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opinion

Alexandra Raphael is a lawyer who lives in Toronto.

On Saturday, for the first time in my life, I bought a string of Christmas lights. When I told my partner that I wanted to decorate our house for Christmas this year, he was incredulous. My partner is Christian and I am Jewish. In the five years that we have been together, our house was always a Christmas-free zone. I felt like I had given him a Christmas gift without having to go online.

But although we haven’t celebrated at home, we have always celebrated Christmas with my partner’s family and done the rounds of get-togethers in restaurants, bars and at our friends’ homes. We have simply restricted celebrations in our own house to Hanukkah.

During the eight days of Hanukkah, we would usually have at least one celebration at home. Parties are always organized around a table, heaving under giant platters of golden fried potato latkes, bowls of velvety white sour cream and dishes of sweet-smelling apple sauce. While the adults engage in small talk, holding their wine glasses and carefully balancing plates of hot, sticky food on their laps, their children or grandchildren chase one another around the house. The kids might play dreidel, a gambling game using a small spinning top. The prize money for this game is chocolate coins, which the children inevitably deposit on a couch or chair to be squashed into the upholstery by an unwitting guest, or on the carpet to be ground underfoot by another child racing through the party. The best Hanukkah gatherings are always noisy, zany, chaotic multigenerational affairs.

Christmas, on the other hand, is celebrated in endless variety, some quiet and elegant, others boisterous and kitschy. Although Canada is a tolerant, multicultural society, Christmas is omnipresent in our country at this time of year. With the possible exception of this December, Christmas is like second-hand smoke: Even if you don’t actively inhale it, it’s in the air.

When I was a child, my family would celebrate Christmas Day at the home of my father’s partner. The vernacular of this celebration was understated English countryside, featuring a sprawling old house, lots of greenery, plaid ribbons and a roaring fire in the grate. Our host was from England and lived in a slightly decrepit grey stucco house on the shores of Lake St. Clair, near Puce, Ont. The kids would go skating on the lake in the afternoon and then come inside to drink hot chocolate beside the fireplace in the living room. The smell of roasting turkey wafted through the air. The adults lolled in big, overstuffed chairs and sipped sherry. Later, we would sit down to a traditional dinner complete with stuffing, cranberries, green beans and roast potatoes. The finale was flaming plum pudding, topped with rum butter.

As a young lawyer practising with a big firm in the 1980s, the entire month of December provided a break from the drudgery of Bay Street. I remember the feeling of being doused in Christmas in the five minutes it took to get from the subway to my office through the underground walkway. Carols blared to potential customers from speakers inside the Bay. An enormous Christmas tree, ringed with tiny lights, artificial snow and metallic ornaments, towered over the office workers traversing the lobby of my building. Midday, I would head to one of the busy, noisy restaurants near our office with a partner and some of the other lawyers for a Christmas client lunch. At some point, I would inevitably be sucked into the mall and lose myself for much too long among the seductive displays.

Until 2020, December was the best month for parties. In the early years of my career, all the lawyers and staff in my office would show up at a downtown hotel in our most glamorous clothes for a lavish five-course dinner followed by dancing. This gave way to more sensible but much less fun Christmas office luncheons. There were always neighbourhood cocktail parties, too. Standing in my neighbours’ living room, with a drink in one hand and a slice of cake in the other, was a sure way to brighten a grey evening.

Some of my favourite movies, plays and music are tied to the Christmas season. Although I have been tempted to ask the manager of my local Shoppers Drug Mart to find a new soundtrack of Christmas music after hearing the third rotation in 15 minutes, this experience has not affected my appreciation for carols. I am looking forward to watching the National Ballet of Canada perform The Nutcracker, an annual ritual, as long as I don’t have to watch the streaming video version on my cellphone. I have downloaded A Christmas Carol, Home Alone and Love Actually so that I can watch them whenever I am feeling nostalgic over the next few weeks.

The thought that Christmas will not really be happening this year is almost impossible for me to contemplate. I assumed that just as the sun rises every morning and sets every night, just as the trees will sprout leaves in May and lose them in September, Christmas would come to Canada every December and fill this dark month with lights, music, family, friends, wine and good food. I had not considered the possibility that so many of the rituals on which I depend might be shut down by a pandemic.

And so I have decided that since I can’t enjoy the holiday vicariously, I will have to make some Christmas myself. This is why I bundled up in my coat, put on my mask and walked the two blocks to my neighbourhood hardware store last Saturday to stand in a physically distanced line. This is why, when I was finally told I could enter the store, I went to the shelves holding boxes of Christmas lights to figure out which ones held strings of tiny, white incandescent bulbs. I wasn’t ready to go full-on Christmas with coloured lights. I was going for a non-denominational look.

I have explained to my partner that this doesn’t mean that I am converting to Christianity. I bought my grandchildren Hanukkah gifts and we will be making latkes for two. But this year, I want to give back to my Christian neighbours some of the light that I have enjoyed for so many years. Apparently, I have the Christmas spirit.

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