"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree," says author Larry Wilde in The Merry Book of Christmas. "In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall." It's a noble sentiment that we'd all profit from remembering, but try telling that to Wendy Mesley's six-year-old daughter (who will not be fooled, it seems, by the modest eight-foot version).
We asked half a dozen notable Canadians to share their Christmas rituals, childhood memories, all-time favourite (and sometimes life-changing) gifts and plans for this holiday season. What did we learn?
That Christmas is indeed a state of mind -- and that it's not always about the turkey and dreaded brussels sprouts. It often invokes curling, massive jigsaw puzzles, perogies, political arguments, motherhood and water balloons.
Natalie McMaster remembers midnight mass and seeing the presents
"Some of the fondest memories of my entire life are waking up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve," says Juno-winning Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. "Santa usually came at about two in the morning. We'd go to midnight mass or children's mass and then go to sleep. Of course, we would ask to be woken up! So Dad used to wake us at around 2 a.m., after he'd put the presents out. Oh my gosh! We'd be freaking out, just seeing all the presents under the tree. On Christmas Day we'd have a turkey feast -- Mom would always make Tweed Squares and oatcakes -- and then we'd go visiting. People would drop in, bring their instruments, and music would just start."
Since tying the knot three years ago to Donnell Leahy of the musical Leahy family and moving to Ontario, new Christmas rituals have evolved. "My husband and I are trying to focus more on the real meaning of Christmas. We really want to keep it as minimally materialistic as absolutely possible. We usually have a curling championship. Nothing too serious. Even those who can't play get on a team. But I don't have a clue what to expect this year. I'm due Dec. 4 and we're just so thrilled. If all goes well, I'll have a new little baby. My parents are coming up from Cape Breton. Mom is going to help teach me how to be a mother. I know I'll be overwhelmed, but I bet it'll help with the true meaning of Christmas because I'll have this beautiful gift of life."
George Stroumboulopoulos watches sports and gets ribbed
Despite the inevitable last-minute shopping, CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos loves the whole process of hurriedly wrapping gifts, packing up the car, fighting the traffic and then hitting the pay-off: getting to hang out with his family in suburban Toronto. "I'm too busy or too lazy to put up a tree at my house, so I love coming into my grandmother's and seeing the tree and everybody sitting there. We celebrate Christmas Eve at my baba's house. I've always loved that. It's such an important thing to me. One of my favourite times of the year" -- second only to Halloween, he says.
He's a sentimentalist, our George, but only to a point. "There's always a sporting event on TV. Christmas Eve is the hockey game; Christmas Day is the basketball. We eat early, then part of the family breaks off to go to midnight mass, and then I go to a late show at the movies. It's a great day to watch sports, visit your family and go to the movie theatre!" The mile-a-minute TV host kicks into hyperspeed at the mention of food. "My grandmother makes the best perogies on the planet! We have turkey and ham. So good! I'm a gravy guy. If you put gravy on it, I'll eat it! And my grandmother makes great chicken soup. She's awesome. It reminds me of being a kid and going to her house every weekend. We're a very small but very tight family. Sitting around the table, we scrap all the time about religion and politics and television. They give me a hard time about the news and my show ["The Hour"]. But it's really fun, and that's when I feel so comfortable. I love it."
Loreena McKennitt is puzzled
For harpist and folk singer Loreena McKennitt, who grew up on the multicultural Manitoban prairie, Christmas is a time to reflect on the interconnectedness of music, food, the earth and its seasons with -- as celebrated on her Juno-winning CDs -- the interwoven nature of our diverse cultural histories. But it's the tranquillity of downtime with family and "Christmas strays" she relishes most.
