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Illustration by Katie Carey

Their first Noel

Six newcomers share their introductions to Christmas in Canada

By Various Writers

‘I am Muslim, and Christmas was never supposed to be my holiday’
By Sheima Benembarek

On Christmas night 10 years ago, I was a first-year Concordia University student making my way to the supermarket in Montreal. The gentle snowfall had a quieting effect on the usually vibrant streets.

Everyone I knew in the city was home with their families celebrating Christmas. Everyone except my Jewish friends. They were busy watching reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm and eating Chinese food. I was a seven-hour flight away from my family in Morocco. Far away from those I celebrated special holidays with; far away from my mother’s warm and delectable tagine meals.

I am Muslim, and Christmas was never supposed to be my holiday. My late father, however, enjoyed the festive concept, and so I have vivid childhood memories of tinselled trees and gifts swathed in off-season wrappings — but no snow.

And the snow at that very moment was accumulating on my newly purchased goose-down jacket. What I hadn’t anticipated, or properly planned for, was that on Dec. 25, the Provigo near my building on Ste-Catherine Street would be closed. Almost all the supermarkets in the country were. I stood around for a moment, wondering if I should have signed up for the International Students Office’s holiday events — sympathetically organized to provide a sense of community and belonging.

After resigning myself to takeout, I stopped on my way back to my apartment in front of the Ogilvy department store and watched the famous animatronic Christmas window display. The little stuffed animals — rabbits, hedgehogs, foxes and squirrels — were all dressed in miniature Santa outfits. I could swear a little camel with a Santa hat stood among them, looking back at me. I wondered whether either of us would ever fit in.

Of course, we did.

Ever since that first Christmas, I am always prepared for the season with a fridge full of groceries (just in case!). But the close friends I have made in Canada make sure that I never actually need it.

‘Our three eldest children ran toward Santa, their eyes astonished and glittering’
By Feras Saedam

It was a quiet evening in Nanaimo, B.C., last year, when we heard a gentle knock on our door. I opened it to find Santa with his red suit and white beard holding two big bags and laughing loudly. I recognized him by his eyes: it was Rob McCormick, one of the members of the refugee committee at St. Philip’s-by-the-Sea Anglican Church who had sponsored us to come to Canada. (My wife and I were Palestinian refugees, born in Syria; I have also lived in Iraq and Turkey.)

When they saw who was at the door, our three eldest children ran toward him, their eyes astonished and glittering. It was the first time, except in movies, that they’d seen Santa. Our youngest, a baby, watched from her mother’s arms. Santa brought with him a tall artificial Christmas tree, lights, coloured balls, stars, small angels, gifts and a CD of Christmas songs.

With the Christmas music playing in the background, Santa and my family set up the tree and decorated it. After about an hour, it was ready. The children promised Santa that they would put their gifts beside their beds and wouldn’t open them until the next morning. Later, I peeked into their bedrooms and found them asleep with looks of peaceful contentment on their faces. We all felt so warm and joyous; it was an unforgettable evening.

A few days later, we were invited to have Christmas dinner with Ellen and Tony Davis, friends from the church who remind me of my own loving parents. Together with their children and grandchildren, we popped Christmas crackers and ate turkey. It was my first time trying it, and it was delicious.

With so many people gathered around the table, I was reminded of Friday night family meals with my own parents, my five siblings and their families. We may never have such a gathering again, as my siblings and parents have been dispersed to Australia, Jordan and Texas. My wife’s family is still in Syria. But that night, we asked God (Allah) to bless our families and keep them safe, and we thanked him for his blessings.

Family, blessings, enjoying the company of the kindest people — this is the spirit of Christmas.

‘I knew it would be lonely, for nobody celebrates like we do back home!’
By Viktor Mbakwa

When I arrived in Montreal in October 2008 after fleeing government persecution in Cameroon, my travelling papers were not in order. I was detained by immigration and border patrol guards for two weeks until my identity was cleared. I was petrified, not knowing when they would let me out or if I would be sent back to Cameroon.

While in detention, I also worried about what Christmas — away from home in a strange land — would be like. I knew it was going to be lonely and low-key for me, for nobody celebrates Christmas as we do back at home!

In Cameroon, Christmas is a big festival. I’m usually surrounded by at least 60 members of my extended family. The atmosphere is boisterous, with lots of food, drinks, music and gifts, singing, dancing and generally giving praise and thanks to God.

After I was released from detention, I went to the Montreal City Mission, a United Church outreach ministry, where the staff helped me find accommodation and guided me through the application process to attain refugee status.

The weeks that followed were hard. The weather got colder. The immigration process was slow, confusing, frustrating and cumbersome. I couldn’t get a job. I was living alone, overwhelmed with fear about my future. I had no friends and only a few acquaintances. But I had been attending St. James United, where I felt safe and welcomed. That gave me hope.

