UTSU Special General Meeting: external and university affairs executive positions merged

New full-time vice-president public and university affairs position to focus on advocacy

UTSU Special General Meeting: external and university affairs executive positions merged

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its Special General Meeting on February 12, addressing the merger of the vice-president external affairs and vice-president university affairs positions to form a new vice-president public and university affairs executive position.

The main item on the agenda was bylaw amendments, featuring the executive positions merger and the removal of committees from the bylaws.

The meeting was called to order at 6:16 pm, after waiting over an hour for the meeting to meet the required quorum of 50 members.

Vice-president public and university affairs position

The main change in the bylaws was the merger of the vice-president external affairs and vice-president university affairs roles, which are currently part-time positions at 25 hours per week. The new role will be called vice-president public and university affairs, and will be a full-time position, at 40 hours per week. Joshua Bowman, President of the UTSU, noted that the current system can result in an “armchair advocacy apparatus,” whereby people who hold a position can advocate “whenever it’s convenient” for them. By having one role dedicated to advocacy, the UTSU hopes to bring more focus to its advocacy work.

Alexa Ballis, President of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, spoke against the change, expressing that she was “worried that combining these portfolios would overload the new position,” and that certain aspects of advocacy work could end up overlooked.

Vice-President External Affairs Lucas Granger and Vice-President, University Affairs Avani Singh both spoke in favour of the change.

“I’m so strongly in favor of this,” said Granger. He added that there is “a lot of redundancy within the work that can be done between what are considered the two major advocacy portfolios,” and that he often has to work with the university’s government relations department, crossing the lines between the two current positions.

Singh echoed Granger’s points about redundancy, and said that she felt that the change would actually make the position more accessible. In her experience, her role often requires more than 25 hours per week to complete adequately, and that therefore people might have incorrect expectations going into it. If the weekly hours of the new position are increased to 40, the role will have a more accurate expectation and be compensated more accurately, according to Singh. The bylaw change to merge the two roles passed, and will be in effect for the upcoming 2020 election.

Committee bylaws, advocacy initiatives addressed

The UTSU hoped that the removal of specific committee mentions in the bylaws could provide more flexibility for committee purposes and for the creation of permanent committees in the future. “If we want to create a new committee to match the needs of students, we can,” said Bowman.

The change would allow for ad hoc committees, such as the mental health ad hoc committee, to become permanent more easily. Currently, ad hoc committees cease to exist after the term in which created.

In response to a question about combining the work of the mental health committee with an existing committee, both Bowman and Vice-President Operations Arjun Kaul defended the idea of a separate mental health committee. The bylaw change to remove committee mentions from the bylaws passed.

Following the debate over the bylaw changes, the meeting took a recess, but lost quorum during it. Bowman motioned to suspend the rules so that the meeting could continue discussions minuted.

After the vote to suspend the rules passed, Bowman gave his address, highlighting recent and upcoming initiatives of the UTSU. 

To address the particularly low voter turnout in the 2019 executive elections, the UTSU plans to launch a get out the vote campaign for the first time in several years. This will include setting up tables around campus on the last day of the voting period, where students will be able to vote using a UTSU laptop.

The nomination period for the 2020 UTSU elections will open on March 2 and will run until March 13.

Bowman also announced a health and dental referendum that will be on the ballot for the spring UTSU elections “largely with the purpose of restoring mental health coverage to the previous rate it was at last year,” before changes to the OHIP prompted a decrease in coverage.

Lastly, Bowman touched on the recent reforms made to the UTSU’s student aid program which doubled the amount given by the UTSU in awards from $10,000 two years prior, to over $20,000 in the past four months. The increase in funding will go to new bursaries such as an accessibility bursary and a health and wellness bursary, among others.

Accessibility Services email accidentally reveals 40 students’ names, student numbers, registration

Mistake result of “human error,” recipients asked to “delete and confirm”

Accessibility Services email accidentally reveals 40 students’ names, student numbers, registration

An email sent to students registered with accessibility services on January 10 accidentally included personal information of 40 students in a spreadsheet. The purpose of the email was to inform students that their advisor had changed, but attached to the email was a spreadsheet that included the names, student numbers, emails, and registration status of the students.

