in these temperatures. I just assumed the city was already doing everything they could to restore the electricity. Like everyone else I could only hope.

Miraculously, in our home, that hope was fulfilled! Suddenly, after only a few hours, the electricity in six houses on my street, including ours, came back on, bringing this small strip of neighbourhood back to life. We were so thankful to once again have power, and along with it lights and heat, and the ability to take a hot shower and cook a meal. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for everyone.

When I tried to keep in touch with my friends I discovered their cellphones and laptops were all dying. One friend told me that recharging his phone meant going to a mall (or someplace else with power) and sitting on a wet floor. After three days the freezing rain finally stopped, but the streets were now littered with fallen trees and broken branches all coated with ice. And they continued to fall. Then the temperatures plummeted, causing everything to freeze solid. Then it started snowing again on top of the ice, making driving and walking conditions even more treacherous.

Over the days leading up to Christmas Eve many people came in and out of our home to find shelter from the bitter cold for a few hours, or just hang around to charge their phones. Their own homes were still cold, and without lights or hot water. My family was more than thrilled with all the company.

By the time Christmas Eve arrived on Wednesday, our small bungalow was packed with at least fifteen people from four different families, along with friends of mine and two of my sister’s classmates. Their homes had now been dark and cold for five days. Again, the snow fell heavily that night. Desperate for relief, friends and neighbours streamed into our home seeking refuge — and my folks welcomed them all.

In our small living room we all shared stories over cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Children ran around and, after bringing their presents from their own homes, they set them under our Christmas tree hoping that even though they weren’t at home Santa would still find them. Late Christmas Eve my house turned into a motel, with people sleeping on anything that looked relatively comfortable. Despite the reason, it felt so intimate spending Christmas Eve with so many people in such a compact space. When everyone was finally settled, beds, couches, even padded chairs were covered with balls of comforters. It was just one big sleepover!

I gave up my double bed to a couple who hadn’t slept well in days. One of my sister’s classmates slept in the second bed in her room, and I slept on the floor between them. Knowing that everyone in the house was snug and warm for the first time in many days allowed me to do that with a lot more acceptance. I hadn’t had to deal with the cold and discomfort that they had.

I woke up early that Christmas morning to a house full of happy faces from a proper night of sleep in a warm house. Someone had brought a real evergreen wreath and the fragrance permeated the room. There was heat, and light, and water to wash sleepy faces. The huge breakfast made by the combined efforts of all the parents filled everyone with laughter and joy. Christmas morning is always magical, but opening my presents that morning with other teens and younger kids and everyone still in their pyjamas made Christmas seem more magical than ever. My mom had back-up gifts on hand which she gave to my sister’s classmates so they had something to open as well. With everybody warm and full and laughing and hugging, overnight my family had turned from four people into fifteen. I don’t remember ever before having such a heart-warming feeling. It was extraordinary!

That experience was a real turning point for me. Before this I hadn’t really thought about Christmas in such an intimate way. And even though this amazing experience came out of hardship and misfortune, it renewed for me, and still does, the magic of Christmas that I’d had as a small child. Whenever I think of Christmas now, it includes the memory of the smell of sweet evergreen, hot chocolate, piles of snow and the laughter of many — all under one roof. This experience brought me face to face with the true spirit of Christmas.

~Alexa Danielle Patino

Toronto, Ontario

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