24: A Quebec Christmas

24: A Quebec Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Quebec Christmas

Christmas is a time when you get homesick — even when you’re home.

~Carol Nelson

My wife and I were spending our second year in Eastern Canada and were really starting to miss our families, who were spread across Europe. Her brother lives in Scotland with his family, while my sister and her brood live in Spain. It was hard being so far apart, and it became even more difficult at Christmas. We had been accustomed to spending holiday time with our brother and sister ever since our parents had passed on a number of years ago. When we moved to Canada we knew there would be a bit of a social hiatus before we managed to establish a new circle of friends, but it took us a while to realize we would never find a substitute for family. This lack of family connection really hit home during the holidays. To make matters worse, all of our Canadian friends were busy with their own families at Christmas and New Year’s, leaving us feeling quite isolated.

Back in Europe, our families were well aware that we had spent a pretty lonely holiday period the previous year. It was my sister, Joan, who suggested that we take a trip to the Chateau Montebello to celebrate Christmas, explaining that there we would likely be holidaying among people who found themselves in a similar situation. The thought of spending another Christmas at home just the two of us was not appealing, so we booked ourselves into the Chateau Montebello for the holidays.

Winter had started early in this part of Quebec. Heading out of Ottawa the roads were clear for driving, but everything else had a healthy covering of fresh white snow. Our first impression as we turned off the main road toward the chateau was of the black and red painted log entrance gate straddling the driveway entrance. From there the driveway wound its way toward the main building through huge mature pine trees, all beautifully decked out with Christmas wreaths and lights. We felt this was a good start to our mini vacation.

Overlooking the Ottawa River, the majestic four-storied log building stood quietly amid the newly fallen snow. Smoke curled slowly out of the central chimney as it rose to meet the grey and overcast sky. The main building was enormous; surely there cannot be a larger or more impressive log structure anywhere in the world.

As we entered the foyer we were delighted to discover a two-story-high Christmas tree decorated and lit in such a spectacular manner it could have made the New York Rockefeller Center tree look like a Charlie Brown special. Surrounding us were three stories of wooden balconies draped with festive decorations. These rose up around a central hall supported by a massive, twenty-metre-high, six-sided stone fireplace. Three of the fireplaces blazed invitingly while small groups of people sat in cozy looking chairs and couches reading or quietly talking, just soaking in the delightful atmosphere.

Our room turned out to be a wonderful large end suite with a fabulous view out over the skating rink and the frozen Ottawa River. Leaving our unpacking for later, we headed out to explore the chateau. Originally built as a private club for a rich fishing and hunting clientele, no expense was spared in its construction. Every room is beautifully appointed with a great view of the extensive grounds.

Picking up an activity listing at the main desk we discovered to our delight that cross-country skiing, curling, skating, tobogganing and horse-drawn sleigh rides were all available to guests. Not being particularly adept at any of these activities we vowed to try them all, just hoping not to embarrass ourselves in the process. We had brought cross-country skis and ice skates with us, so we headed off to try out the skating rink before darkness fell. But we need not have rushed as it turned out the rink was lit at night for evening skaters, providing those in the dining room with a ringside seat to the colourful activity.

Despite all the beauty surrounding us, I realized that my wife really seemed to be missing her family this year. It had been a while since we’d been home on what was called the “five-thousand-dollar cure for homesickness.” I was the one who had initiated the move to Canada, so I felt a weight of responsibility for us being so far away from our families. We soon discovered that many family groups seemed to be using the hotel as a holiday meeting place, and this only made us all the more aware of missing our own families. A few times I caught my wife staring wistfully at family groups seated at adjacent dining room tables. Nevertheless, we both began to look forward to Christmas morning. We had not brought many gifts with us, just a few token ones to exchange on Christmas Eve.

On our second evening we were feeling up to trying something new, so we signed up for a curling bonspiel. Fortunately we were teamed up with a husband and wife who had played many times before. So in spite of my contribution we won the bonspiel and were led into the main hall to be presented with our medals and a token bottle of rum. Standing on the podium, as I looked around the room I suddenly noticed four familiar faces that were smiling much broader than any others. Somehow, there stood my sister and her husband along with my wife’s brother and his wife — smiling broadly and applauding loudly! I don’t think I have ever been more surprised in my life!

My wife and I let out yells and bounded off the stage into their open arms, with tears of joy streaming down our faces. It turned out my sister had suggested the chateau to us because she had already booked herself and the others into the hotel for Christmas. They had just flown in from Europe that very morning. Knowing how much we missed them they had made the supreme effort to join us on our home turf. The miracle was that she had managed to do it without us having even the faintest idea of what was being planned.

Needless to say we ended up spending a wonderful Christmas together. We all agreed it was the most memorable Christmas ever. For the rest of our lives the Chateau Montebello will hold a very special place in all of our hearts.

~J.A. Gemmell

Ottawa, Ontario

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