Christmastime where I grew up was very different from our experience here in Melbourne. Most markedly, Christmas was often white because it takes place in winter, and Canadian winters are some of the fiercest in the world. I found it very strange celebrating Christmas in the midst of summer when I first arrived in this country six years ago and, although I have acclimated to the Australian experience of Christmas, I still miss the cold weather and light snow that announces the arrival of Christmas in Canada.
I grew up in Sydney in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Our part of the world remains relatively untouched by recent waves of immigration into Canada (for economic reasons, not because we wouldn’t love to welcome new Canadians into our community) and therefore our society growing up was very homogenous (our idea of diversity was being either Protestant or Roman Catholic) and our Christmas celebrations reflected this. Christmas is celebrated by virtually the entire population and we have many enduring traditions that reflect this.
The Christmas season begins in late November when nearly everyone begins putting up their Christmas decorations, including outdoor lights. Growing up, we were always taught that it was extremely disrespectfully to begin putting up Christmas decorations until after Remembrance Day (11 November) which is our primary public holiday memorialising our war fallen. Unfortunately, in recent years American corporations have spread across Canada and have not respected this etiquette (Wal-Mart, which arrived in the late 1990s, is an example). Until I was in middle school, Sunday shopping was prohibited in Nova Scotia and it was usually on a Sunday in mid-December that we would go hunting for our Christmas tree. Most years we travelled an hour away to my mother’s family’s summer estate, which is over 100 acres and had an ample supply of wild fur trees (which make ideal Christmas trees), but on at least one occasion we found a tree closer to home. We still laugh about the time my father cut a whole tree down just to get to the top six feet, which we cut off and used as our Christmas tree. Unfortunately, he misjudged the correct length and the top of the tree burst through the ceiling drywall when we stood it up (there are several patched holes in the ceiling of my parents’ living room). When my sisters and I grew older, and Sunday shopping was introduced which meant life become a lot busier, we eventually began sourcing our Christmas trees from a Christmas tree farm a few kilometres down the road as this only required an hour or so to pick a tree whereas finding a tree in the wild took a whole day.
As Christmas draws drew nearer, my mother would often go to a Christmas craft show with her sisters where local craftswomen (and the occasional man) would have handmade Christmas crafts, preserves, and sweets for sale. Primary school aged children have their annual Christmas concert at the primary school, usually in mid-December, where each grade performs a Christmas song for their assembled parents and other family members.
The Christmas tree was usually put up around the 20th of December, too early and the real trees tend to wilt quite miserably by the time the holidays are over (of course, a Christmas tree should always be taken down on ‘Old Christmas’ on 6 January and so must be able to last until then).
Christmas Eve in Nova Scotia is when most people attend church, rather than on Christmas Day itself. Until recently, the Roman Catholics had midnight mass in Latin with another family orientated mass at six or seven o’clock in the evening in English. Protestants, such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and United Protestants, usually only have a single service on Christmas Eve. My mother’s family is Catholic and my father’s Protestant, so some years I attended the family Catholic mass at six o’clock followed by the ten o’clock Anglican service with my great-aunt from my father’s side of the family.
Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, most people where I grew up usually spent time with family after church on Christmas Eve. Pumpkin pie, maple fudge, and seafood chowder were all staples of these Christmas Eve gatherings that consisted of cousins, aunts, uncles, and close family friends. These parties never went too late because everyone was always eager to get home to ensure their own houses were ready for Santa Claus. In my younger years, and again when my elder sister had kids, a large glass of eggnog was left for Santa alongside a plate of cookies (usually gingerbread) and a carrot for the reindeer.
Christmas mornings were often early as my younger sister and I were very excited to open our gifts. My mother would usually prepare a special breakfast of maple French toast, bacon, and hash browns. When my grandfather was still alive in my early years, he would usually come for breakfast. The rest of Christmas Day was usually spent playing with our new toys and socialising with our immediate family. Breakfast was usually so filling that we didn’t eat lunch. Christmas supper was a busy affair as my mother’s family had one large meal for everyone. Given there are nine siblings, their respective partners, and 21 children, supper usually had to be served in several sittings. The meal itself was always centred around a roast turkey with stuffing. These events usually lasted late into the night. This is typical of most families in Nova Scotia.
Most Nova Scotians’ Christmas celebrations end here, but Christmas celebrations in my family stretched into Boxing Day. My parents had a house warming on Boxing Day 1990 and since then, it’s been tradition for everyone to come to our house on Boxing Day. This year will be the 30th such celebration. The meal usually consists of a hodge podge of items as well as any of the leftovers from Christmas supper the day before. Things usually settle down by the 27th of December and preparations begin for New Years Eve, which is, in my family anyway, usually involves another big family get together.
This piece was originally published in the December 2020 issue of Search, the newsletter of the Coburg Historical Society.