An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

Live Out There Exclusive: Escape your campus: UBC Edition

Even though I currently find myself running away from my sins and sorrows out here on Canada’s east coast, I recently penned an article for Live Out There about all of my favourite west coast running and hiking haunts – in particular the ones I loved as a UBC undergraduate and Masters student.

On a gorgeous fall day, you really can’t beat the Pacific Northwest (although Nova Scotia really is giving it a run for its money, what with is absurdly warm weather and complete dearth of rain).

And while I don’t miss being back in class, I do miss the delirious high of just having completed the Grouse Grind, and the splendour of Lindeman Lake’s aquamarine waters. Which is why I hope to give you all inspiration to get outside – student, or graduate, or both!

School is back in session. You’re sitting in class, staring at the clock, day-dreaming of summer adventures. Stop day-dreaming, we have good news: being back in class doesn’t mean you have to stop exploring!

Here are four different ways that you can escape UBC campus – no matter how much (or little) time you have to spare.

Read on here.

Live Out There Exclusive: “Let’s talk about healthy eating”

A few weeks ago I wrote about the struggles I have as an athlete who has lived with eating disorders and who is still trying to navigate the very hard world of disordered eating.

In an attempt to keep up a discussion around this grey area that doesn’t get a lot of daily dialogue, I wrote the following post on Live Out There.

I feel like everywhere I turn people are talking about healthy eating – they post pictures of their gorgeous meals on Instagram, they blog about their latest culinary adventures, and every other inch of media space (television, film, radio, print, etc.) is telling me that I should simultaneously lose weight, bulk up, and eat kale.

And as someone who takes her athleticism very seriously, I am always trying to make healthier choices when it comes to my daily eating and snacking habits – especially when I am spending 8+ hours a day at the office. But as a young woman who has also struggled for many years with disordered eating and body image issues, I am also sensitive to how much of a minefield this area is – for me, and for many, many others.

Read on for some of the things that I find helpful, as I navigate these important but treacherous waters.

Live Out There Exclusive: “Hiking on the Sunshine Coast”

I love the Sunshine Coast.

It is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and inherently centering places I have ever been, and I am lucky enough to have very generous parents-in-law who let Marc and I spend time up at their beautiful cabin in this area of B.C.

Even better? The hiking is amazing. Over at Live Out There, I have waxed long and eloquent about how much I love this (literal) neck of the woods.

The Sunshine Coast is one of the best places to hike in British Columbia. From Sechelt to Powell River, the possibilities for exploring the outdoors are many and varied. I first ventured up this way thirteen years ago with my now husband for our first weekend getaway. Some of my favourite things I remember about those three days were the fantastic hikes we did whilst there.

The best part about this area is that there is something for everyone: easy trails for the beginner hiker, mid-length routes for the more advanced, and multi-day overnights for the truly adventurous.

Read on for more!

Live Out There Exclusive: “How to hit the gym before work”

Any veteran reader of Rant and Roll will know that I have a storied history with the gym. In fact, the first time I was freshly pressed (way, way back in 2012!) it was because of a post about how I both loved and loathed my (then) gym.

However, when I suffered a small tear in my right calf muscle last fall, and rejoined the land of the gym dwellers, I had no idea how much I would love incorporating the gym into my early mornings! This month on Live Out There, I wrote about how you too can learn to love hitting the gym before the sun rises, and how to get the most out of your workout.

I used to balk at the idea of getting up and exercising before work. My line of reasoning? I had to wake up early enough, so why the heck would I ever choose to rise before necessity strictly demanded it of me? Sleep, after all, is a hugely valuable commodity and I was fiercely proud of my ability to distill my morning routine down to the bare minimum. At my best I could get my (very presentable) self out of the door in twenty minutes or less.

But then I moved to the lovely little Hamlet known as New Westminster and began taking the skytrain into my job every day. At the station closest to my house there is Dynamic Fitness, a lovely, evenly priced gym, and last autumn, as I nursed a torn calf muscle, I took out a membership. I thought I would give a pre-work workout a try, just to see if I could hack an early morning sweat. I could use the gym’s showers and leave my stuff in a locker during the day. What did I have to lose?

Continue reading my top tips for transitioning to early morning workouts here.