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Our Christmases are a smorgasbord of immigrant traditions

I am a child of immigrants. My Pakistani father, a mostly non-practising Muslim, came to Canada at the age of 29. In Toronto on a blind date, he met my Finnish mother. Baptized Lutheran, by the time of my birth she was simply "spiritual."

The two of them, miles away from their families and customs, not united themselves by culture or religion, set about creating a family and new traditions in a Toronto suburb.

Canadian holidays were new to them. Thanksgiving and Halloween, uncelebrated in their homelands, were relatively easy to figure out. Easter was more difficult. My father knew nothing of Easter traditions, and those that my mother remembered were religious and a far cry from the ones that Canadian children seemed to follow.

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In our secular home, they tried to give us typically Canadian experiences. We decorated eggs, had an egg hunt and ate chocolate. In my 20s, I learned that other kids searched for chocolate eggs. We always searched for our decorated boiled eggs, the fun of the hunt tempered by the knowledge that we would have to eat them for breakfast. Unpeeled, they did not look appetizing.

As for Christmas, my father had never celebrated it, and for years neither had my mother. It became a celebration at our house when I was 4, and only because I had begun to ask questions.

Our Christmas was about secular fun. My younger sister and I visited Santa at the mall. We decorated a tree. We opened the advent calendar doors and counted the days until Christmas morning. My mother baked and cooked. Some dishes, like the turnip casserole we never wanted to eat, were standbys from her childhood; others, like her delicious rice stuffing, became family traditions with the passing years.

I have memories of long Christmas days spent curled up with the newest book from Santa, trying on new clothes, playing with new toys. As the sky grew dark, my sister and I helped in the kitchen. We set the dining-room table, at which we rarely ate, with the good dishes and fancy silverware that had to be washed by hand. We drank our juice from wine glasses and ate by candlelight. I remember the glee of feeling grown up as I clinked my wine glass to the toast my mother always proposed.

But one thing was missing from our Christmases: Our extended family was far away, so Christmas dinner was always just my parents, my sister and me. Except for one year, when I was 12. My parents decided to take us on a trip: We would be in Lahore for Christmas.

How could we celebrate the holidays in Pakistan, my sister and I worried? We needn't have. At my uncle's house, we had one of the nicest Christmases of my childhood. We hung homemade decorations on a bush, including a garland we'd strung from popcorn. My Pakistani aunts cooked Christmas dinner with help from my mother. It wasn't exactly traditional, but no one minded.

My sister and I and our cousins opened gifts from Santa and spent the day playing and laughing and getting in the adults' way. Our Muslim family worked hard to give us our Christmas traditions, and though everything was just a little off, it was wonderful. The next year, we were delighted to learn that our cousins had persuaded our uncles and aunts to celebrate Christmas without us.

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Today I am approaching 40. Last Christmas, once again, we had dinner at my parents' house. Looking around, I marvelled at how one generation had grown our Christmas of four to a Christmas of 20. My sister and I were there with our husbands and collective six children. A cousin, recently arrived from Pakistan, was there with his wife and two kids. My in-laws joined us. We've added some English, Italian, French-Canadian, native, Newfoundlander, Jewish and Chinese heritage, and two atheists, to our cultural diversity.

Everyone brings their own traditions to the party. My mother's turnip casserole now shares the table with spicy Pakistani potato patties, while Finnish Christmas tarts compete with English shortbread for space on our dessert plates. Food was served buffet-style from the kitchen island. Most people managed to find a place at a table.

What began as two people from vastly different backgrounds creating new traditions for a small family had turned into a large, multicultural family celebrating Christmas together. I remembered a little sadly the pleasure I'd felt sitting at the dining-room table as a child. There is no room there for our kids now. But the children have a joy my sister and I knew only once: the excitement of playing with their cousins on Christmas. Their memories will not be like my memories of quiet, special Christmas days, but of boisterous, chaotic holidays filled with family.

Immigrants change, and are changed by, their adopted countries. I think the same can be said of Christmas celebrations. Canadian traditions open to embrace those brought by newcomers, who in turn include Canadian customs in their celebrations.

This Christmas Day, a microcosm of the world will again gather at my parents' house. The same scene will play out in homes across this cultural patchwork of a country, with others like us celebrating a Christmas equally traditional and foreign - an entirely Canadian Christmas.

Jasmine T. Akbarali lives in Toronto.

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