Alana Williams, a third-year student studying ecology and evolutionary biology, was one of the students who received the email. She wrote to The Varsity that, while the information was sent mistakenly, the leak of student information is indicative of a greater “general apathy towards students seeking assistance.”

Heather Kelly, Executive Director of Student Life Programs and Services, confirmed that the leak did happen and was the result of “human error.” She wrote in an email to The Varsity that those who received the document were asked to delete it and confirm that they did, but she did not specify how many people received it or how many had confirmed. They also asked the recipients not to copy or share the information.

She added that “Accessibility Services is taking steps to reduce the risk of such errors happening in the future.”

For Williams, the reality of accessing mental health services is informed by her earlier time at U of T — when she received care from Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) before it had merged with Health & Wellness in 2015. Williams credits CAPS for the care and accommodations it provided her, but since coming back to U of T as a mature student, she wrote that “the services provided, or not, for students at health and wellness is horrible.”

The leak of information brought forward by Williams comes just weeks after the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health released its report and recommendations, following nearly a year of student protests over the perceived lack of cohesive and supportive services at U of T.

In an earlier interview with The Varsity, Provost & Vice-President Cheryl Regehr explained the redesign of the current mental health services at U of T that followed nearly six months of task force consultations. However, the university does not have a specific timeline for the redesign according to Regehr: “We are addressing issues as fast as we are able to.”

The task force’s report specifically outlined recommendations that address Williams’ concerns about U of T’s mental health supports, including training for teaching assistants, dons, and other “student leaders,” and more timely access to mental health care. However, in the administration’s response, while streamlining the system was made a priority, no mention was made toward improved training of professors and hired staff.

Lead with Pride conference provides leadership education for LGBTQ+ community

Two-day conference emphasized reconciliation, optimism for new decade

<i>Lead with Pride</i> conference provides leadership education for LGBTQ+ community

The 2020 Lead with Pride student leadership conference took place on January 31 and February 1, with talks emphasizing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, rights for the transgender community, and climate justice.

This year’s theme, “This Decade’s Difference,” focused on creating change in the new decade, as well as acknowledging the change brought by activists in the past. This is the conference’s 11th year running, with roughly 80 people registered.

It was organized by the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office (SGDO), an office meant to address equity and discrimination and to provide workshops, education, support, and resources on sexual and gender diversity for U of T students, staff, and faculty.  The co-chairs wrote in their program that “perhaps the beginning of a new decade can serve as an encouragement for us to look brightly into the future while still holding onto the lessons of the past.”

Cheryl Quan, an organizer of the event, said other leadership conferences on campus, such as the ULead Conference and the Leading Together conference, often do not include LGBTQ+ people or target programs and workshops aimed toward them. Lead With Pride aims to do both, and also to provide people with a network of people in the LGBTQ+ community.

The two-day conference included one day of introductions and a presentation from keynote speaker Seán Kinsella, the Director, the Eighth Fire, at Centennial College, a position created to help the college work toward truth and reconciliation goals. There was also a day of workshops and discussion.

Kinsella’s presentation discussed their experiences as an Indigenous and queer person. The speech also detailed the importance of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and how this can be done.

Introductions included a land acknowledgement from each member of the Organizing Committee, in which members shared their personal relationship to colonization and reconciliation. The committee wrote in the conference program that “it is our collective priority to ensure all conference attendees gain a deeper understanding of our shared histories and contemporary relationships with the land we live, work, and study on.”

Conference leaders emphasized the need for support and optimism in the face of political events in the city throughout 2019, such as the Toronto Climate Strike and the Toronto Public Library’s decision to allow writer Meghan Murphy to speak at one of their branches. Murphy, a writer who runs a blog called Feminist Current, has written that “allowing men to identify as women” is dangerous for women and women’s rights. Murphy was met with hundreds of protestors at the October event held at Toronto Public Library, with the protestors calling Murphy out for transphobia because of her denial of transgender rights.

Leaders also wrote that “climate change is an LGBTQ issue,” as Indigenous and marginalized communities often disproportionately suffer the effects of the climate crisis.

Only 63 per cent of enrolled political science PhD students have graduated since 2000

Multiple years with over 100 enrolled students saw 10 or fewer graduates from 2000–2019

Only 63 per cent of enrolled political science PhD students have graduated since 2000

Data obtained by The Varsity shows that between 2000–2019, on a combined average only 10.14 per cent of enrolled political science PhD students graduated each year. This is lower than the 2018 average statistic for PhD students at U of T, which stands at 22.17 per cent.

