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From Nunavut to Alberta to Ontario, four families share their holiday traditions

HOLIDAYS

More than turkey

Christmas weekend traditions are both universal and utterly individual. Four families from across Canada share their personal holiday rituals

Carol Gomez, 35, of Guelph, Ont.

Opening presents at the Gomez family Christmas.

On Noche Buena, when my dad plays the guitar and starts singing "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…," we all just listen, even the kids.

It's one of those cherished moments. It kind of makes you stop and think of the year that's flashed by. The stress just melts and you're focused on your family and the things that really matter.

Every Dec. 24, we celebrate Noche Buena, which means "the good night" in Spanish. It's a Filipino tradition, and our family gets together and everyone brings different dishes for a potluck feast.

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Food is a huge part of this event. There's roasted pig, which we call the lechon. It's the centrepiece of our table. It kind of freaks my son out because they keep the head on and put an apple in the mouth. There's noodles, pancit, which represent long life. We always have a sticky rice dessert, which is symbolic of families sticking together. We don't eat until everyone is there, so we have to wait for all the families to arrive.

Roasted pig is the centre of the Gomez family’s Noche Buena potluck spread.

Of course, music is always important. We sing carols and do karaoke. Then we have games.

One of the highlights of Noche Buena from my childhood was being with my grandmother and hearing all her stories. She passed away two years ago, but we try to keep her memory alive. She loved to play bingo, so we play bingo every Christmas Eve to kind of honour her. Everyone has their little bags of toonies and loonies. The whole family plays and it's hilarious because we get really competitive. My mom actually put her initials on one of the bingo cards and no one else can touch it. She claims it's her lucky card.

Then it's time for presents. We've all taken turns dressing up as Santa Claus to surprise the kids. It's not really part of traditional Noche Buena. That's just what we do in our family. The kids are getting older and smarter, so they've started to recognize the facial features of the Santas.

Really, it's just the importance of getting the family together and having fun. I'm really hoping this continues, even when I have grandchildren one day.

– As told to Wency Leung


Lindsey Knudson, 33, of Red Deer, Alta.

For the Knudson family, Christmas is about ‘the whole month of December.’

I started running around eight or nine years ago, and I started to go out for runs on Christmas Eve. It's important for me to get out and move because I know the 25th is busy, and then on the 26th, I typically have Christmas with my husband's side of the family. I just like getting that physical activity before those two days of enjoying and eating and all that stuff. It just makes me feel better. Running has always been my way of de-stressing.

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Over the past few years, we've been lucky to have nice enough weather to do that, too. I actually really enjoy winter running, as long the weather is good.

Right now, we're marathon training, so lucky for us, we'll get to do a nice long run that day. We set out in the morning. We'll usually run up to about 20 kilometres. My husband pushes the two kids in the stroller. If it's going to be over two hours, we'll find a babysitter. But I like to say they enjoy the run.

Getting the house decorated for Christmas.

Our route changes every year. Where we live now, we're close to all the trails, and there are a couple of lookout points over our city that are really pretty.

Christmas Eve is a Sunday this year, so it'll be nice to get that done before we start all the food prep and company comes and all that.

On Christmas Eve, my mom and brothers and their significant others and everyone come over, and we like to watch a Christmas movie, and then everyone gets to open one gift. For Christmas morning, I always make breakfast. We wake up and do all the gifts with the girls, and then my mom and I usually work all day to get Christmas dinner ready for that afternoon.

Avery and Lindsey get ready for a Christmas princess tea.

But Christmas for us is so much about the whole month of December. We do our Christmas baking together and take cookies to our neighbours, we do a drive around the city to look at all the Christmas lights and another thing I'm trying to do with my girls is have them take part in giving to the less fortunate. So we take food to the food bank, and we go shopping and take toys to the toy bureau. It's really important to me that we instill that – that we're able to give back. It's about trying to do other things as well, and not just be focused on all the toys they want from Santa.

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– As told to Wency Leung


Buzz Bishop, 47, of Calgary

Zacharie and Charlie visit the Calgary Firefighters each year to donate toys.

We have a series of traditions in our family that range from events to charity to habits to food. When it comes to events, we attend the Teddy Bear Toss from the Calgary Hitmen each year. My wife and sons aren't crazy hockey fans, but after six years, they love throwing the bears and getting fistfuls of popcorn. The teddies get tossed after the home team scores. My kids and wife turn to me after they toss the bear and say, "Can we go now?"

For charity, my sons donate toys to the Calgary Firefighters each year to be passed along to kids at their Christmas party. They get to climb a firetruck as the reward for giving away something they'd really want for Christmas. Every year since my grandmother passed away, we have adopted a senior for Christmas. My sons draw them pictures as they would for their own grandparents, and we bundle up socks, and hats, and clocks so a "grown-up kid" can have a special day.

Zacharie leaves out zucchini and carrots for the reindeer.

On Christmas Eve, we bake some of my grandmother's favourite chocolate-chip cookies to leave for Santa. My sons write him a letter and leaves the cookies alongside some hot chocolate, cookies and zucchini. It was a random thing my 10-year-old started as a toddler, and that zucchini must be on the tray each year forever more.

Charlie eyes the bubbly at a Christmas dinner of cabbage rolls and borscht.

For the traditional food, we stay away from turkey. My wife is not a fan, so she gives me Thanksgiving for turkey, and I give her a Ukranian feast for Christmas. I dig into my mother-in-law's recipe book and make cabbage rolls, borscht, perogies and more. And, not to be left out, I serve up my grandmother's tourtière as we dig into our family's cultural history on Christmas Day.

– As told to Dave McGinn


Adina Tarralik Duffy, 38, of Coral Harbour, Nunavut

Adina Tarralik Duffy’s mom cooking on Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, my parents will go to church. Most of the town celebrates Christmas Eve in church. Afterward, you go home, open up your presents and listen to the local radio. It's mostly people wishing each other a merry Christmas. People call in from all different communities.

Sometimes there will be games on the radio, which is fun. One game was tell your funniest stories. One time they had a game with accents. Another time, there's this thing with children called aqaq, it's like the silly things you sing to your child. Some of them can be really ridiculous. So basically, people were calling in to share their aqaq for their children on air.

Adina Tarralik Duffy and her sister. ‘My mom said, ‘Looks like your hair got eaten off by a wild animal,’ she recalls.

At the community hall, there is square dancing late in to the night. Everyone stays up super, super late. And there's an open door policy all through the community. You can visit people all through the night. People you wouldn't normally visit at two o'clock in the morning, it's totally normally to go see them Christmas Eve. As a child, I always loved it.

Bo searches for presents in a stocking.

Now that I have my little guy, Bo, who is three years old and he can't really stay up late, I'll do a short visit with my mom and then come back home and go to bed. Bo is such an early riser it would be painful if I did the normal Nunavut tradition. My focus now is getting everything prepped for him, which makes Christmas new all over again.

On New Year's Eve, we do a vehicle train. You get in your Jeep, put on some music and follow the leader around town, honking. Last year, it was my niece, my mom and I. It's a very Coral Harbour thing to do.

– As told to Dave McGinn

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the community in Nunavut. It is in fact Coral Harbour.
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