Holiday season cookies at Starbucks, Ottawa, November 2017

A week ago, I went to The Bay to buy a new tube of the only cleanser that doesn’t dry out my skin. Priorities, I know.

“All done with your Christmas shopping?” the salesperson asked cheerfully as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer started playing for the two-hundred-and-seventy-fifth times since I had stepped into the store.

“I… well, no, not really.”

Malls are designed to make consumers lose track of time but I was pretty sure it was still November 27—and who has Christmas figured out in November?

“Well, that’s a good start,” she noted encouragingly, ringing up the purchase. “Do you want a gift receipt for it?”

“Oh, it’s for me,” I blurted out.

This was one of those times when I should have told a white lie. Probably unimpressed with my selfishness, the salesperson handed me the bag without offering samples.

It had started to snow, so I walked through the Rideau Centre to store up some warmth before heading home. I passed a mall Santa surrounded by screaming infants and toddlers, a group of Chinese tourists taking selfies by the giant Christmas tree, shoppers carrying gift boxes and store windows displaying ugly Christmas sweaters.

Once on Mackenzie King Bridge, just as I thought I had stepped back into a world that wasn’t yet counting down the days to December 24, my phone whistled. “Instant pot is now 40% off,” Amazon informed me, probably because I may or may not have looked at this item six months earlier. “Get it in time for Christmas!”

“I know we have to spend money to save capitalism and all, but Christmas overkill is ridiculous,” I mumbled to myself, rushing through the deserted business centre. I turned into Chinatown. “And what’s next, right after opening gifts? Boxing Day shopping!” By the time I reached Little Italy, another retailer had sent me  “Christmas specials.” I flagged it as spam turning onto Carling.

Then, on Merivale Road, a few blocks from home, I hid behind a fir tree and burst into tears.

Seasonal holidays stress me out.

I don’t feel like shopping because I know I can’t buy what I need to deliver—Christmas magic.

Before Mark, during the holidays, Feng and I were either: 1) travelling 2) working (time-and-a-half pay, yay!) 3) going counterculture, getting up at 2 p.m. and eating at Burger King because we hadn’t bothered filling the fridge but had plenty of coupons on the table. However, I’m afraid Mark isn’t ready yet to give up on consumerism. He is bound to hate me for something at one point in his life, but I’d rather it not be for failed Christmases.

I’m no longer just slightly homesick around the holiday seasonI’m terrified I’m not giving Mark memories he will cherish, the full 18-years-of-magic all kids celebrating Christmas deserve.

Here are a few things they don’t tell you about being an immigrant. First, adapting to a new culture isn’t that hard—you just have to observe people and go with the flow until you figure out what they do, how they do it and why (then you can ditch what truly doesn’t make sense to you—you won’t see me wearing shorts because it’s “only” 0ºC). Second, thanks to globalization, ties to your former home country won’t be completely severed. Technically, you can probably import any product you’re missing badly—I could empty my bank account and buy two kilos of blue cheese easily.

But the sad truth is that reproducing traditions you had in a land far, far away is damn-near impossible. Nothing will ever feel the same.

I was that child reading toy catalogues for weeks before Christmas but I can’t pass down this tradition because all we ever receive are pizza joints flyers and IKEA catalogues Mark has zero interest in. I was that child staying up late waiting for my aunt, my uncle, my cousins and other family members to arrive but Mark isn’t expecting relatives he doesn’t have. I was one of the ten-to-twenty family members at the Christmas dinner table but in Canada, including my in-laws (who don’t always celebrate with us), there are only five of us. Mark will never make the last-minute trip to the bakery to pick up the bûche de Noël, he won’t enjoy a French Christmas feast because oysters, foie gras, turkey, chestnuts, and smoked salmon are too much work to source and too much food for just three people.

So, I have to focus on finding the perfect gifts, which isn’t as easy as it should be. Apparently, Mark has two wishes: not dying at 100 years old and being old enough to watch Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Oh, he wants toys too, but he isn’t very specific and I already feel we are surrounded by toys—toys I step on if I don’t turn on the lights, toys under the couch, toys meticulously lined up on every surface at Mark’s height level.

So far, the only Christmas gift idea I have is for my in-laws. Last year, I presented them with a 2017 photo calendar featuring Mark. The mix of their two passions—calendars and their only grandson—was almost praiseworthy, so this year, I’m making them… ta da… a 2018 calendar featuring, you guessed it, Mark.

Alright. I’m going to stop freaking out about Christmas and check the TV rating for The Walking Dead. Hey, maybe there’s an episode that won’t scar Mark for life.

