Editor’s Note: Christmas is a joyous occasion for Christians as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And while not all Christians celebrate Christmas in the same way, the centrality of Jesus in the celebrations of those who take their faith seriously, is a shared feature of the holiday. We talked to four people in the shared offices of Campaign Life Coalition and The Interim to see how they mark Christ’s birth and celebrate the Christmas season.
Jim Hughes: Opening the home to family and friends
Ever since Jim Hughes can remember, Christmas has involved a large number of people coming to his house for food and merriment. Hughes, the national president of Campaign Life Coalition, was born and raised in the Beaches neighbourhood in east Toronto, where he still lives. He and his sister were raised by his widowed mother, maternal grandfather, and maiden aunts who joined them on Christmas day after morning Mass.
Hughes said in the weeks leading up to Christmas he would visit public acknowledgements of the Christmas season, including the lighting of the Christmas tree at the local park and going to Christmas concerts at church. He still enjoys Christmas concerts, including attending one performed by the Ontario Music Christian Assembly (in which Deny Dieleman, the office manager at CLC, sang) when it performed at Roy Thompson Hall.
In the weeks before Christmas, Hughes’ mother would hang cards sent by relatives and friends, “from one corner of the dining room to the other.” She would save them for years afterward, and continue to display the cards sent by those who passed away, “so they would still be around” for the season.
Another sure sign that Christmas was around the corner was that plum pudding was prepared, hanging in cheese cloth on broomsticks in the cellar.
Christmas Eve was often subdued, with Hughes attending midnight Mass as an altar server (until he turned 18). He said he and his sister were allowed to open one present the evening before Christmas.
On Christmas day, the real celebrating began. The family would open presents in the morning before the extended family and friends would join the festivities. When he was young, he and his sister would find gifts from Santa Claus and he would receive “modest gifts” from relatives. His favourites were toy soldiers, a hockey stick, hockey cards, and a bugle, a noisy enjoyment that soon mysteriously went missing. He also considered the clothes received on Christmas morning a special treat as most of his clothes were hand-me-downs from his cousins, the Frechettes.
While the women prepared dinner, Hughes would play with his cousins, often starting a game of hockey on the street — with the boys showing off their new sweaters adorned with the names of their favourite NHL teams — or going tobogganing or ice skating. Dinner usually consisted of the traditional turkey, stuffing, turnip, and parsnip. There would also be copious treats such as shortbreads, butter tarts, and cakes.
What he most recalls about these feasts was that “there was always room for another friend or relative who came by.” After dinner, the family would listen to Christmas music or sing carols. His favourites were “Jingle Bells” and “Old King Wenceslas.”
Hughes said one of his youthful highlights was drinking soda, which was only brought into the house for Christmas. “It was a special treat, because we didn’t have it the rest of the year.”
Hughes does not recall when it happened, but he said “an important transition” in appreciating the holiday was when he “went from wanting to get gifts and eagerly anticipating opening your own presents to the pleasure of giving – usually making – something for someone else.”
As an adult, Hughes has maintained – and enlarged — the tradition of opening the house to family and friends. Sometimes as many as 60 family, friends, and neighbours, will join the Hugheses for brunch from 11 am until about 5 pm, when “we kick them all out.” People come and go as they wish and the occasion is informal. In a veritable smorgasbord, Jim and his wife Ginny, serve BBQ sausage, chicken wings, baked ham, pizza, scalloped potatoes, cabbage rolls, and cheese plates. It keeps them busy and by the end of the day, they will have had to do three or four batches of dishes.
A highlight is that everyone will have a turn at the “player piano” as they sing carols.
With four children at home, the Hughes went to the Christmas Eve children’s Mass. His mother would join them and stay the night “to be there in the morning to see the family unwrap their presents.” He said it was more difficult for his mother (who died in her 101st year) and his mother-in-law (who died her 99th) to join them each year. Doing so meant getting to enjoy the children performing skits, dances, and songs – a no-doubt formative experience for his son Michael, who has become a singer and actor.
After the last visitor left and the final batch of dishes completed, whichever family members were at home – sometimes his children would be off visiting other relatives – they would retire to the living room to watch a Christmas movie such as It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, or Come to the Stable.
Inevitably, too much food was leftover – especially after the children moved out – and they would take meals to shut-ins they knew.
Reminiscing about family and friends and nearly seven decades of marking and celebrating the birth of Christ, Hughes said: “like the movie, it’s been a wonderful life.”
Dan Di Rocco: From modest beginnings, to adapting to new traditions
Dan Di Rocco, a former high school principal and The Interim’s circulation manager, was born in Roccamorice, Italy (in the Abruzzo region of central Italy overlooking the Adriatic Sea), where he lived with his mother and father, brother and sister, until he was 8. They had snow in the region, but more than the change in weather, the coming of Christmas was announced by traveling shepherds visiting the village and playing the bagpipes. “It was like you were there 2000 years ago” for the first Christmas. The shepherds, Di Rocco noted, were the first to witness Christ after his birth, and the tradition is continued in Italy with local shepherds going from town to town.