Of the approximately 453 students who were registered in the program from 2000–2019, there have been 284 graduates, resulting in 62.7 per cent of enrolled students graduating over 19 years.

Five years had 10 or fewer graduates, while other years also seem to have disproportionately low numbers of graduates relative to the program’s intake. From 2001–2014, the average rate of enrolled students graduating was 9.57 per cent. Since 2014, the number of graduates per year does seem to be going up, but the average for those years is still only slightly over 10 per cent, at 11.2 per cent.

Jacques Bertrand, Associate Chair and Graduate Director of Political Science, wrote to The Varsity that PhD students in political science rarely leave the program without graduating, though they can take leaves of absence.

Currently, Arts & Science PhD students at U of T pay a yearly tuition of $6,900. Those in the humanities and social sciences receive $17,500 in base funding, set to increase next year. The faculty also launched several programs, such as the Milestones and Pathways programs, which aim to provide academic and practical skills to students.

Bertrand wrote to The Varsity that in his opinion, the amount of graduates seems proportionate when compared to the intake of 25–28 new students per year.

He noted that the average student graduates in six to seven years, even though the timeline on the department’s website only goes up to five years. While graduate students lose department funding after five years, Bertrand noted that there are still other funding opportunities and opportunities within the department.

However, the department is making attempts to lower the graduation time, such as approving student proposals earlier, and it is “hoping these numbers will go down in the next 2-3 years.”

He noted that while the department has had some students graduate close to the cutoff of 10 years, none have ever reached that point, and that “very few students leave the program and don’t finish.” He added that the department is working on ways to provide more support for students.

Opinion: Why I quit the circus

Overworked, overburdened: hanging onto side gigs isn’t always what’s best for student health and academics

Opinion: Why I quit the circus

Whenever my shy first-year self mentioned that I not only worked at a circus but performed there as my casual, part-time job, I would usually be hit with questions and looks of disbelief. It certainly wasn’t the typical side gig, and the release of the critically reviled but commercially successful film The Greatest Showman added yet another slew of questions. No, we do not cage animals at our circus. Yes, Zendaya and Zac Efron oscillating each other while “[rewriting] the stars” lacked realism.

And though everyone at my workplace poked fun at the inaccuracies of the movie, it did illuminate the glamorous facade that is often associated with the circus. While teaching circus classes had regular hours and a steady paycheck, performance gigs felt a little bit like a secret life. Seasonal events would often take place during off-work hours, and jobs for corporate parties inserted me into crowds of people I’d never see again.

The pay was good, the job gave me excellent stories for the hundreds of icebreakers all froshies endure, and aerial circus is an art form that I love. So why did I stop?

Despite the fact that the extra bucks I was making lessened the impact of U of T’s outrageous tuition, I realized that being a full-time student, volunteering, being heavily involved in an on-campus club, pursuing my own aerial training, and having a personal life in which I could be present with the people around me was just too overwhelming. This was not accounting for balancing circus gigs on top of that.

Saying no to a stream of revenue that allows for creativity sounds like the exact opposite of what our current culture tells us to do. We’re constantly bombarded with slogans telling us to “hustle.” Famous figures like Elon Musk urge us to push ourselves into the longest work hours we can possibly handle, and our peers are trapped in the same productivity-hungry cycle. Countless books have been written claiming to unlock the real key to productivity, and in turn the true path to fulfillment and happiness.

“Sleep less, work more” and “Don’t stop ‘till it’s done” have become daily mantras that people proudly live by.

However, as I know all too well, producing more isn’t going to make you happier. That’s not to say joy can’t be found in work and passions, but reaching ‘girl-boss’ status will not automatically raise you to a level of put-together, pre-packaged happiness.

This issue isn’t unique to overworked students either; being stretched too thin is an epidemic in all walks of life. You can see the conversation brewing with counter-cultural releases like the book To Hell with the Hustle: Reclaiming Your Life in an Overworked, Overspent, and Overconnected World, which are attempting to challenge these norms.

I’m not telling you that not pursuing anything is the way to go, and that all work has to be laid aside during your time at university. But I’m also not telling you that as long as hustling is coupled with copious amounts of self-care it’ll be okay either.