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  1. Frenchei au Canada December 4, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    I hear you, it’s so hard sometimes creating new traditions for yourself. I remember our first few years here getting really upset at my Scotsman for going to the pub on Xmas Eve, when in my head we should have been having a nice dinner. I guess that’s what most of my British friends do though so it’s a cultural thing for him.
    I don’t have a lot of good Xmas memories but it’s been important for us to create our own rituals.
    So pub on the 24th (not very appropriate for Mark I’m sure…) and then nice breakfast for me, calling France and Scotland, and loads of food. We also watch all sorts of kid movies / sappy movies as it’s the time of the year for my Scotsman to impart his kid movie wisdom / nostalgia on me! And yes I buy chestnuts, smoked salmon, champagne and make a buche, but not always on the same day haah
    In previous years we’ve done Xmas with a bunch of friends, so I feel sad that we are not a close to some of them and others have left so now we do it just the 3 of us (Freddie counts). It feels like if it was family we either all would be together if in the same town or at least would plan on doing something whereas friends can be less reliable I guess.
    Anyway, part of the magic I think is creating memories as a family, and every family being different, everyone will have something different to look back fondly on.
    Funnily enough I remember taking over the kitchen with my brothers and forcing my mum’s hand to be allowed to have seafood, us playing Cluedo and my mum invariably shouting at us for one reason or another 😉

    1. Zhu December 6, 2017 at 1:15 am

      Funny enough, I think Feng and I also ended up in a pub a few times for Christmas, a long time ago, before Mark. Like you, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact there wouldn’t be a réveillon, at least not like the ones I had as a kid. Traditions are hard to forget!

      I also have a hard time celebrating Christmas with friends. Weird, isn’t it! It’s just that Christmas is a family gathering for me, while New Year is more of a friend thing. Silly and stupid, I know…

      But creating traditions is both daunting and pretty cool when you think of it 🙂

  2. Aylyon December 4, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    Just yesterday I read a blog post written by a mother saying that she would not go the extra mile this year and give her kids just a regular Christmas, not a magical one.
    I liked it sooooooo much!
    Christmas is so much pressure for a lot of people and we all need to relax.
    But I get that this a hard time of the year away from family, in a different country.
    And I actually think its easier with kids: they tend to tell us what they want.
    I remember in France catalogues and truck stopping not far from home to sell toys, like a cheap version of a Christmas market… I don’t know I liked it but I am kind of relieved they don’t have it here, it was just weird. Not really Christmassy, and because we did not have much money, always a disapointment.

    We are not really into Christmas here.
    (And as we are not really into family reunions either I think we are doing fine.)
    My traditions were praying all night with my brothers, sister and mother in the living room while my dad was up in his room to make it clear that he did not believe in God anymore because his life sucked.
    So magical Christmas… not a thing.
    But this is actually one of the things I really like, now at least, the thing I am not mad about, dispite remembering how much my body hurt because we had to be on our knees to pray. It was totally lame (since I was not and still am not into religion at all), but that was the time when we were together, when actually my mother shared something about her vision of life.
    The point is, I think, and I hope, that all the kids will remember is that it was the time there was no school and they got to actually see their parents, and spend a little time with them. And that he gifts, the food, the decor is not THAT important.
    Ok maybe it’s what I wish for because this year we are going to teach them about the religious aspect of Christmas, about the Christmas spirit, and they will only have one gift that Santa has chosen for them, and might not be the thing they wanted at all… well, will definitely not be what they wanted… and my son is wondering if we are poor now. 😀

    As for the food though, the first years in Canada, we were trying to recreate the meals we used to have as kids, mostly for our kids. For Him it was fish and seafood, for me it was lamb, plantain and sweet potato… but none of us has the cooking skills of either of our mums so we decided that Christmas was Canadian Christmas (most of the time) or at least trying to define what is Canadian Christmas when you come from France and have no intention to overdo it. And we usually end up with friends or neighbours all coming from different countries and far from their families, and each person add a piece of their personal Christmas to the puzzle. So even if I am still not into Christmas we have fun trying new things… and if we really really really mess it up we can always all go to St Hubert 😀

    And yes we definitely spend a lot of money on blue cheese, we try to remind the kids that they are French too 😀

    1. Zhu December 6, 2017 at 1:19 am

      I’m trying to picture your childhood Christmases and the prayer moment… yeah, I understand if you don’t want to follow this “tradition”!

      Like you, I have to admit I don’t have the cooking skills to make a French Christmas dinner, plus it’s usually a group effort and it’s not worth it for just the three of us.

