Northern Wilds Magazine
My mom Renee, known as the master of camouflage, and my sons. | MICHELLE MILLER

Holiday Memories

Ribbons and Bows

By Michelle Miller

Christmas trees, whether tall or stubby, live or plastic, are a staple of most holiday decorating traditions. What we find under the tree can be a favorite part of the season, as well. The colorful ribbons, unique gift tags and elegant paper are one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. But it is not the receiving of the festive packages I enjoy the most, it’s knowing I did my best to select the perfect gift to give to those I care about.

The wrapping process is just as much fun for me as actually picking out the gift. I have my designated baskets of supplies, equipped with tape, stickers and writing utensils, which are only used in December. My stash of Christmas CDs are pulled out and the fireplace is lit as my annual ceremony begins. When I choose from the carefully gathered paper options or create a homemade tag, I personalize each package with the recipient in mind. I take inventory of the variety of boxes, bubble wrap and trinkets for embellishments I have collected throughout the year. The finished product may give a hint of what is inside or it may be a clever disguise that will be a total surprise.

My mom was the master of wrapping to camouflage our presents when I was growing up. Of course, we never witnessed her preparing the gifts but each day, the week before Christmas Eve, a new bounty would be discovered under the tree. Even at a young age, I recognized the care and love each beautifully wrapped gift represented. It wasn’t until I was a mother myself that I understood the complete joy of sharing a piece of my love through the process of gift wrapping.

When my boys were teenagers, we lived through a housefire that destroyed just about everything. That Christmas, there was not many resources for presents or the additional bling I prided myself in providing. A few of the items that survived, however, were a variety of my boys’ favorite toys and keepsakes. Those treasures held court under our tree that year. No bows, fancy paper or gift tags—however the gratitude of being together made that year special. Maybe the tree really is the best part of holiday decorations. Or, perhaps, it is sharing the love of unwrapping what gifts we are able to provide for each other during the season.

A Christmas Journey

By Peter Fergus-Moore

The phone and the doorbell rang at the same time. Wondering, I opened the door to see two sombre Nipigon Ontario Provincial Police officers who had come bearing sad news: my mother-in-law, Helen, had passed away at her care home residence the night before. Upstairs, my wife Joyce had just received the same news by telephone from her sister. It was December 17, 1995.

My mother-in-law, Rauha Helen Fergus, at Joyce’s bedside after she gave birth to our daughter in 1991. | PETER FERGUS-MOORE

Neither of us remembers much of the remainder of the day. Our 4-year-old daughter Emma was to be Mary at the Christmas pageant service at the church where my wife was the minister. Joyce and I sat numbly watching the pageant; a kind elderly woman held Joyce’s hand. Our family left to drive east a couple of hours later.

We had met and married in Sudbury, Ontario and to this city, a thousand kilometres away, we returned. We were a young family, facing a Christmas season intended to be celebratory, yet for us full of sorrow.

My mother-in-law was a remarkable woman. She had been part of a young family emigrating from Finland to North America in April, 1912—they narrowly missed being passengers on the Titanic. Helen’s redoubtable mother Emmi stressed to her young daughter (known as Rauha, or Peace, to her family) the importance of getting an education to succeed in life. Helen eventually became a teacher, married, had children and later grandchildren, retired, and was widowed. She was interested in everything, and was present for the birth of our daughter Emma. Emma’s second name is Rae, her Grandmother Rauha’s nickname as a schoolgirl.

We settled in a hotel suite for almost two weeks, grieving, meeting with the minister, receiving condolences, and helping plan the funeral service. We moved on automatic pilot from one day to the next.

One evening after we returned to the hotel from yet another full day, we found a huge, bright, red poinsettia in our hotel room—a gift from two dear friends. We were stunned by its beauty. Christmas cards avalanched into our hotel room as the days progressed.

Shortly after Helen’s funeral, the Christmas Eve service of our home church in Sudbury happened a week to the day after we learned of her passing. Still numb and grieving from last goodbyes to Helen, we found the church service to be astonishingly healing and nurturing for us. Between the lovely lights in the sanctuary and the Christmas liturgy with messages of hope for an injured, grieving world, along with the familiar music, we were held and uplifted even as we knew a deep absence in our lives. Many of the congregation who remembered us embraced, greeted and sympathized with us. We felt immersed in love.

We made the long drive home through the treacherous snows and winds of the northern Lake Superior highway, exhausted yet buoyed by the experience of so much caring in an unforgettable Christmas season.

