Memories of Christmas Past in Canada’s NorthCANADA, DINING, MEMORIES, SHOWS/FESTIVALS/HOLIDAYS, STAFF — By Lisa Carter on December 17, 2011 at 01:17
Story by staff writer Lisa Carter.
Photos © Jon Lee, Gail Leonardis & Raymond McEwen. Feature photo © Jon Lee.
Certainly the temperature was always well below zero, averaging -25°C (-10°F) at that time of year. The air so crisp it was hard to breathe; steam rose up with every exhalation, forming icicles on my father’s bushy white brows, coating his glasses.
The season started with cutting our own Christmas tree each year, when we would have to watch the forecast for the best day to brave the cold. Anything above –30°C would do—as long as the wind chill didn’t plunge it to –40°C!
Up we’d bundle: wool socks, long johns, corduroy pants, heavy sweaters, snow pants, parkas with fur-lined hoods, hats, mitts, scarves, barely able to waddle out to the truck.
Driving along the Ingraham Trail that leads east to several recreational lakes, our eyes were peeled not only for the best looking tree, but one the right size and not too far off the road.
Tumbling out of the truck, we’d tromp through knee-high snow, carrying a handsaw. Dad would give the tree a shake—only when free of snow could we picture how best to camouflage the inevitable bare patches once we got the tree home.
You see, Jack pines that far north are not the full, majestic specimens of Christmas lore, but more like something Charlie Brown might have had. Permafrost means the ground just 15 m (50 feet) below the surface is frozen year round. Tree roots are shallow and the growing season short.
With Dad on one side of the yellow handsaw and me on the other, we’d find our rhythm, pushing and pulling, back and forth, puffing in the icy air until the blade was almost through. I’d step back, out of the way, and with a final shove from Dad the tree was down, ready to be taken home.
A day or two later, once the tree had thawed, Mom would direct the trimming. Rediscovering the beautiful bobbles inside every box of decorations was just as exciting as unwrapping presents on Christmas morning! The entire afternoon would pass as carols played on the stereo, Mom humming along. By day’s end the scrawny pine would stand pretty in a string of lights, heirloom glass balls, crystal figurines and individual strands of tinsel.
Most of the holidays were spent inside, safe from frostbite. Mornings dawned as black and thick as tar, night giving way to day only reluctantly by 10 a.m. As if to make up for the few hours it had until 3 p.m., when it would set again, the sun shone blindingly bright in a clear blue sky, dancing in pastel shades off the snow, silhouetting smoke as it rose straight up from every chimney in view. Trickster black ravens cawed, white ptarmigans sat puffed up in willow trees and the occasional red fox streaked across the road.
Warmth radiated out from the fireplace, oven and stovetop, the glow expanding as my brother, sisters and their families streamed in and out all day. For days ahead of time, Mom was adorned with an apron as mixing bowls and cookie sheets covered the countertop: rum balls, two kinds of shortbread, Grandma Carter’s sugar cookies, Nanaimo bars.
Pork pie and twisters—bread dough braided and deep fried—took most of Christmas Eve to make for breakfast Christmas morning. Not to be missed was Grandma Hamilton’s Christmas cake, soaked in brandy for weeks, now topped with a layer of marzipan and icing [see feature photo].
Day after day, family traditions unfolded as we fattened ourselves up in an endless round of snacks and meals, storing energy to make it through the long hibernation that is winter in the North, slumbering early, content in our cozy dens, together.
LISA CARTER is a literary translator and writer with a passion for travel. She and her partner, Jon, live in Ottawa, Canada – at least for now. They recently experimented with being digital nomads based out of Atenas, Costa Rica. [See Location Independent for Lisa’s series.] You can find Lisa on her professional website intralingo.com, her personal food blog sweetsaltysour.com and on Twitter @intralingo.