"I buy a fresh jigsaw puzzle every Christmas. It gets put out and everybody chips away at it over the duration of the time we're together. They're usually fairly hefty puzzles, sometimes up to 2,500 pieces. It's the kind of thing that causes you to sit quietly but in close proximity to each other. It's a team thing and something the various age groups can enjoy. From the time I was a child, I've always enjoyed jigsaw puzzles, and I think it has shaped me in a way that every challenge I encounter professionally or personally is approached from the standpoint that it's probably like a jigsaw puzzle!" laughs McKennitt. "And the making of dinner in itself is a joint-effort ritual -- very commonplace, probably. There is an enriched experience in life to be achieved when you share the consumption and preparation of food, working side by side. Those are beautiful, beautiful memories."
The uncool Bob Hallett remembers his first accordion
Great Big Sea's Bob Hallett was about 15 when his mother bought him an accordion for Christmas. "It wasn't considered cool at that time any more than it is now. I certainly didn't ask for it. Bummer: underwear and an accordion! But it was very prescient on her part because it led me down the career path I'm very glad to have travelled." Playing accordion, fiddle and mandolin with the chart-topping Celtic rock band for 14 years, Hallett has become what he jokingly calls a professional Newfoundlander, proudly beholden to the musical mythos of his native St. John's.
"Playing for each other, sharing music with relatives and friends and neighbours is when I think you feel closest to the values that started Christmas in the first place. Christmas in Newfoundland is very much a 12 day affair. The house is always full of friends and relatives who travel home from away. That celebration of family togetherness is the key, and hand-in-hand with that is always music. A lot of families spend their money just getting here. And that's the gift -- being surrounded by people you might not see from one year to the next. These people are spread out around the world and to have them all sitting in your living room is a great feeling!"
A family Christmas skating party, including Neve Campbell
Although she earned household-name status starring in six seasons of the TV series "Party of Five," Ontario's Neve Campbell is now better known for her film work, in particular her mesmerizing role two years ago as principal dancer in Robert Altman's enchanting ballet-school drama The Company, which Campbell cowrote and produced. Not surprisingly, her all-time favourite Christmas present was ballet lessons, which led to her earning a place with the National Ballet School of Canada at age nine. "I was sold on The Nutcracker when I was six. I fell in love and I said, â€˜I'm going to do that!' And so my dad bought me ballet lessons."
Christmas as a kid meant ice-skating on lakes and, these days, listening to old Bing Crosby records. "We're a big group of people, 30 or 40, from all different families who get together in a small town outside of Guelph, Ont., and have a big dinner and go Christmas carolling. That's been a long-time tradition. I'm a sucker for the music, for carols. I'm really cheesy about it. I have to have carols playing while we're decorating the tree. And turkey dinner is fantastic. But I love eggnog, and my mom would always -- a Dutch tradition -- give us the Kinder eggs with little toys in them. I love those!"
Wendy Mesley remembers yucky foods - and hiking to get the tree
Wendy Mesley makes no bones about her relationship with that most derided of Christmas vegetables -- the innocent brussels sprout. "Yuk! Christmas is the one time of the year you're not allowed to say you don't like brussels sprouts! But it's all about ritual; it's not about how it tastes. We were forced to eat turnips as kids, and we continue to inflict the same vegetables onto our children year after year." It's the disobedient, naughty pleasures Mesley remembers most. "Christmas was a very modest affair in my family. It was more about getting together and creating mischief -- like filling up balloons full of water and lobbing them at the neighbours. We were certainly punished for that. They were very unfair parents," says the Gemini-winning "Marketplace&" host with a chuckle.
"One special thing we do these days that's lovely is trudge for about half an hour into the woods and chop down a tree. There's the annual debate about whether we get the 30-foot version that our daughter wants or the eight-foot version that will actually fit in our family room. They're always scrawny, Charlie Brown trees. Then we try to tie down the tree at home so it doesn't fall and kill anyone. We lay out a carrot for Rudolph and a glass of milk for Santa, and my husband gets quite elaborate sometimes and brings soot out of the fireplace to make footprints all over the floor. Our daughter is still wanting to believe, but we'll see at ages seven and eight how much longer that'll last. I'm just hoping she doesn't get mad at me, so don't publish this for four years, OK?"
For more heartwarming stories, see Readers share their magical holiday memories.