From a Downer to a Priceless One

By Elle Andra-Warner

What’s my favourite memory from a past Christmas? Maybe it’s the last Christmas in Lowestoft, England before we immigrated to Canada. Or perhaps it’s once we were in Canada—memories of participating in Christmas celebrations during the 1950s in the local Estonian immigrant community, like singing carols with the Estonian children’s choir; folk-dancing traditional dances; Christmas plays (in Estonian); enjoying a banquet of food tables (including open-face salted salmon on rye sandwiches); and later waiting for Santa Claus (Jõuluvana) to arrive with really cool presents for all the children.

Me with my parents Regina and Jüri Jürivee. |ELLE ANDRA-WARNER

But the one Christmas that stands out for me started out as a real downer. We had been settled in Lakehead (today’s city of Thunder Bay) for about three years when sometime before Christmas my parents had the difficult task of telling me that this year there would be no gifts under the tree.

My father, a former chief engineer for years in the merchant marine in England and Europe, had been laid off from his new job at Port Arthur ship yards until spring, and money was now tight. I was almost 8-years-old at the time and aware that it was my parents, not Santa Claus, who put the Christmas gifts under the tree. I remember thinking that it was an ominous sign that we now didn’t have enough money to buy even a Christmas present. (Of course, as a young child, I didn’t realize how parents had to stretch money to ensure payment of household and family expenses, especially for immigrant/refugee families like we were.)

Now the good part: Christmas Eve rolled around, as did the usual time of opening our presents after a turkey dinner (a donated turkey from work). And then a great surprise—under the tree was a small present for me: a Little Golden Book! It was the best Christmas present ever—to me it was “priceless.” Maybe there really is a Santa Claus?!

My Favorite Christmas Tradition

By Eric Weicht

My family takes Christmas very, very seriously. I’ve written about this in years past, but it bears mentioning again—my mom and her three brothers have never missed a Christmas together, not once in well over half a century, and it is expected that my siblings and I follow suit.

Like so many other families, we cram December 24-25 with loads of traditions, following the same pattern of events year after year after year.

Recently, however, there has been a lot of change in our family, and all of that change has started to seep its way into our holiday traditions.

Newborns have become expected guests each Christmas Eve at the “kid’s” table, and cousins that used to be in bed before 8 p.m. are now the ones keeping everyone up laughing late into the night.

Lana the Wheaton “terror”—another member of our growing family. | ERIC WEICHT

Marriages, too, have been mixing things up as of late. My sister, Patty, just got engaged this past spring, and my own marriage is a little over a year old. Both my wife and Patty’s fiancé have their own set of traditions, and I’m sure it won’t be long before their way of celebrating the holidays starts finding its way into our own.

Of course, change is not all growth. This will be the first Christmas Eve in my entire life that I will spend without my “Auntie” Mo, longtime hostess of the annual Christmas Eve get-together. Mo passed away this year from cancer and will be sorely missed by everyone this Christmas Eve, and every year after.

With all of this change pressing in from the outside, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about tradition. Specifically, what is my favorite Christmas tradition—what is the one tradition that I just can’t do without?

The first thing that comes to mind, naturally, are the presents.

Presents are the best. The crisp feel of wrapping paper as it tears a part in your hand, peeling back from the mysterious surprise underneath.

I love giving presents, too. Like giving a toast at a wedding, or writing a card on an anniversary, giving presents is an opportunity to show the people you love that you care about them. Is there anything more satisfying then the “thank you” that comes after giving your brother the blow-dart gun that he didn’t even know he wanted?

Presents are great, but how could I do a Christmas without the eggnog? My dad makes the best eggnog, but only once a year on Christmas Eve for the party. He’ll fill up a fancy-looking crystal bowl with nog and within minutes it will be gone, younger cousins nursing their third cup of the delicious tradition as they run off to see what’s going on in the next room over.

What about the annual showing of It’s a Wonderful Life, though, and the freezer overflowing with Christmas cookies? The advent calendars, my mom’s egg bake and homemade cinnamon rolls Christmas morning, and the infamous gift exchange game on Christmas Eve?

All of these traditions are so good, so great, but they are not the best. The best tradition is the one that is always changing. The best tradition is family.

Christmas used to be perfect with just my mom, dad, brother and sister, but now it won’t be right without my wife Bailey and Patty’s fiancé Mark. Everyone together around the fire, discussing what board game we want to play next—that is what I’m looking forward to most this Christmas.

It’s funny, tradition is all about keeping things the same, and yet more and more I’m starting to think that traditions are more about accepting change. I love Christmas, I love what it has been, and I can’t wait to see what it becomes.

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