On my first Christmas, I attended a morning service, then went back to my apartment and made calls to my family. I was overwhelmed with the joy of the celebration they were having back home. My mom was ecstatic to hear my voice and me hers, though we both wished we could be together. I made a commitment that as soon as I was able to travel out of the country, I would never miss another Christmas in Cameroon.

Celebrating Christmas in Canada has subsequently and significantly changed for the better, as I have since made some really good friends here. Sometimes I have multiple invitations to celebrate Christmas with other families, and it’s been wonderful to share in Canadian Christmas traditions over the years.

‘We learned that Christmas is all love, love, love and family’
By Mayran Kalah

We arrived in Toronto in December 1993, but I can’t say I even knew it was Christmas that year. I was a Somali teenage single mother with a baby and a toddler, and I just remember thinking, “It’s so nice that everybody smiles at me on my birthday (Dec. 24). But oh my gosh, it’s so cold!”

By the next Christmas, we had moved into a Vancouver shelter, and would live there for a couple of years. We learned a lot about Christmas — that it’s all love, love, love and family. That it’s the thought that counts. That’s a big deal to us, because the Qur’an teaches that when we are thinking something good about someone, the deed is already there, just for thinking it.

For our first Christmas on our own, my kids came home from daycare and told me, “Mom, it’s Christmas. People decorate their homes. And what about a Christmas tree?” I said to my kids, “Well, everybody is doing what their family taught, and my mom taught me Eid.” I said, “It means something different, but we give gifts too.”

Then I broke down and cried. I didn’t even know how to decorate or anything; my kids and I learned together. That year, I taught them about Ramadan and Eid. I taught them that, like Christmas, both were about family and love. This was the first time I really felt like a parent to my kids.

We are the luckiest people. I had left the bush in Somalia and ran with my kids. I didn’t know anything and was by myself in a refugee camp in Kenya. The fear. I think if I had stayed in the camp another year, I would have died. But in Canada, our heads could breathe, our brains were no longer completely horrified. We are blessed because we are still intact.

Now my kids and I wait for the first snow because we know it’s coming. Christmas is everyone gathering, eating together, praying, partying. We love Christmas because we are at peace.

‘Walking the streets in new winter clothes, we looked and felt like astronauts’
By Osvaldo Ardila

We arrived in Winnipeg in November 2009 with high expectations for our lives, full of faith and hope in the face of this opportunity to begin again. My wife, Elizabeth, and son, Santiago, and I came from Colombia as government-assisted refugees. Our daughter, Lizeth, and her husband arrived six months later.

When we landed, there was snow everywhere. We had not seen snow before, and the cold was intense. Walking the streets in new winter clothes, we looked and felt like astronauts. But touching the snow with our hands for the first time — to feel its texture, smell and taste it — warmed us with the excitement of a new discovery.

It was clear from all the colours and decorations that Christmas was coming soon. This gave us joy, but also a yearning for all our loved ones who remained behind. Rather than dwell on nostalgia, I focused on changing my way of thinking so as to change my way of living. I needed to learn a new language, encounter multiculturalism and find ways to enjoy this new climate and its four seasons.

Our first Christmas in Canada began in the midst of community, offered by the people of Westworth United. With love and patience, they did all they could to help us feel at home. We lived that first Christmas in the midst of angelic hymns that filled our eyes with tears as we remembered our beloved Colombia. We lived it with joy, surrounded by food, music and the company of new friends.

After participating in the church Christmas service, we gathered as a family in our apartment. We felt like Colombian-Canadians the first time we prepared a turkey dinner, replacing our traditional and typical Christmas supper of chicken, ham, tamales, buñuelos and cream.

As the snow fell among all the coloured lights, we saw the hope of life, Emmanuel, God with us. We lived that Christmas remembering that after winter would come summer, and with the knowledge that God is with us.

‘God wants Canadians to be angels to strangers, foreigners and outsiders’
By Sungmin Jung

My first Christmas in Canada began with an invitation from a colleague at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax — offered around four months before Christmas. It was a day after class in September 1994; Sara Hill, who was in her first year like me, invited my wife and me to her family Christmas dinner. I was a little bit embarrassed at her invitation. Not because of her hospitality to a foreign student from South Korea with limited language skills, but because of timing. I thought it was too early to plan a Christmas party in September! Anyhow, I accepted.

On the Saturday evening before Christmas, Moon Hee and I arrived at Sara’s house. Her parents, Don and Vivian, her sister, Liza, and her sister’s boyfriend were there too. Don, an active United Church member, led us in grace. It was the first time for me to taste a turkey meal with cooked carrots, turnip and mashed potatoes. After the meal, we all moved to the living room to sit beside the Christmas tree. There, my wife and I received gifts from Sara and each of her family members. I was very touched by them and their preparation of the whole evening.

God wants Canadians to be angels to strangers, foreigners, outsiders and the marginalized. Since coming to Canada, I have met many angelic people. Sara and her family were the first angels to open their home and their important family gathering to us. Without her invitation, my wife and I might have had a very lonesome first Christmas in Canada. 

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