Since becoming a couple, my husband and I have alternated between spending Christmas here in Manitoba and going home to Alberta (funny, I wrote “home” without even thinking about it!). The holidays over the last few years have been kind of bittersweet for me.
When I was young, Christmas was the same every year. All of our relatives lived one or two provinces away and, except for the year when we drove through a blizzard for our one and only Winnipeg Christmas, we stayed in Lethbridge for the holidays. On Christmas eve, we’d go to church. Afterwards we’d set out cookies and milk for Santa and of course, a carrot for the reindeer, and my dad would read from our well-worn copy of “The Night Before Christmas”. We’d wake up early on Christmas morning and open our stockings. The rule was that we weren’t allowed to wake up our parents until the first signs of daylight, but as soon as it seemed light-ish, we’d pile into their bed and demand they open their own stockings. Everyone got a mandarin in the toe, and among the other small gifts there was always a jar of olives each for my sister and me, and a bar of Jersey Milk for my dad.
My dad would wear his red quilted Christmas vest and make pancakes. My sister and I would rip into one particularly anticipated gift, a fresh, new set of Mr. Sketch markers and a package of crisp, white printer paper, and spend the morning drawing. We’d wait excitedly for our mum to open her fancy gift: a bottle of Lauren or L’Air du Temps. We’d get calls from relatives around the country — remember when long distance calls were novel?
My mum would be in the kitchen wrestling with the turkey and preparing a wonderful feast. Many years, my grandma would be visiting from Winnipeg, and we would do lots of puzzles and play lots of cards. My grandma was major competition, having cleaned up at the Manitoba Seniors Games with her madd cribbage skillz. We’d start our thank-you notes and enjoy our new gifts. It was a great, predictable day and I loved it, from the orange at dawn to drifting off to sleep reading a new book at night.
But it’s been a long time since that was a typical Christmas. The last many years have been part of a funny in-between stage where my own immediate family’s Christmas traditions are in flux. My older brother has his own family with three kids, my younger sister and her husband have been a bit nomadic due to school and work, and since my dad passed away 14 years ago, it seems the only tradition is that Christmas is different every year. When I start to feel down about this, my husband reminds me that my side of the family does have traditions, they’re just new ones. We’ve had a friendly game of curling the last few years, renting a sheet in a nearby town and laughing our way down the ice. We always decorate sugar cookies with my nieces and nephew. We always do “bits and pieces” for Christmas eve supper, my mum rejoicing in her two sons-in-law sharing her appreciation for pickled herring, and my sister and I duking it out over the last few olives and pickles. And it’s true, we do have traditions. But I still yearn for a set of predictable, comforting rituals. It’s just that we’re still working out what they will be.
Christmas with my husband’s side does have those predictable, comforting rituals. As I’ve mentioned here before, I married into a proudly Francomanitoban family, and this has been an endless source of fascination for me. Unlike me with my WASPy heritage, these people have traditions! This is most apparent at Christmas, and I thought I’d share some the things I love about le temps des fêtes.
I am not a night owl by any stretch, but tradition dictates that the “réveillon” – basically, a party that keeps you up all night - doesn’t start until after mass on Christmas Eve. Luckily, it’s not midnight mass, but even so, it’s a late night. We gather at my in-laws’ for pre-church hors d’oeuvres (no drinks or chocolate yet, though) and start to feel festive. Those who want to go to church bundle up and head out into the night, returning a while later, and that’s when the party really starts. We are finally allowed to have drinks, so the room immediately becomes 50% louder. My mother-in-law sets out a big meal, which includes a gorgeous bûche de Noël, and someone always bring meat pie (tourtière). We exchange gifts, play cards and other games and just generally have a good time, lounging around in the glow of the elaborate crèche. I don’t think I’ve ever made it past 1 or 2am, and certainly won’t make it this year either (toddlers have a way of making sure you can never sleep in when you really need to!), but it’s still a wonderful time.
There are some very talented musicians in our family, and those lacking in talent make up for it with enthusiasm, so it’s a loud affair with guitars and singalongs of Christmas and rest-of-the-year music, and people talking over each other. In the last two years I’ve been learning (well, at least becoming familiar with) a few of the very traditional French Canadian Christmas songs*; I’m especially intrigued by the story and music of Madame Bolduc (aka La Bolduc). Mary Rose-Anna Travers, as was her maiden name, was a smash sensation as a singer in Quebec and other French-speaking parts of Canada and the US during the 1920s and ’30s. She’s considered to be Quebec’s first singer/songwriter, and her life story is fascinating. Here was a talented and driven women who achieved massive success but was only ever known by her husband’s last name. She had a quirky voice and a talent for comedic lyrics, and if you’re curious to hear her, 1931′s Voilà le père Noël qui nous arrive is a great one!
Anyway, that’s a glimpse into what Christmas looks like for my Francomanitoban family, and I suspect it’s similar to a lot of folks’ – Francophone heritage or not. To me it’s special because it’s such a dramatic departure from what I grew up with and the whole sequence of events and activities is so cherished by the family I married into to.
I would love to hear about what your family does during the holidays – do you have cultural traditions you look forward to all year? In the meantime, best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!
*Actually, to say this is Christmas music is not really telling the whole picture. My husband tells me that when his parents were growing up, Christmas was mainly just a religious holiday, it was New Year’s that was the really big party. Where as in Anglo culture we’ve got only a couple of New Year’s themed songs, Francophones have tons of classic songs that talk about le jour de l’an - check out Chapleau fait son jour de l’an (music will auto-play) and Le jour de l’an.