You cannot anchor your self-worth, self-esteem, or identity solely to what you produce. As cliché as it may sound, existing and being a human being with thoughts and emotions already makes you worthy of rest and care. And that’s not to sound overly optimistic and removed from reality — there’s just so much more to reality than our small, centralized spheres of what we make and do.

Dana Tors is a third-year English student at Trinity College.

Between two worlds: rural students on transitioning to city living

On missing home-cooked food, silence, and seeing the stars

Between two worlds: rural students on transitioning to city living

The University of Toronto reported a total enrollment of 91,286 students for the 2018–2019 academic year, with students coming from 157 countries and regions. However, there are currently no statistics for the number of students who come from rural areas.

Even as domestic students, rural students still undergo an acute sense of culture shock and change when moving to urban areas to attend school. In order to attend university, rural students have to leave their family and friends, and face financial challenges due to the relocation.

The Varsity interviewed two U of T students who shared their stories about transitioning from rural to city life.

Growing up in rural hometowns

Thomas Wildeboer, a first-year student studying physical and mathematical sciences, was raised in a “very agricultural and quiet” town in southern Ontario called Grand Valley. It has a population of roughly 3,000 people, according to a 2016 census by Statistics Canada. There are only a few stores, ranging from a hardware store, to an LCBO and a few restaurants.

“Most residents were farmers or worked in local trades… To do anything important you had to drive 20 minutes to the next larger town, Orangeville,” Wildeboer wrote to The Varsity.

Growing up, the activities were largely outdoors-based. “As a kid we spent summers fishing and biking around mostly,” he wrote. “In the winter there would be lots of snow and the area is hilly so sledding was always fun.”

For Dean Hiler, a third-year student studying earth systems, geographic information systems, and history and philosophy of science, it’s a similar story.

“I’m from Watervliet, Michigan, which is a town of about 1,600 people (and falling),” Hiler wrote to The Varsity. “There’s a movie theatre, maybe 3 good restaurants, and Lake Michigan.”

“I enjoyed my time there. I enjoyed fishing, building forts in the woods, tending to chickens and horses, riding a dirt bike, and like everyone else, video games!” wrote Hiler.

He added that “Relative to Toronto, there weren’t a lot of things to do or places to go, but you don’t notice that.”

Transitioning to life in Toronto

Wildeboer discovered that one of the biggest changes in acclimating to Toronto is the feeling of not knowing anybody.

“Walking down the street you won’t usually recognize anyone, unlike in a small town,” he wrote.

However, he found that adapting to the pace of city life was not as big of a pendulum swing as expected. “Many people who live in rural areas have a lot of bad ideas about city living but the adjustment really isn’t difficult,” wrote Wildeboer. “I started to feel at home pretty quickly.”

He found that living in Toronto provides a new kind of convenience that Grand Valley didn’t have. “You’re walking distance away from a lot of stuff and the TTC can get you places. If all else fails, Uber is an option. In rural areas, driving for hours to run errands is common,” he wrote.

Wildeboer has found that one of the best things about living in the city is fast internet, which he describes as “a rare commodity in rural Ontario.”

For Hiler, the biggest change has been the commute. In Toronto, he commutes an hour from Scarborough each day, with an extra cushion of 30 minutes for potential delays. But back in Watervliet, he had his schedule whittled down to the minute.

“It took about 15 minutes to get to school once the school bus picked me up. When I turned 16 and started driving to school, it took exactly 7 minutes and never varied because traffic doesn’t exist,” wrote Hiler.

He mentioned that although Toronto is the only big city that he’s spent much time living in, he has noticed some differences between the cultures of rural and metropolitan areas. The diversity in Toronto is one of Hiler’s favorite features of living here. He described Watervliet as “95% white.”

“And I mean the same shade of white!” he wrote. “Everyone is protestant or Catholic. Going out to eat means burgers, pizza, or ‘the Mexican place.’ All of the radio stations are country music with the occasional rock or pop.”

Hiler emphasized that diversity was integral to adding and altering many things in his life, from his taste in food and music to his view of the world and personal values.

“Diversity adds this intangible quality to life that is often indirect and minor, but because it affects everything, it’s actually a huge part of your life and you don’t realize you were missing it or value it until you have it,” he wrote.

