Memories of Christmas Past in Canada’s North

Story by staff writer Lisa Carter.

Photos © Jon Lee, Gail Leonardis & Raymond McEwen. Feature photo © Jon Lee.

WHEN I THINK about Christmas as a child in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, north of the 60th parallel in Canada’s Arctic, I actually think of warmth more than cold.

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!

Left: It might be frosty outside, but it's warm and cozy indoors | Photo © Jon Lee
Right: My sister Wendy's house on a wintery Yellowknife day | Photo © R. McEwen

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.

Bundled up for winter in Northern Canada

My niece, Amanda, so bundled up in winter layers against the cold
she can hardly move! | Photo © Gail Leonardis

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.

Left: Sara, my niece, beautifully framed by frost
Right: Winter snowmobile trails abound off the Ingraham Trail
that leads east from Yellowknife | Photos © Raymond McEwen

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.
Jack pine Christmas tree, Northwest Territories, Canada

My nephew, Mark, and the Jack pine
Christmas tree we cut ourselves
Photo © Gail Leonardis

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.

Left: Sunrise at the Carter family cabin on Pontoon Lake, 28 km outside of the
NWT capital | Right: A fiery, mid-afternoon sunset at the Carter family cabin
Photos © Raymond McEwen

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.

The original Northwest Territories license plate

The original Northwest Territories license plate | Photo © Jon Lee



Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

Ingraham Trail

Nanaimo bars

Lisa Carter of Intralingo

Lisa Carter


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, her personal food blog and on Twitter @intralingo.



  1. Wow! What a picture you painted! It sounded so cozy….but I can’t imagine living in a climate so cold! Being a foodie – I loved the food descriptions! Everything sounded delicious! Thank you for sharing such lovely memories!

    • Hi Ann!
      Christmas at our house really did used to be cozy. But, like you, I wasn’t a fan of the cold…
      I’m glad you enjoyed the wander through my memories and thanks for commenting. 😉

  2. Lisa! Wow! What a story, I was intrigued from the first word!
    Brrrrr, I felt cold thinking about Christmas Yellowknife, that is sooooo far up there and out there, unbelievable how people survive there.
    I was in Yukon and Alaska in July and August trying to imagine a winter at that latitude. I couldn’t get it comprehended.
    Your words make it real, love ALL your photographs. Love that Christmas tree! And wow what a sky! Little ones are precious!
    Wonderful personal story! Captivated me!
    Now I know who to call when I need a field guide!

    • Terri,
      How great that you were in another part of the North this summer — also a magical, magical time. While living at that latitude does have its hardships (some would think), it’s also an incredibly beautiful, unspoiled place. If you ever do go to Yellowknife, get in touch and I’ll offer some suggestions!
      Lisa 😉

      • P.S.

        Yikes! Lisa, I need to clarify, I was in Yukon/Alaska in 1992 but it was in the warm months of July and August, meaning the warmest time of the year. Realized that confusion after I hit “submit.”

        I’d like you to know…..I followed the Yellowknife link in your story to an awesome Yellowknife website where I stayed oooo-ing and ah-ing for well over an hour! Then I ventured to other websites about Yellowknife. I’m not making this up.

        Admitting my lack of knowledge, I was under the impression Yellowknife had a population of about 100 people. Tonight I learned the population is 20,000!

        I loved learning about Ice Measurement Safety (OMGOSH, how interesting) I have never heard of “after drop” until now. I learned that Yellowknife is the Diamond Capital of N. America! I watched the video in the visitor section and was Wow-ed!

        Then I studied the weather of course doing the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion so it made sense to me here in the U.S. Like you said in your story, the temperature in Yellowknife today is -23C = -9.4F, holy cow that is COLD!

        The neatest part of all was that from the link in your story, I went to Canadian Space Agency and watched those very cool Aurora Borealis cams. OHMYGOSH!

        I signed up to receive job postings from Yellowknife (because of your story) and I’d love to experience just one of those sunsets! Now I am going to research diamond mining operations in Yellowknife because I might be qualified to work there! But honestly, I don’t think I could adjust to the climate and dark days in winter.

        I enjoyed Whitehorse, Yukon which seems similar to Yellowknife. Whitehorse is a little larger in population.

        I just did a map quest on how far apart the two are, wow, you have to travel way down into Alberta/British Columbia to get from one to the other by road! Remembering the ALCAN highway, I can only imagine the Mackenzie!

