I don't have traditional Christmas memories. No green and red lights strung through cedar boughs. No Christmas tree hung with silver bells and tinsel and ornaments. No carols, no Santa, no stockings, no presents, no choirs of angels. No angels of any kind.
Our family didn't celebrate Christmas.
My parents were part of an extreme sect of fundamentalist Christians who believed that celebrating Christmas was a perverse form of idolatry. For my brother and I, that made us different, odd, freakish. We weren't Jewish or Muslim. There was no acceptable reason for our celebration-less Christmases. It felt sinful to even ask and our parents offered no explanation. Ever.
In my Winnipeg childhood, my brother and I stood with our mother in the cold slush of Portage Avenue, enthralled as we gazed into the world behind the windows of Eaton's or the Bay. Apple-cheeked children glided over mirrored ponds, elves and reindeer cavorted in cottony white snow and the ubiquitous train circled the snowy village, tooting its little horn as it sailed past lamp-lit shops and tiny churches. It was a world that surely encompassed every child's Christmas dream.
As an adult, though, I discovered not everyone has traditional Christmas memories. Once I had children of my own, I knew we had to create our own stories, our own memories, because the ones I started out with weren't the ones I would have chosen. But how?
My children's father was brought up in a non-practising Jewish family that didn't celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas. Neither of us had much of an idea what to do, but we both knew we wanted our children's experience to be different from our own.
We knew about the tree, of course. From our earliest days on Bowen Island, B.C., when our children were just babies, we always climbed a snowy trail into the woods to cut down our own tree. They were sparse Charlie Brown trees, but like Charlie Brown, we cherished them for their unlovable scrawniness.
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I was a little more vague on the stocking tradition. I bought stockings for my two children and eagerly filled them on Christmas Eve while sitting by the fire listening to Christmas stories on CBC. I didn't know if I should wrap each stocking gift separately but I did, and it's a tradition we have loved and kept since then.
I was confused by stocking protocol. Did they have to be hung? We had no fireplace, just our trusty woodstove. And how important was the coal and the orange in the toe? Or was it a chunk of coal or an orange? I decided to forgo both and put chocolate in the toes instead.
The kids were familiar with the traditional Christmas story but we wavered on the Santa Claus part of it. Never having had a relationship with old St. Nick, neither of us was completely comfortable palming this one off on our kids.
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Finally we decided to just tell them the story of Santa Claus, never implying that it was in any way true.
But sometimes, we discovered, you don't get to decide which magic you can use. The Christmas Eve when Aaron was about 6 or 7, he called us into his room, breathless and exuberant. "I know there's no Santa Claus," he said, "but I'm sure I heard reindeer on the roof."
Years later, Leah said to me, "Mom, if we didn't believe in Santa Claus, how come we left cookies and milk out for him and it was always gone in the morning?"
Well, I told her, that must have just been part of the magic.
In my lack of knowledge about stocking tradition, I had no idea that adults received stockings too, so I had never experienced the thrill of opening one. Until a few years ago.
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That Christmas I was divorced and lived alone in my island home. My grown children and I were eating a turkey dinner together there on Christmas Eve, listening to carols and watching the lights and tinsel sparkling on the small tree I had found in my backyard. Eventually we opened our presents as we always did on Christmas Eve. Then my daughter gave me my stocking. My first stocking.
Each gift was individually wrapped, exactly the way theirs had been for the past 30 years. A collection of small treasures gathered in my lap, each one a thrill to open - incense, coloured stones, soaps, trinkets, a tiny silver heart that said Mom. And chocolate in the toe.
She has given me a stocking every year since.
Even though the holiday season still visits me with a kind of melancholy, sometimes even sadness, for the empty place of childhood where Christmas dreams are first made, it brings with it sweet memories too.
This Christmas season, I go once again to the school gym where both my children spent their youth. But this time it's to watch my grandson perform in the school's Christmas pageant on that familiar stage. As for my daughter, her gift this year is the birth of her first child, due - either by some sweet quirk of fate or by magic - on Christmas Day.
We all grow out from our roots and change as we grow older. But there is one thing that will never change. It will always be unpredictable, unforgettable, unstoppable.
And that would be the magic.
Edythe Anstey Hanen lives on Bowen Island, B.C.
Illustration by Yaara Eshet.
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