When December rolls around, the Love Actually marathons break out, string lights find a new purpose other than decorating first-year dorm rooms, and the scent of pine trees increases by 300 per cent internationally — you can fact-check me on that. And yes, I can say “non-denominational holiday season” until I’m blue in the face, but there’s no denying it. It’s Christmas time.
This is a compendium of Christmas stories. From the achingly personal to the tongue-in-cheek recollections, they all show the colour of Christmas as it is: an eclectic and diverse melting pot of experiences. Some hold this day dear. Others have seen the golden and tinsel-framed veneer fade, melting away to reveal something else.
This compendium is not intended to reveal any deep truths about Christmas. If you want cheesy insights, I would suggest anything on the Hallmark channel. All that I have taken away from these pieces is that if you strip away the pressures and expectations of the holiday season, Christmas is just another day in the calendar. Its meaning is what you want it to be.
— Stephanie Bai
A slice of grandma’s fruitcake
On a sleepless night in November, I was occupied with memories of my late grandmother. The memories weren’t morbid or scary. In fact, they were of mundane moments around Christmas. I caught a glimpse of her in the kitchen surrounded by pots and pans of differing sizes. She wore a cotton floral dress. Her short, curly hair flounced with her vivacious movements.
My grandmother was a great cook who made an occasion out of every meal. Naturally, Nochebuena was a big one. A deep craving arose that night alongside my memories, and I rolled around in bed, frustrated. I needed to eat fruitcake. A really good and dark fruitcake.
My sister and contemporaries thought it an odd and slightly disgusting craving, but it was a craving nonetheless. So that night, I found myself on Google looking for the best fruitcake in the city.
After the passage of time and distance, I don’t have stark recollections of Christmases past. But I have always been enthralled with Christmas as far as I can remember — it is my favourite time of the year.
When I close my eyes, Christmas memories come in piecemeal. I see sparkling lights, star lanterns, tinsel, glitter, and gold. My grandmother’s house filled with family, like the many gifts under the tree. Platters of her cooking on the dining table, complete with a punch bowl in the middle that we, the kids, illegally drank. My third helping of leche flan. My mother’s laughter echoing in the background.
All of these memories come together like dried fruits. After all, Christmas has a taste. It means so much more than the lights and gifts. And if I could just have a bite of fruitcake, I would relive it all again.
— Ruth Frogoso
A day like any other
It’s been several years since I felt anything remotely resembling the Christmas spirit. Maybe it’s the burnout from the semester bleeding into the winter break, keeping me in bed until late morning and leaving me lethargic the rest of the day. I’m not sure. Somewhere in between the year I was first allowed to go to the mall with my friends and getting my first real job, I cooled off a little and stopped waking my entire family up at five in the morning to unwrap presents.
My sister, however, is only 15, all wide-eyes, purple pajama pants, and excited laughter. “Can you believe it’s almost Christmas?” she asks. When we were younger, we both used to hold our breath for the first of December, when we’d beg our Dad to drag our family’s plastic tree out of storage so we could decorate it.
My mama would pull out her delicate glass ornament boxes, and I’d adorn the lowest branches with little shrinky-dinks I’d made at school. My sister and I liked to layer the tree with these bizarre saran-wrapped half-spheres made of literal candy, housing tiny penguins and snowmen arranged into scenes. Someone from church had given them to us one year, and to this day I’m still not certain if they were meant to be hung at all instead of eaten.
The tree may not have had any lights — too much of a fire hazard, my mom insisted — but I guess it had personality. My dad used to lift me — and, when I got too heavy, my sister — to place whatever we’d decided would top the tree that year on the highest branch.
In the last two years, I’ve flown home from Toronto to a living room with the tree already up and decorated, a Filipino parol flashing pattern in the front window. The candy ornaments and shrinky-dinks have given way to gifts my family has received over the years: elegant golden angels, music notes, red shimmering globes, and drummer-boy drums. And despite the sense of disillusionment that I’ve been trying to shake ever since I found out how arbitrary the date of Christmas really is, my heart is full in other ways.
I get to sit at Christmas Eve dinner with my family instead of Skyping in, like I do for Thanksgiving. I get to taste my mom’s cooking and hug my grandma. My hometown friends started a collaborative holiday Spotify playlist on the fourth of November and kept adding to it well into December. Sam Smith. Bing Crosby. Nina Nesbitt. The Jackson Five.
We don’t talk about white Christmases or what we want from our parents anymore, but we still get together with everyone back in town and exchange gifts, then play card games until we’re exhausted from yelling at one another.
The holiday season can be hectic, but this year I’ve had the time to rest and reconnect with the people I love who I don’t see day-to-day anymore. Christmas itself feels like any other day. But I am grateful for the season, still, and hopefully always.
— Jadine Ngan
Finding God in a ball gown
The electric feeling of being in a large, excited gathering of people is integral to my holiday experience. Since I have never been to a rave, I used to get this feeling by going to church on Christmas Eve — instead of taking ecstasy, I took Communion.
Increasingly, however, the Christmas congregation I most look forward to is the annual Christmas spotlight at my local ballroom dance studio. This studio, in a sense, has become like a church to me. My parents have been taking ballroom lessons since 2013, and for the past six years, I have accompanied them every December to watch a program of ballroom dances set to Christmas standards, performed by the students.
I never know the teachers’ names; they are fired and replaced annually in a fashion reminiscent of the Defence Against the Dark Arts teaching post in Harry Potter. Though this sounds ominous, the studio crackles with sparkling nervous energy and warmth.
The ballroom’s occupants are almost dangerously eclectic. For every woman with a reluctant husband, who she will likely be serving divorce papers for Christmas dinner, there is an elderly widower wearing a sweater reading “single and ready to jingle.”
In the crowd are also a rumoured millionaire who has dementia, cancer, and a wit so sharp that leaves you awestruck; a talented eleventh-grade student, accompanied by her relentlessly bragging mother; a new couple who are haltingly finding their way through a merengue, but gaze into each other’s eyes in such a way that makes everyone feel like they are imposing.
This year, the rituals were much the same. People buzzed around between dances, eating feta pizza and complimenting ball gowns. Performers, surrounded by loving family members, friends, and neighbours, introduced themselves to me for the sixth year in a row.
A teacher who was slightly tipsy on unconsecrated wine told me that I look like Princess Jasmine, flattery which, though unexpected, I enjoyed, until my mother told me she had said the same thing to her.
Finally, as our ‘priest,’ the Kris Jenner look-alike who’s the studio manager, ended the night by blasting España Cañí and forcing everyone to clap along to the beat in a way that was only slightly cult-like, the revelation struck me that I might have been participating in Mass all along.
— Rochelle Raveendran