Community & Current Events

The importance of keeping holiday family traditions alive

Photo courtesy of Craig and Marc Kielburger Image by: Photo courtesy of Craig and Marc Kielburger Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

The importance of keeping holiday family traditions alive

Craig: While many Canadian families gather snugly around the television for the traditional holiday screening of Miracle on 34th Street – with the same child-eyed wonder every time – our family would gather around our grandmother for her ritual retelling of "Mr. Williams and the Refrigerator." As with other holiday classics, we've memorized every line of Mimi's autobiographical tale.

It's about a young widow who walks to the grocery store every evening after work, as she has no fridge to keep food for her four children's supper. When her boss, Mr. Williams, learns why Mimi is so tired, he insists on having a new refrigerator delivered to her house that very day – on his own line of credit. All he asks is that Mimi repay him $5 a week for six months. This act of kindness gave Mimi the precious gift of more time with her children, and provided her grandchildren with an annual dose of inspiration and a holiday tradition that we deeply cherish.

Marc: Every year was the same: We'd go to Mimi's modest bungalow next to the post office in Windsor, Ont., sit on fold-out chairs around a long dining table in the basement – each of us wearing a paper hat from a popped Christmas cracker – and take turns sharing what we were grateful for. We always said thanks to Mimi, who invariably prepared a giant turkey, a scrumptious tourtière to link us to our French-Canadian roots and abundantly buttered mashed potatoes.

Often, Mimi's neighbour from across the street  would join us. Dorothy was a kindergarten teacher who loved kids but had no family, so Mimi extended our family to embrace her. After dinner, Mimi would sit in her plush armchair and tell us the story of Mr. Williams' kind deed. As we got older, no matter how far we travelled or how hard it got to coordinate our schedules, we always came together for Christmas at Mimi's.

Craig: Last Christmas was our second with Marc's daughter, Lily-Rose, but our first without Mimi, who passed away the previous March at the age of 97. Her absence weighed heavily on our spirits, and without our beloved matriarch to anchor us, the holidays were different. We didn't travel to Windsor; instead, Marc and Roxanne hosted the family in Toronto.

Not every member of our extended family could make the trip, nor could Dorothy. We still feasted on turkey, tourtière and buttery potatoes, and we each included Mimi when giving our thanks, but we forgot the paper hats. Our mom accepted the mantle of matriarch, telling some of Mimi's stories and, to our great delight, some of her own. But for the first time in anyone's memory, we didn't hear "Mr. Williams and the Refrigerator." It prompted some soul-searching about our holiday traditions, how they link us to the past and remind us of the values that bring us together as family. We realized that if we don't remain conscious of the traditions that bind us, we risk losing those connections.

Marc: So this year, we're adapting our treasured traditions for a new generation. Our development work will keep us in Kenya over the holidays, but as most other parents with a two-year-old can attest, grandparents are seldom deterred by time or space from seeing their grandchildren.

So while my mom and mother-in-law (who is also French-Canadian) attempt to export the ingredients for tourtière to Kenya, we'll be inviting our Kenyan friends and staff members who can't make it home for the holidays to our extended-family Christmas dinner – in keeping with our tradition and in loving memory of Mimi. We may not have paper hats, but we will make sure we share the story of Mr. Williams, to remind us of the lesson Mimi taught us every year: that treating others like family is what the holidays are all about.

We have lots more wisdom from Craig and Marc, including why you should volunteer over Christmas
This story was originally titled "Transforming Tradition" in the December 2013 issue.
Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!


Share X
Community & Current Events

The importance of keeping holiday family traditions alive