Christmas was “primarily a spiritual celebration,” Di Rocco noted, in part because of the Catholic heritage of the region and partly because after World War II, there wasn’t a lot of material wealth. Looking forward to receiving toys was not a part of the holiday until the family moved to Canada in 1951.
That is not to say the children received no gifts. On Jan. 6, La Befana, the Good Witch, visited and put exotic fruit such as oranges or tangerines in the stockings that were hung. “It was a treat,” recalled Di Rocco, because such fruit was rare in Central Italy. Another “very special treat” were nougat candies called il torrone.
Other gifts would include foodstuffs and clothing. Toys were rare, but Di Rocco said a visiting uncle from Naples once gave him a motor boat about six inches long that worked on oil. He thinks his brother Louis, who is now Fr. Louis Di Rocco, broke it on him.
Food was central to the festivities in most Italian households. The traditional Christmas Eve meal included fish and lentil or bean soup. On Christmas Eve, adults would go to Mass, while small children would go Christmas morning. After church on Christmas day, kids played outside while the women prepared the meals, “which were better at Christmas than regular meals,” because they got to eat meat, which was not part of their regular diet otherwise. If the family was lucky enough to have pigs, which were slaughtered in November, there would be sausage and prosciutto. The grandmothers made pizzelle, a special thin waffle that would be eaten like a sandwich with jam. Another treat was panettone, a sweat round bread that was usually reserved for the holy days. Turkey was not part of the traditional Christmas feast.
The children would play outside with cousins because the aunts and uncles lived across the alley, but each family ate on their own because they lived in small one-room homes that were not conducive to hosting guests for dinner. The men would often retire together for a beverage after their meals.
The families would join together to sing Italian Christmas carols, with a favourite being “Tu Scendi dalle stelle” – “You come down from the stars.” There would also be time for a version of tombola (bingo) and cards (scopa and sette e mezzo being especially popular).
For Di Rocco a particularly fond Christmas memory was the presepio, creating the nativity scene. “Everyone worked hard to prepare it” and “every family had one” in a prominent place. He said there was almost a friendly competition to have more beautiful and more creative nativities than other families and recalls using a broken piece of mirror to imitate water and surrounding it with moss.
After moving to Canada in ‘51, many of the traditions were continued, with new English-language carols being added to the repertoire of Italian ones. Added to the modest Christmas gifts, aunts and uncles who lived here gave money to the children for Christmas. There was also a small gift exchange at school, with a 25-cent limit which usually permitted comic books, colouring book and crayons, or sports trading cards to be exchanged.
When Di Rocco grew up and had six children of his own with his wife Silvana, the family began visiting different relatives on Christmas Eve and Christmas, usually his side on Dec. 24 and his wife’s side on Christmas Day after the Di Roccos went to Mass and opened gifts around the natural Christmas tree. (Di Rocco bought an artificial tree for the first time last year and he misses the smell of pine.)
The family gatherings remain very much like those childhood Christmases in Italy, with eating (many of the traditional foods), drinking, singing, and games. Now that Di Rocco’s parents have passed away, the family gathers at Dan’s older sister’s home to celebrate Christmas as an extended family. He would get together with American relatives in the week before or after Christmas, but considering they have their own families, would not see them on Christmas day.
One tradition that hasn’t survived his youth despite attempts to bring it back is the reading of Christmas poetry by the children. In Italy, each child would have a piece of paper placed under his or her plate and would recite it during the meal. Di Rocco says that perhaps due to self-consciousness, his nieces and nephews are not cooperating with the desire to revive that part of their heritage.
The biggest change, Di Rocco says, is that the family finally adopted turkey for Christmas dinner about 20 years ago – about four decades after arriving in Canada.
Di Rocco says that Christmas is a “time for extended family to gather – more at Christmas than Easter, even though Easter is more important spiritually.” But it is spiritual. Aside from Mass and religious Christmas carols, Dan and Silvana encouraged their children to also “think about those who weren’t going to be as comfortable at Christmas.” It would include going to the Good Shepherd shelter through school, small acts of charity, and praying and keeping the unfortunate in their thoughts.
Margaret Van Dyk: Keeping Christ in Christmas
Margaret Van Dyk was born in Newmarket and raised in Richmond Hill just north of Toronto. She has been a receptionist at Campaign Life Coalition for seven years and is the long-time room-mate of CLC office manager Deny Dieleman. Her Christmas traditions, most of them inherited from her Dutch immigrant parents, have largely remained intact.
On Dec. 5, the family would put out wooden shoes for Sinter Klaas – Saint Nicholas – to deposit treats such as taai-taai (a gingerbread cookie), oranges, and chocolate letters of each person’s first initial. They would wake up Dec. 6 to find the scrumptious treats. When her opa (grandfather) arrived in the evening he would come in the front door and throw pepernoten (a small biscuit cookie) in the air for children to catch and chase. There would be a party with the extended family in the evening.
