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Solstice, Hannukah Klaus and Nishmas: Different ways Sudburians celebrate the holidays

Ella Jane Myers introduces us to Nickel City residents who have their own unique ways of Christmasing
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While plenty of Sudburians celebrate what might be called a typical North American Christmas — complete with stockings, a tree, and turkey dinner — there is a huge range of other cultural traditions and new traditions, and some folks who don’t celebrate at all.

A quick survey of friends and acquaintances revealed a refreshingly diverse range of festivities that seem to reflect Sudbury’s increasingly diverse population.

And so, in honour of all the different ways Sudburians celebrate (or don’t) the holidays, here’s a glimpse of just a few of their stories.

With such a high Francophone population, it should come as no surprise that lots of locals grew up celebrating Christmas the French-Canadian way. Among those are Nicole Poulin and her partner Vincent Groulx.

For them, Christmas started with réveillon on the Dec. 24, when families would get together for feasting and stay up late for midnight mass. 

Today, they maintain the culinary tradition of feasting on baked beans and tourtière — a pie of generously spiced mixed meats, the most common being pork and veal (Sidenote: My mother and her siblings referred to tourtière as “Christmas torture”) — and they also create nature-inspired cards and celebrate the winter solstice on Dec. 21.

“We were born and raised Catholic but we’re not practicing, we’re just old hippies I guess,” explained Poulin. “Since it’s the shortest day of the year, we said let’s celebrate the light … of course, by the time everything is done and we’re eating, it’s dark.”

Besides French ones, there are a range of European influences on Sudbury holiday celebrations.

Jessica Blaauw, for example, celebrated Dutch Christmas with her parents, who immigrated to Canada in 1968, and now celebrates parts of it with her children.

It all starts on Dec. 5 when Sinterklaas — the patron saint of children, much like Saint Nick — visits. Blaauw pointed out there’s one problematic element of Dutch Christmas: Sinterklaas’ assistant, Zwarte Pete, is a character in black face, and so this is something Blaauw leaves out of their celebrations, while ensuring her children are aware of why it’s not something they celebrate. What they do retain are the silly poems and gag gifts that Sinterklaas recites and distributes each year.

Then, a month after Dutch Christmas, there’s Ukrainian Christmas on Jan. 7. Locals like Brittany Rantala-Sykes celebrate by travelling to people’s homes and singing carols in exchange for food, drinks, and charitable donations. 

“I look forward every year to Ukrainian Christmas,” explained Rantala-Sykes. “It is not centered on the gifts I give or receive, but a time to spend with friends and family, and enjoy the same tradition my grandmother did over 80 years ago.”

Or look at Polish Christmas. On Wigalia, which falls on Dec. 24, families gather for a feast of pierogies and other comfort food ahead of the big day. Yoshi Kurogi celebrates this with her husband’s Polish parents each year, and is especially fond of the barscht soup they serve.

But Kurogi brings her Japanese Christmas traditions to the table, too. While it’s not as big there as it is in Canada, in Japan, Christmas Eve is considered a romantic day for young lovers, and on Christmas Day, she recalls waking up on to gifts beside her pillow.

“The silly tradition would be that KFC has a fried chicken dinner for Christmas, that was quite popular when I was young,” said Kurogi. 

The New Year in Japan is a much bigger deal though, and Kurogi would usually watch a popular pop singing competition on TV with her family, and then go to a shrine with her father first thing on New Year’s Day.

These days, she combines these traditions: ordering Leslie’s fried chicken for a New Year’s dinner with her husband and one-year-old daughter.

While certain holiday traditions have deep roots, some Sudburians have opted to craft their own, completely modern ones.

Take Jessica Wolfe and her family; they celebrate Nishmas. 

“?It's not really a thing outside of my immediate family,” explained Wolfe. “The ‘Nish’ part of it is recognizing who I am as a person; who my daughters are as Anishinaabe kwe. It's our celebration of winter solstice. We're Bear Clan, so I joke it's also our time to hibernate and re-group as a family.”

While they don’t exchange gifts at Nishmas, Wolfe does do stockings for her two daughters and goes ice skating with her sister on the Dec. 24. They spend the time off enjoying all the comforting aspects of the season together as a family: the cozy blankets, warm fires, and “all the food!”

A few days before Christmas, Wolfe has another tradition. She lost her brother on the winter solstice, and now, they spend the day honouring his memory and the things that made him happy.

Wolfe’s friend Andréa Desjardins has forged new traditions with her family, too. She grew up with French-Canadian grandparents on one side and Scottish Protestant on the other, which meant two church services in one night some years.

“I loved Christmas as a kid, it meant a lot of laughter and silliness with my cousins and a lot of delicious food along with an obscene amount of gifts,” said Desjardins. As time went on and the family grew and changed, though, so did the holiday. The extended family pared it down, started donating to charities instead of exchanging gifts, and opted for a novel costume party rather than a religious celebration (the first year it was a Wizard of Oz murder mystery.) 

At home, Desjardins and her children still retain some elements of the holiday with a tree and modest gifts, but opt to call it “Yule” in the pagan tradition.

This time of year has its challenges for Desjardins too, though. As a person with seasonal affective disorder, she said the holidays can be a “dark” time of year, and she often opts out of some celebrations to avoid extra stress. She also faced the loss of her grandmother, the family’s matriarch, this past year, and expects there will be some sadness over the holidays.

“I really just want to use the holidays to honour the loss we’ve experienced this year,” said Desjardins, “but also to express gratitude for those who are still here.”

As yet another alternative, some Sudburians prefer not to celebrate the holidays at all. Take Carrie Regenstreif, who calls her religion "Seasonal Affective Judaism.”

“I don't really think of myself as Jewish for most of the year, but sometime around November I remember that I am and start to be thankful that I can mostly ignore Christmas,” said Regenstreif. 

While Regenstreif dislikes the consumer side of Christmas, she does have fond memories of the holidays growing up.

“I'd say what we celebrated when I was a kid was more of a Jewish Christmas than actual Hannukah,” explained Regenstreif. “My parents gave us a gift each night of Hannukah, which is not the usual tradition but maybe has become one ... My grandpa was a bit of a clown and he used to put on my aunt's green ballet tutu and call himself Hannukah Claus, definitely not a Jewish tradition.”

The one traditional Hannukah tradition she loved? The latkes: “Because who doesn't love potatoes fried in lots of oil with sour cream?”

One thing almost everyone had in common? Everyone — even those who don’t really celebrate the holidays — said they enjoyed coming together over food during the holidays, no matter what or how they celebrate.

So whether you’re having tourtière or fried chicken, pierogies or latkes this year: how are you celebrating, or not celebrating? Don’t hesitate to share your stories in the comments and add to Sudbury’s holiday tapestry!

Ella Jane Myers is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury. She's fueled by good grub, old sci-fi and long walks with the dog. Visit her at EllaJaneMyers.com.




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