He explained that “the perspective I get from being enveloped in diversity has allowed me to redefine myself using a much larger dictionary.”

SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY; DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The opportunities of being in the city

In over 30 years, there has been tremendous growth in the number of people attending universities. In 1980, there were 550,000 students enrolled at the undergraduate level at Canadian universities. In 2010, there were 994,000 students. For the 2016–2017 academic year, Statistics Canada estimated that 2.05 million students were enrolled in postsecondary education — up 1.2 per cent from the previous academic year.

Changes in the labour market and the demand for a highly skilled and educated labour force have driven this growing trend in participation in postsecondary studies. This demand has increased the value attached to university degrees, drawing more people from all backgrounds to postsecondary education.

The promise of opportunity that being at U of T brings rings true for both Wildeboer and Hiler.

“I don’t have many solid plans after I’m finished my studies, but I can’t envision moving back. I want to work in tech or finance,” wrote Wildeboer. “Those industries obviously don’t exist outside of cities and I can’t stand a long commute.”

The same goes for Hiler, who also can’t envision himself moving back to a small town in the near future.

“I feel like that would be closing myself off to a lot of my academic, professional, and personal potential,” Hiler wrote. “My summer work as a field assistant had me doing more camping in three months than I ever did in Michigan. My courses have taken me into the Ontario wilderness, to Turkey, and this year, South Africa and Australia.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that he’ll be tossing away his small town values and way of life for Toronto.

“After graduation, I’ll continue to seek involvement and balance, drawing from the best of both ‘worlds,’” he wrote.

In between two worlds

Wildeboer typically commutes home on the weekends and finds himself between two worlds, quite literally.

“I have two sets of friends and two ‘modes’ of living essentially,” he wrote.

The separation between living in Toronto and living in Grand Valley leads Wildeboer to miss some aspects of being home. Something that he looks forward to when going back is home-cooked food.

“The stars and the quiet [are] really nice sometimes, especially when [I’m] under a lot of stress,” Wildeboer added.

Hiler also identifies his experience as being between two worlds.

“When I think of ways in which people can differ — politics, religion, values — the greatest polarizations are found within the rural/city divide. I think the differences between rural and city people are much greater than the differences between the cultures of [the US and Canada],” Hiler wrote.

Something he especially misses about being back home is the nighttime. He defines the night as being “a period of time where there is a major absence of stimuli,” and he claims that he’s never experienced the night in Toronto.

“It never gets dark — especially in the winter when it’s as bright as day at 3 a.m,” wrote Hiler.

Back home in Watervliet, the night sky is a place of silence and respite.

“There is no light, save for a sky full of stars and a moon,” wrote Hiler. “It is completely silent except for crickets chirping and leaves brushing against each other in the breeze (different kinds of trees have different sounding leaves). It’s a great time to take a walk in the woods… and it’s so easy to fall asleep at night.”

Ringing in 2020 with New Year’s anti-resolutions

Don’t commit to being more productive this year — commit to cutting out bad habits

Ringing in 2020 with New Year’s anti-resolutions

A six-pack. A 4.0 GPA. A larger bank account balance. The list of predictable New Year’s resolutions drones on. What all of these commitments have in common is that they are additive: we want to grow our muscle mass, increase our marks, and make that bank. A refreshing way to spin these traditional resolutions on their heads is to ask ourselves a new question: what are our 2020 anti-resolutions?

An anti-resolution is focused on pinpointing our bad habits and resolving to leave those behind for the new year. In order to achieve a goal, we should work backward to figure out what personal attributes we have that prevent us from attaining that goal. 

Below are personal anti-resolutions that The Varsity’s contributors have shared. After all, change comes in small steps, and these stories show the ones we can take during the new year. 

— Stephanie Bai

Features Editor

Volume 140

 

  1. Stop with the self-imposed guilt trips

The second I got on the subway after my last exam, I stuck my head in a book and began a reading marathon that would go on for two days. The series I was starting was admittedly bad. It didn’t have captivating characters, an interesting premise, or an appealing style. But it was like accidentally turning on TLC and spending the next five hours watching Extreme Couponing

After a month of non-stop studying, I was ready to just consume something easy and undeniably enjoyable. Unfortunately, I’d only gotten about two-thirds of the way into the first series before I hit a roadblock. An ever-familiar sense of overwhelming guilt popped into my brain and flooded it with the usual suspects: panicked thoughts. 