Christmas was kept strictly for religious observance within the family, so gifts were exchanged the Saturday closest to Christmas. They would “never unwrap presents on Christmas day because that would take away from the true meaning of Christmas.” So on the nearby Saturday, each child would get two or three gifts, usually a toy and an article of clothing. As the second oldest of six children (ranging over ten years), but the oldest girl, Van Dyk got her older brother’s hand-me-down clothes and looked forward to getting new, girl clothes at Christmas. The younger children received a gift from Santa.
There was no celebration of Christmas Eve unless it was the Saturday on which gifts were exchanged. On Christmas Day, the family would attend Bethel Canadian Reformed Church. After service, the children ages 4-12 would sing traditional religious carols for the congregation and then get a book like Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys, along with a chocolate bar, and an orange from the Church. Her favourite carol to sing was “Joy to the World.”
They would return home to have dinner with their extended family, a meal that would include turkey, potatoes, gravy, and vegetables such as Brussel sprouts (which she didn’t eat, and still doesn’t). Her mother would cook while the kids played with visiting cousins.
Afterward, the family could gather to sing more carols as her dad played the organ.
Van Dyk lives with Dieleman, who is also Dutch, and they have maintained most of their traditions although they no longer put out wooden shoes for Sinter Klaas, a tradition that ended after her oma and opa passed away in her early teens.
Margaret said, “Celebrating the birth of Christ, and also the new life we have in Christ,” is what Christmas is all about, and not opening gifts. Keeping church service central to the day’s happenings keeps everything in perspective.
Sharon-Rose Milan: Keeping family traditions alive
Sharon-Rose Milan was raised in Kaszuby and Barry’s Bay (just south of Algonquin Park) and grew up in a family of eight children (ranging over 17 years) of four boys and four girls. She is now an assistant to Jim Hughes and works with CLC Youth, fulfilling a lifelong dream to work in the pro-life movement (since she was 8). She took part in Show the Truth until she was 16 and ran the pro-life club at Madwaska Valley District H.S. which brought many buses to the National March for Life.
For her, celebrating Christmas and family are inextricably linked.
Days before December 25, several siblings would go tree hunting to find the “most perfect tree possible” which usually meant the top of a 25-feet pine. They would “lug it home” for the youngest siblings to decorate while Irish and Hawaiian music played — “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Christmas in Killarney.” Most of the ornaments were made by a family friend and each year they would receive a new knitted (and kitschy) one for next year’s tree. Milan said it was “always a joy to use their ornaments because we loved her so much.”
The day before Christmas was full of baking for the women and children. (On Christmas day her father would make sauerkraut, polish sausage, and bigos (Polish hunter’s stew). She said she did not like bigos as a child but eventually acquired a taste for it and “by the time you’re an adult, you just have to have it” on Christmas. “Literally, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it.”)
At 4 pm, everyone put on their fancy clothes – dresses for the girls, shirt and ties for the boys – and completed any last minute wrapping. “It was an intense hour of finalizing things.” At 5 pm, older siblings helped finish the meal, as younger ones completed other chores to prepare for the meal. An hour later, the youngest children would go outside and hunt for first star, and then once it was found they could start dinner. This is a Polish tradition. In Poland, Christmas Eve is very much part of Christmas and is called wigilia.
Milan’s parents would light wreaths that sat on the table, and the family would sing O Come Divine Messiah (in five part harmonies). They would then break a thin wafer called oplatek and wish each other peace on earth and blessings. At the table, an extra empty seat was reserved for Christ.
In addition to sauerkraut and bigos, the family would have beet soup, potato leak soup, perogi, and some kind of fish.
After dinner they would leave everything and gather around the tree. Her dad dressed up as Santa, one kid dressed up as an elf and they distributed some of the gifts. Sometimes friends and extended family were there, but not always. That night the presents were opened. The children would give crafts that they made and the youngest would grab things from around the house, like a book on the shelf, to wrap and give to others.
Afterward they sang carols, cleaned up, and got ready for midnight Mass. After Mass, when they returned home, they would sing “Joy to the World,” eat snacks (cheese, carrots, olives, dips, crackers, kielbasa, kabanos) , and watch a Christmas-themed movie together. As the family grew older and the oldest siblings began to move out of the house, Milan appreciated the time “we could be with them” on Christmas Eve. Before retiring for bed, cookies and milk were put out for Santa.
On Christmas morning, the children woke up as “early as we possibly could,” to open presents from Santa Claus, and get ready for morning Mass. After church, they would return home and change back into their pajamas that they inevitably received as gifts for a day of lounging around. (At least for the children.)
In recent years, Milan has lived in Toronto and another sibling is in Edmonton, so it is more difficult to get together, but they try to do it, if not on Christmas Eve, during the 12 days of Christmas. Unable to make it home for Christmas last year because of her job (then in retail), Milan celebrated Christmas with a single mom and her four daughters that lived in her building. Milan cooked the traditional polish meal for them and “they loved it” and the experience “allowed me to celebrate it exactly how it would be with my family.”
“I love Christmas,” Milan said. “Just being with my siblings, being in their presence, and that of my parents, made me feel really loved.” She added there is no feeling that can match, “Celebrating the birth of Christ with the people you love,” and the “sense of belonging that you can’t find at other times of the year.”