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Imagine all the angst and joy of the holiday season in Canada amplified by celebrating in a strange, new country. From first snows, to special recipes to meeting Santa, new Canadians, past and present, reveal how holiday traditions can be learned, borrowed, adapted, passed down and even built anew.

For Maria Dwyer, who emigrated from Romania in 1930, the surprise of unexpected kindnesses was the true magic of the season. “My father … was a prisoner of war in Russia where he saw unspeakable atrocities in the name of religion,” she begins. When invited to a church-run Christmas party, Maria’s father was convinced it was a summons for religious wrongdoing. They proceeded with extreme caution and peeked around the door. Instead the Dwyers found “a Christmas tree with decorations, tables set with gleaming silverware with bowls of fruit and candy,” and with relief, realized “they are going to feed us.”

“This is what was remarkable to us, the people who were willing to give a helping hand,” says Maria.

Dr. Lalita Malhotra emigrated from India in 1975, and her first holiday arrived with the welcome opportunity to meet the neighbours, and learn their traditions. “We had a Jewish family just kiddy corner to us, and Christian family next door to us,” she remembers, “they made it so nice that we were able to celebrate everything.”

“Christmas with the Christian, Chanukah with the Jewish family and Diwali at my place, you know, so it became a family thing,” Lalita explains.

Black and white photograph of two women, one older wearing an apron, standing next to a decorated Christmas tree

Jean Laffin with her Mother-in-law at Christmas, December 1945.

Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [DI2017.74.10]

After Kelly Ip emigrated from China in 1961 to study, his first Christmas with his dorm-mate’s Quebecois family was also a learning experience. “[They] didn’t speak any English at all! It’s a typical French-Canadian family, but I enjoyed a week with them,” he recalls, “I know we went to mass… and they took me skidooing.”

“It's different—really different, you know—new, totally different from what I had experienced when I was in Hong Kong” says Kelly.

A black and white photograph of two men, and woman and a boy, outside wearing coats and hats, laughing next to a very tall evergreen tree

Jean, Alvin, and John Laffin with Uncle Albert cutting down a Christmas tree, 1945.

Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [DI2017.74.11]

War Bride Jean Laffin emigrated from England in 1944 and bravely took up her new family’s traditions, including decadent baking, “taking the neck of the deer, I was showed how to make real mincemeat, she recalls, “and mustn’t forget the rum, sherry, apples or raisins.”

Many newcomers compared holiday traditions from their countries of origin to the new Canadian ones. Peter van der Horden, who immigrated from the Netherlands in 1954, realized that hung stockings and Santa Claus were not far from his own Dutch traditions. “I think we put an old wooden shoe by the fireplace,” he thinks back to his childhood, and his “Sinterklaas” who would put things in the shoe, “though sometimes he could come to the door.”

For some, the comparisons came up short. Finnish immigrant Kaarina Brooks who at the age of 9 in 1951, had to rectify the fact that Joulupukki wouldn’t be visiting her in Canada, “although I know that Joulupukki doesn’t really exist, still I was a bit disappointed,” she remembers, “I guess in Canada lots of things are different… even Christmas.”

Bee Santori who emigrated from Italy in 1953 at age five, also had a confusing introduction to Canadian holiday traditions. Arriving at central station in Montreal just a couple days before Christmas, she remembers “a large cardboard cutout of a fat man dressed in red,” and learning who the strange character was. “You see, in Italy we had the Befana,” she explains “an old lady who delivers Christmas gifts, on the 6th of January.”

A faded colour photograph of a woman dressed in a sari standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree, opened boxes and packages surround the base of the tree

Daxa Popat dressed in a sari by a Christmas tree. 1973.

Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [DI2013.658.57]

The biggest difference for others was just the sheer, material amount of things that can often accompany holiday festivities in Canada. Gianna Patriarca emigrated from Italy in 1960 from a background of frugalness, “Oh my God, I remember when grandma used to give me a piece of cod with an olive, and that was, you know, that was our Christmas Eve dinner.” Canadian Christmas was almost too decadent, “you got seventeen different kinds of fish on the table you know, and you’re eating like pigs!”

“So things like that have changed because we have access now to so much more so the— rituals become bigger you know.”

For others, the climate was most shocking. Daxa Popat, her parents and five siblings emigrated from Uganda in 1972, landing in November as the holidays were ramping up and the weather turning, “we had our first experience with something we had never seen before - snow!” Daxa remembers being bundled into new winter coats soon after their arrival in snow covered Montreal “it was very exciting and scary at the same time - a new country, a new climate, and a new place to call home.”

A faded colour photograph of a well-dressed man smiling next to a decorated Christmas tree, holding a full burlap sack of unknown contents

Vrajlal Popat in front of a Christmas tree, December 1972.

Credit: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 [DI2013.658.59]

Many newcomers found ways to fit new traditions next to their own beliefs. Asad Shaheer emigrated from Afghanistan in 2007 with his family, and while Muslim, the Shaheers purposely incorporated Canadian Christmas into their lives, “every single year, Santa comes to my house, leaves gifts for my wife and for my kids.” Asad says this is to protect and educate his children, “because my kids go to school and… there’s a lot of talk about Santa and Christmas trees and all these things,” he explains, “they’re too small to be disturbed with the religious talk.”

“They see me pray every morning, so they know what religious background we come from. But at the same time, this other part, that a lot of people celebrate in this country, I want them to experience that part as well.”

Christmas at the Shaheers, in Asad’s own words:


I’m not Christian, but I have a Christmas tree. Every single year, Santa comes to my house, leaves gifts for my wife and for my kids. Drinks partial of the milk, because this Santa doesn’t like milk. And chocolate chip cookies so this Santa passes on the message to the kids, like, cookies are okay but if it doesn’t have chocolate chips, that’s totally fine. So. I do this because my kids go to school. And then, there’s a lot of talk about Santa and Christmas tree and get Christmas gifts and all these things. I don’t want my kids at this point of time to get confused as to, “No, no we’re Muslim, we don’t do Christmas.” They’re too small to be disturbed with the religious talk. I want them to grow some and, and then find out. They see me pray every morning, so they know what religious background we come from, but at the same time, this other part, that a lot of people celebrate in this country, I want them to experience that part as well. [Asad Shaheer – 13.11.29AS]

Irene Mester Grossman emigrated from China via Italy in 1954, and with a diverse background, was already accustomed to a variety of different traditions. Born in Shanghai, growing up with Orthodox Jewish grandparents, she remembers “we were not devout to one religion, we were just, you know—whatever you want to be when you grow up that’s what you will be.”

“We celebrated Christmas, we celebrated Hanukkah, we celebrated everything, and Chinese New Year as well.”

New traditions and holiday experiences often arrive laced with intoxicating hope, creating a direct line to sources of buried emotions. Five-year old Linda Ann Wilkins Parker emigrated from England in 1947 in the middle of December and remembers taking the train through the snow with her mother, arriving at Union Station in Toronto to the first Christmas tree she had ever seen. “I remember Mom holding me tight as we looked up at that glorious tree,” says Linda, “I remember touching her face, wet with tears.” That first Christmas morning in Canada, Linda woke up “to find a new doll at the bottom of the bed.”

“It wasn't my Rosie, left behind in England but it was mine...just as this big new country was mine.”

In all cases, and with every tradition, the holidays are a time for kindness, celebration, reaching out to neighbours, and feeling hopeful for the future. From all of us at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 we wish you a very happy Holiday season.