Was I wasting my time? Shouldn’t I be filling out job applications, or get ready for next semester? Maybe I should be working on my writing skills? Was I worthless just because I had taken two days to lounge around my house and read a trashy book series?

The guilt I feel is by no means a unique experience. University is a demanding place, and often makes students feel as though they need to be productive every minute of every day in order to be successful. As a result, it can often be hard for us to take time off and do something fun. I’m talking about the kinds of things we do that are irrefutably directionless, like binge-watching three seasons of a TV show in two days or listening to music in bed.

The guilt we feel when we indulge in these activities stops us from relaxing while we’re doing them. What’s worse is that this guilt makes us feel incapable and unmotivated, further blocking our ability to complete productive tasks that we feel guilty over not doing. 

This year, my anti-resolution is to stop making myself feel guilty when I do things simply because I enjoy them. This will help me focus by giving me some room to breathe in an already busy and cluttered life. I will allow myself to sink into the words of my delectably trashy books. Then, when I have to return to the real world, I can do it with a clear mind instead of a heavy conscience.

— Marta Anielska

 

  1. Cut out the procrastination 

Last year, I waited just a few days before the deadline to start working on my most substantial class assignment, which was given to us at the beginning of the year. Sometimes when I need to access information and do not know where to get it, I will push off a task because it is too daunting to even start. Instead, I create my own crises: I tell myself that I must attend to new problems in my personal projects, my work, and my relationships, which snatches away my attention and productivity from more pressing tasks. 

I feel that everyone has been there: four papers and six reflections due, and all you can think about is getting Starbucks and a snack. Even though we don’t actually want to sacrifice our marks for these small distractions, I still find myself rifling for food, texting my boss, or having a chat with one friend that turns into an hour-long existential crisis. And then I get back to work later, with even less time on the clock.

The assignment I kept putting off called for the creation of a podcast with an interview or report. I told myself that I would start two weeks before it was due. Then, two weeks turned into four days, because I needed time to come up with a story, find a person to interview, and write up my project.

Even though I eventually came up with a topic, I realized from this experience that my procrastination stems from uncertainty about how to proceed, causing me to wait until the last minute. With this assignment, it was so hard to find a story that I could not muster enough internal motivation to get started. 

With only four days left, I took a perfectly manageable task and turned it into a full-blown crisis. I vowed after that assignment to stop turning doable tasks into stressful bouts of panic. 

Rolling into the new year, I do not want to create a slew of new goals. For me, it’s most important to counter my negative habit of procrastination. I created reminders that will help me stay on track with my planning and productivity — both of which will make me feel more accomplished and fulfilled.

—  Jla Starr

 

  1. A cookie a day doesn’t keep the doctor away

As soon as December hits, I usually begin making a list of all the New Year’s resolutions I intend to keep for the following year. This year, as I sat in my room contemplating my resolutions for 2020, I realized that I did not achieve most of my resolutions for 2019. I wanted to do something different and decided to keep an anti-resolution instead.

As I sat there thinking about a habit or a quality of mine that I could get rid of, my mind wandered to my guilty pleasures. The first thing that I thought of were cookies. 

Cookies are available constantly at my Chestnut Residence. Every time I walk into the dining hall, I walk out with a decadent chocolate chip cookie. While this may be acceptable for a day or two, a cookie every day certainly does not keep the doctor away. 

I realized that there are many issues associated with eating desserts regularly and I don’t want to continue to fall prey to them. Too much sugar leads to an increased heart rate and a feeling of jitteriness, which is a hindrance to concentration. By eating less sugar, I will be able to improve concentration, which will improve my overall productivity. 

The phrase ‘new year, new me’ is often associated with resolutions which I believed were extremely clichéd. However, this year, I aim to adhere to this phrase and improve my habits to become a ‘new me’ by eating fewer cookies! Certainly, giving up chocolate chip cookies entirely is next to impossible, but I can take steps to reduce my overall consumption of them. After all, small steps are essential for a big change.

— Kirtana Devaraj

Looking back on Christmas

An eclectic compendium of stories about fruitcake, family, and Kris Jenner look-alike priests

Looking back on Christmas

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

Features Editor 

Volume 140

 

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. 

Amen. 

— Rochelle Raveendran