      I like your Canadian version of Christmas! … be honest… did you guys ever end up at St Hubert? 😉

      1. Aylyon December 7, 2017 at 1:27 pm

        Actually yes!!!!
        I will just say that the planing alone took all my energy and was not followed by the making part of the plan…
        But a fancy St Hubert 🙂

        1. Zhu December 7, 2017 at 11:51 pm

          It’s such a Quebec thing! When I used to teach, many coworkers were from Gatineau (i.e. the other side of the river) and they would have St Hubert delivered in Ottawa for big events 😆

  3. kiky December 6, 2017 at 12:15 am

    Exactly the similar thought for my friends who live overseas when it comes to Eid Fitri (the festive after Ramadhan)

    1. Zhu December 6, 2017 at 1:21 am

      That’s interesting to know! So, same kind of pressure? What are the main Eid Fitri traditions, outside food?

      1. kiky December 6, 2017 at 1:59 am

        In Indonesia (and probably Malaysia too), we go to the place our parent grow up/and or where our grand parents live.
        Maybe similar to Home coming trip on America’s Thanks Giving. Sometimes we do it all together with extended family who live in the same city (brother, cousin, in law). if it is a road trip (mostly with private cars) you may imagine how exciting the situation for the kids.
        after the Eid Pray, we go visiting other relative’s house (could be the aunty from your mom’ side, or you dad’s eldest brother, bla bla bla).
        in some cases, the little kids also receive “Angpau”.
        each region/island celebrate Eid in different ways tho, but it is still fun
        Even you still live within the country (say, you grew up in a city somewhere in Celebes Island but you live in Jakarta) you still miss the tradition in Celebes.

        1. Zhu December 7, 2017 at 12:58 am

          Thank you for sharing! I always feel like I’m learning something interesting with you 🙂

  4. Lexie December 6, 2017 at 10:29 pm

    Cette année nous serons seulement tous les 5 également. C’est drôle car je cela me rend nostalgique de ce qui a été. Je ne suis pas triste de ne pas être en France car les Noëls tels que je les ai connus n’existent plus … Mais je suis assez nostalgiques de ce temps qui a filé. Bref cette année nous sommes donc tous les 5, c’est la première fois que nous le fêtons ainsi, Et chez nous. Les années précédentes nous sommes rentrés ou nous l’avons fait avec des amis. Comme Helene je crois que nous créons nos propres traditions et qu’elles n’ont pas nécessairement besoin de coller aux schémas traditionnels. Je me souviens que mon amoureux et moi échangions nos cadeaux devant une église, entre la maison de ses parents et les miens, alors que nous faisions la route entre deux repas de Noël. Cette année nous avons déjà été cherché un énorme sapin, comme l’an dernier. Nous l’avons choisi soigneusement, tous ensemble et ramené à pied. Puis on l’a décoré ensemble. J’ai cuisiné des brioches à la cannelle avec B., et ce week end nous peindrons des photophores … j’y vais pas à pas, curieuse de ce qui en restera. Je ne sais pas ce que nous ferons de particulier à Noël. Peut être de la luge ? Une balade ? Un jeu de société ? Qu’est ce qui les marquera ? Difficile à dire Mais je devine déjà que ce ne sera pas spécialement les cadeaux…

    1. Zhu December 7, 2017 at 11:50 pm

      Oh, comme je connais ce sentiment, un mélange de nostalgie et de page qui se tourne! Je crois que c’est aussi le regret de ne plus être enfant, “prise en charge”, mais d’être définitivement passée du côté de la “Christmas management team”. Enfin, pour moi, c’est un peu le cas dans mon subconscient 🙂 C’était rassurant de suivre le mouvement, enfant, de savoir où on allait, ce qu’on faisait… et là, ici, nous on doit faire preuve d’imagination pour recréer quelque chose!

      Quoique tu fasses, elles se construiront de beaux souvenirs. Puis merde, quoi, elles ont quand même le Noël “carte postal” avec la neige et tout qu’on n’a jamais eu, nous! (Enfin pas moi à Nantes… et probablement pas toi non plus au sud!)

      1. Lexie December 8, 2017 at 4:58 pm

        Nous avons dû l’avoir, ma famille était à Saint Etienne. Mais je ne m’en rappelle pas vraiment. C’est arrivé par contre il y s quelques années, une de ces fameuses où nous commencions le repas chez les grands parents de mon chum pour le finir avec ma famille dans une autre maison. Il s’est mis à neiger vraiment vraiment beaucoup. Arrivés au plat de résistance la neige avait tout recouvert! On a vraiment eu du mal à sortir de la maison et à rejoindre la suivante (pas de pneu neige à l’époque!)

        1. Zhu December 10, 2017 at 1:55 am

          C’est drôle, j’ai vraiment du mal à voir la France enneigée. C’est tellement rare, sur la côte Atlantique!


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