Christmas hasn’t been the same since my grandmother died a few years ago. It may sound odd coming from someone who isn’t even Christian. She was Christian – hence the reason we had a Christmas. And, it’s not like every Christmas was blissful or that she was the warmest, most compassionate person. I don’t even like winter. However, I am reminded of her with affection and nostalgia this time of year as I look out my own living room window – not a flake of snow on the ground. So unlike the picturesque vision outside my grandmother’s window throughout my childhood.
Christmases with my grandmother were spent in a small, conservative Muskoka town. It’s the town where my mother in part grew up – just a few minutes away from the nearby and then undeveloped country road adorably named Butter and Egg Sideroad — where she was born. I cannot remember a Christmas up north without at least a metre of snow on the ground – and always a snowfall on Christmas Eve. All along the main street, lights adorned the streets and shops. And, every year my grandmother made sure there was a big feast on Christmas day and presents under a well-decorated tree. It sounds like a simple and predictable enough tradition. But sometimes it takes losing these things – with all the sights and smells to accompany them, to appreciate what it was and how it shaped the traditions we create for our new families.
My grandmother was raised in a nearby town among Free Methodist farmers. Her mother died when she was nine and while her kind-hearted father remarried, to a woman who also later died, my grandmother told me she became very angry around her mother’s death and never recovered. During a rebellious streak in her teens, she converted – becoming an Anglican. At 17, she was pressured into marriage. Later, she took drastic measures to extricate herself from that volatile relationship. While initially denied a divorce, she only became more determined, until it was granted – highly controversial for a woman at that time. She put herself, with young daughters in tow, through hairdressing school. Her goal to become self sufficient realized, she moved from the isolated white house in the woods to the nearby “big” town to start one of the first salons there — and live a life as a single mother. Life was tough but she cherished and celebrated her independence – even then – living life fully with travel and dating – always looking like a million bucks.
She had a fierce work ethic and her salon, which was an extension of her house — became a hub for women in town looking to connect. She kept her salon going just barely — with the few clients still alive dropping by – until she died at 89. Despite slowing down, becoming depressed about her failing health and her measly pension since outliving her savings in to old age, she still kept up the Christmas tradition.
We weren’t that close as I grew older, but about two years before she died, I decided to sit down with her to a) ask her for her Christmas recipes so I could repeat them and more importantly b) ask her for the details about her past — a past our elders rarely share with younger generations – pasts we younger generations often take for granted – dismissing crankiness or impatience as character flaws instead of the result of rich and often sad and unresolved life experiences. After our very long talk – where I found out about relatives all over the province and a rather colourful family heritage and history – my grandmother, who’s sadness was always articulated through anger, expressed true sadness. The next morning, she told me she hadn’t talked about any of those things for decades and that such difficult memories left her unable to sleep.
The year before she died, I moved Christmas to my house – yes, even though I’m not Christian. My grandmother came down for the first time and really enjoyed being taken care of for a change. While she wasn’t an easy person, it was good to give back to her – particularly now having learned all that I had — all that she sacrificed and how hard she worked to build community and family in her small Muskoka town. The Christmas before she died, she contracted C-Difficile while in hospital — already in failing health. With small children, and my own mother ill at the time, I couldn’t make it up to see her. She was angry and sad and alone that Christmas. I still feel badly about that.
We know that holidays are never ‘Hallmark’ perfect — but as I grow my own traditions – from Christmas to our weekly Sabbaths and more, I am extremely grateful I cared to ask about a family past that shaped our Christmas tradition and rituals – warts and all. I continue the tradition – though modified — in my home now, with my mother, husband, children and now a close family friend and her family, who are Christian. There’s no big tree, the food’s evolved a bit and it’s combined with another holiday of lights, Channukah – but the key traditions around family and ritual remain intact. Our friends who have no other family here are very thankful for it. One more gift this holiday season.