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The Many Ways to Celebrate Christmas (Or Not)

I know only a small part of the world celebrates Christmas.

But it’s only in Canada that I really realized it.

The French Christmases of my childhood were probably logistically exhausting for the grownups but pretty cool for us, kids. There were presents under the tree, delicious seasonal foods, countless arguments on Christmas Eve, and five kids—my siblings and cousins—waking everybody up way too early on December 25.

I figured out the whole Santa scam around five years old. “Just don’t tell mom and dad,” I remember explaining to my grandma. “They still think it’s magic… they need time.”

Jesus and the gang weren’t invited because we’re a bunch of atheists. I knew some of my friends went to the Midnight Mass and put a baby Jesus in their nativity scene on December 25, but at home, Christmas decorations just featured lights, snowflakes and reindeer.

It felt like we were all acknowledging Christmas one way or another, and I think we actually all did in my social circle—Nantes in the 1980s and 1990s wasn’t exactly a multicultural city.

The first person I met who didn’t care about Christmas was Feng. He didn’t mind it but he didn’t seem to get it either, which isn’t surprising considering he didn’t celebrate Christmas for the first 11 years of his life—he was busy learning the fine art of lighting firecrackers with a cigarette at the age of two.

“You, white people…” he laments when I explain for the umpteenth time why Mark shouldn’t start opening his Advent calendar in November. “Yeah, well, at least we’re predictable. It’s on the same day every fucking year—looking at you, Chinese New Year!” I usually reply.

I always get a bit emotional in December because I can’t recreate my great French Christmases for Mark—it takes a big family and plenty of kids around to get this warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s a lot of work to create traditions as a parent, especially in a different culture and environment.

But I’m still acknowledging it and trying my best to make this holiday memorable for him because it’s part of my cultural background and I don’t have a plan B.

And while I’m dealing with my own Christmas dilemma, some of my friends are trying to navigate the fact that this holiday they don’t celebrate is being shoved down their throat.

Canada is a lot more multicultural than my French hometown was back then. Newsflash, not everyone is Catholic, not to mention the huge number of people like Feng who couldn’t care less about religion but don’t feel like putting a lot of effort into Christmas because celebrating other meaningful holidays makes a lot more sense to them.

People change, and places change. I’m not Canada’s biggest fan right now for several reasons, but I will forever be grateful for the chance I have to get to know the many different cultures and beliefs that coexist relatively peacefully here.

For me, realizing that not everyone celebrates Christmas was enlightening in many ways. It forced me to reflect on identity, power and privilege. For instance, it made me understand the privileges of being in the dominant group—Christmas is a major holiday in North America and in Europe but it’s just silly to assume we all share the same beliefs and traditions, and occasionally force them upon a minority.

None of my Jewish friends ever started screaming “FALSE MESSIAH!” when hearing about my Christmas plans, much like none of my Muslim friends ever call me a “kafir” because to me, Muhammad isn’t the prophet but one of the guys who goes to cardio box on Wednesday with me. People are actually very reasonable in real life—I swear 24-hour news stations make a point of finding the craziest, most easily outraged people around.

Christmas is not taboo. Those who don’t celebrate it know full well that it’s an important holiday for part of the population. They aren’t crusading against Christmas. They just want the dominant group in Europe and North America to acknowledge the existence of other beliefs and traditions.

I find this cultural exchange fascinating. I enjoy learning about Jewish and Muslim holidays and I like to know how people celebrate meaningful dates in the calendar or why they skip them.

I guess the main takeaway is “don’t assume.” Don’t assume everybody celebrates Christmas in Europe and North America. Don’t assume everybody is straight. Don’t assume every woman wants kids. Don’t assume everybody wants to get married and buy a house. Don’t assume we all have the same life, the same goals, and the same milestones.

Don’t assume.

Never assume.

Ask.

Meanwhile, Mark asked me about my budget for Christmas gifts, and at the same time, he writes to Santa because hey, why not! (In Canada, Santa does reply, by the way.)

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