        I’m curious; did you grow up in Yellowknife?

        And I’d like your recipe for Nanaimo bars!

        THANK YOU! This has been a thrilling geographical exploration and reminiscence prompted by your story!

        I will indeed be contacting you if I get the opportunity to travel that way again!

        • Terri,
          I can’t believe what a path of discovery you were led on through this little post! How wonderful… YK really is a booming place with the diamond industry and they’re always looking to hire qualified people, so who knows where this may ultimately lead for you. Do stay in touch and let me know how it goes?!

  3. Harriet says:

    Love the Charlie Brown comment about the tree. It might have been missing fullness, but it filled the spot perfectly.

    • Thanks for coming by and commenting, Harriet! You’re right that our trees always filled the spot perfectly. In fact, to this day, I think that big, full Christmas trees almost look fake and prefer ones that have a little more… character, shall we say? 😉

  4. What lovely memories! Thanks for sharing. Felt like I was there with you.

    I have a friend who lived in Yellowknife one winter. She said she was cold the entire time 🙂

    • Greta,
      I’m so glad you stopped by and left a comment. 🙂 It was really great to delve into these memories and picture Christmas as it used to be.
      And how neat that you knew someone in Yellowknife, too! It’s a transient sort of place, with people coming and going all the time (although my family has been there for over 40 years now…).

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  6. Ah Lisa, your story brought back very fond memories of similar Christmas traditions that we created while living in Yellowknife. I didn’t have family for most of the time I lived there, but another best thing about Yellowknife were those wonderful gatherings of all the Christmas orphans.

    We met a few times, but last I heard of you, you were still in Peru. I used to work for your sister and am friends with Wendy, whose house used to be across the street from me.

    • Kathy! How great to hear from you… Did Wendy tell you about the post?
      You make a really great point about Yellowknife and Christmas orphans. So many people move up without any family, and they all band together to celebrate the holidays, creating a new family.
      Where are you now, BTW? Wherever it is, I hope you have a lovely holiday season. 🙂

      • Kathy Mercure says:

        Yes, I got the link from Wendy. I’m living in Moncton New Brunswick now. Small town atmosphere was the only way to go after the Yellowknife vibe. All the best to you and your family for Christmas and 2012!

  7. Kristel Mae says:

    Very touching post and pics here!!This is a good memory actually…

    • Kristel,
      I’m really glad you liked the post and pics. It’s awful to say that I have almost no photos of growing up in Yellowknife, but that’s one reason it’s wonderful to have a big family: I could look to them to help me out. 🙂

  8. Wow, what a descriptive and fun story. I love the picture with that red sky, just beautiful!
    I would be like a bear if I lived in those temps! You wouldn’t see me until spring!

    • Hi, Betsy!
      Yes, one of the true beauties of Yellowknife is the sky: clear blue, amazing sunsets, the moon low on the horizon and huge, northern lights. It’s something I do miss…
      But not the long, dark, cold winter (although I do still live in Canada, so I haven’t escaped that entirely!). The body really does slow down and you sleep more, just like the bears. 😉

  9. Oh, Lisa, only you could make below-zero temperatures seem okay to me. Or if not okay, at least a fair trade for the warmth of the place in a million other ways. LOVE your sunset/sunrise pictures. They’re nature’s poetry.

    • Quite right, j, that such a negative number on the thermometer was at least tempered by other types of warmth — it’s what made growing up there doable! That and the incomparable beauty.
      Happy New Year to you and yours… 😉

  10. What a wonderful picture you painted for us, I loved reading about your memories. Lovely photos too!
    We get very little snow here anymore, and the other day I went for a drive just to find some, but even being on roads which appear on no map was worth it because we got to see some snow 😉

    • So glad the words and photos painted an enjoyable picture, Estrella!
      It’s funny how we miss snow when we don’t have it. Family in Toronto had none this year (not uncommon anymore) and it really changed how they experienced the holidays.
      But like everything, snow is best in moderation! 😉
      Happy, happy New Year to you and yours, Estrella.

  11. Woweee Lisa! I can’t imagine being somewhere even nearly that cold but it looks absolutely magical!

    Wonderful pictures, as always. Sounds like the loveliest possible time with family.
    Thank you for the post, and Happy New Year to you.

    • Hey, Jo! The North is truly a place to be experienced, so don’t be put off by the cold… If you ever get a chance to go, grab it. It is a magical place. 😉
      Happy, happy New Year to you, too!

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