It’s not that I despise Christmas, but I do the consumerism around it.
The season’s essence is magical, but it’s somehow become a production. I was raised to celebrate Christmas as the feast of St. Nicholas—an authentic dude with a real history. Santa Claus wasn’t part of my narrative. There was a lot of church and a week of going from house to house, eating food, playing with other kids and staying up until the wee hours. It was a nonstop party from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day. Our childhood energy was a training montage for our future feats of endurance as young adults at frat parties.
Gifts were few and far between. Coming from an immigrant home, we didn’t have money, but the cornucopia of food, drink and Christmas spirit was so abundant it exceeded all expectations. Giving an excess of presents was obscene because that was never the point. The community was, and that is, Christmas to me: family, friends and food, not to mention special seasonal cookies and, of course, clementines. Back then, citrus in an Eastern European home was a luxury item on your Christmas table.
Growing up in the early sixties, Christmas came after the Santa Claus parade. There weren’t any malls I can recall and no box stores unless you considered Canadian Tire, but all they sold were things for your car. There were catalogue stores and catalogues. The department stores were Eaton’s and Simpson’s, which hosted gorgeous festive Christmas windows of elves making toys or bunnies running to get hot chocolate and cuddle with Santa. The seasons came as they did, seasonally, and the celebrations alongside them.
I don’t loathe Christmas, only the overwhelming consumer frenzy accompanying it. The true magic of the season holds immense value. As a first-generation Canadian we didn’t have much growing up. Gifts came in the form of quasi-food stamps, the original loyalty reward currency, and vouchers for specific large grocery stores that had acquired various toys in exchange for the stamps. At the same time, we frequented Kresge’s, Woolworth’s, and our family favourite, Honest Ed’s, the immigrant’s department store. It was an affordable spot for all. My first canary yellow bell bottoms proudly came from there, as did my annual Christmas flannel pyjamas stamped “Flammable.” Too young to read, my mother assured me the stamp was an elf’s autograph.
Luxuries like Barbie and talking dolls were recent. Only a few had plenty, but it was about something so much bigger than stuff. It was about family and community.
Those days were different. On the dim streets of Markham and Bloor, Honest Ed’s 23,000 twinkling lights pierced the darkness. Vendors with red carts roasted chestnuts, wafting their tempting aroma as families splurged on treats. Kids shared bites of caramel apples and freshly popped popcorn, and the air was festive, signalling Christmas’s approach.
Neighbourhood bakeries crafted challa wreath-shaped bread, and Eastern European pastries showcased an array of cakes like Dobos Tortes in the window alongside a collection of delicious and delicate Christmas cookies. Italian grocers proudly displayed Baci chocolates, and Portuguese bakers featured their fancy tarts. Each culture proudly showcasing its Christmas culinary customs. A beautiful reflection of an array of diverse celebrations.
As kids, we craved those chocolate figures wrapped in foil, mimicking Angels or St. Nicholas. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day brought mass, but in between, it was a timeless parade from one house to another—a whirlwind of food and laughter. The houses echoed with boisterous conversations. It was magical, campy, exhilarating and crowded. The men were dressed in suits, some with Christmas ties. At the same time, women donned fancy party attire, pencil skirts, stilettos and red lipstick—some dashing in and out of the kitchen with Christmas motifs embroidered on their aprons. Ashtrays overflowed, and alcohol flowed freely. With the celebration focused on St. Nicholas, each house became a treasure trove of gold-foiled chocolate coins, citrus, and an array of delicacies—hot, cold, crunchy, soft, spicy, mild, and obscenely rich delectable desserts—all part of a festive cornucopia.
Today’s Christmas feels foreign. I refuse to be a cog in a consumer-driven spectacle that’s supposed to honour an avatar’s birth, serving as a reminder of our potential for betterment. My best memories of the season were of a marathon birthday bash spilling straight through into the New Year. Christmas was about house hopping, kids playing amok in home after home, TV marathons, and late-night feasts fueled by more soda options than a beverage aisle. The sugar rush was our constant companion, and no one dared to interrupt the flow for that entire week.
This year, I struggled to deck out our home. I placed all the garland, which, when it comes to decorating, is the Coles notes of Christmas decorations, everywhere and was done in less than 20 minutes, lights and all. I then stood back, staring at all my other boxes of beautiful Christmas decorations, wondering why I bothered to pull them out. I’d already achieved the decorating prowess of Restoration Hardware. The facade was bright but void of the spirit.
I’ve scaled back on gifts over the years. Even when our kids were toddlers, they were the benefactors of just one present each from us. They were allowed to unwrap all their other gifts from grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends except for the cellophane. But for one, all the gifts went into a closet, and in January, they’d pick one new gift to explore for the month—a ritual for the entire year. By November, the pile looked untouched, having included birthdays and Easter gifts. The kids had to choose one toy each month—a lesson in commitment and being thoughtful and mindful. During the first week of December, they donated everything to a children’s charity, learning the value of detachment and making space for something new. In their world, the space was a home for magic, whether an experience or a thing. Through this experience, they cultivated a mindset of abundance. Despite the emptiness of the closet for a significant part of December, it was never really empty for them as it symbolized the potential for anything to materialize. It wasn’t a void but a gateway to unexplored opportunities, embodying the belief that abundance isn’t confined by physical space but by the vastness of possibilities yet to unfold.
This past August, on a scorching hot day with breasts stuck to my chest like they were crazy glued, I walked into a box store that had the audacity to showcase Christmas goods. A battery-operated Santa greeted me with a jingling bell, and I wanted to plow it. Standing amidst it all, it felt as though something profoundly sacred had been robbed of its very essence—a season once cherished, now with its spirit torn away. My heart ached in witnessing this loss. Though I’ve always loved ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas,’ in that moment, I had become a Grinchette.
I’m not yet tuned into Christmas, not the season’s music nor the energy of the season. But this year, I figure, if I revisit childhood hangouts, reconnect with unseen friends, devour seasonal delights, binge on funny movies, and soak up family time and allow, the spirit will find me. Gift unwrapping isn’t me. At this station in life, I’ve come to appreciate that gifts come in many ways and are not confined to a box with bows.
I’ve politely asked the family to strike me from their Christmas list. Forget the festive dishtowels. I want to laugh until I nearly wet myself, which is easy at my age, surrounded by those I cherish, especially my girlfriends. Those are the moments I can’t get enough of, and being in the back nine of my life, I want to be greedy and capture as many of those moments as possible.
I’m also committed to embodying that Christmas energy every day. We often forget until health or life nudges us forever isn’t of this world, whereas being present is. So, I’m calling on the Universe to guide me back to the unadulterated, vanilla-sugar-scented holiday of childhood. That’s the Christmas I aim to resurrect, and I’m sensing a glimmer of hope this year. All I crave for Christmas is its essence. If I can summon that, I’ll be energized to carry it through the other 364 days, making them the celebrations they deserve and being the custodian of the magical spirit we somehow have delegated a limited window towards when every breath should be infused with that magic.
Honouring and becoming better versions of ourselves is a gift to allow this season. Unwrapping our fears and trepidations and daring to live from our hearts until we take our final breath.
Everything else pales to that, and isn’t that the real gift?