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.
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.