House of Love

Ottawa XPress / December 2, 2005

“Will you still love me in December?
I could sleep many days, but it wouldn’t make a difference without you.”

~Julie Doiron “Will You Still Love Me” EP (1999)

December is here, the air is colder, the landscape barren. The Christmas Store on Elgin Street is gearing up, and Canadian Tire has stocked metres of shelves with Christmas lights. Coming soon: Christmas for Christians, and a priceless set of days off for the rest of us. Can you deny it’s one of the most exciting and special times of the year?

Yep, ’tis the season to celebrate traditions, exchange gifts and catch family feuds on camcorder.

Thinking about Christmas invites a flood of memories, some good, some bad. And of course, there are the gifts. The sacrifices some families make to ensure their kids have the best Christmas are both mind-boggling and heart-warming. They use their lunch hours to stand in line-ups at the mall; they forgo a new outfit for their Christmas party so they can buy their child’s costume for the Christmas pageant; and they set up the magic of Christmas morning by sneaking the gifts under the tree at night, and taking bites out of the cookies left for the big guy.

But, while the holiday seems to be all about spending money and buying presents, most fond recollections of Christmases past are seldom about the gifts we received – it’s always certain people and scenes we recall most fondly. The holiday means different things to different people, but December usually becomes a time to think about friends and family.

For me, being 30 means my friends have become my family. Also, I’m old enough now that I’m no longer a slave to parental plans and I can pick and choose what I want to do on the 25th. My core tradition is a 9 p.m. poutine at Elgin Street Diner on Christmas Eve, followed by a Vanier diner breakfast with mom the next morning. Then, Christmas night around 10 p.m., it’s off to the Dominion Tavern to meet up with friends from the other side of the world, like Saskatchewan. It gives us all a chance to catch up and regain a sense of normalcy from family-fest over a pint.

But in between the personal traditions I’ve established for sanity’s sake, my family get-togethers are still a cherished part of my holidays. Chez nous, we honour the French-Canadian tradition of joining extended family for midnight mass-ours is in Lowertown, at Saint Anne’s Church, where Grandmère used to sing in the choir. Self-named Kojak because she has lost all her hair, Grandmère belted out classics like Noël and was like a church rock star we’d all congregate around at the end of the service.

Although she no longer sings with the choir, the House of God is still our focal point.

It was here I heard a homily that stuck with me: “Aimer, c’est chercher de comprendre.”

To love is to seek to understand.

This wisdom carries me through. It makes me a calmer person by prompting me to sympathize with the family out there that has to put up with the bitch whose yappy dog outside of House of Cheese last month bit into an innocent male bystander, after which the lady shouted in a Celine Dion accent: “My dug duz net know yooo! Yooo luke like a drug-ee!”

As if the dog was a regular customer, and having a cool hairstyle made you an addict.

But I digress.

Seeking to understand francophone family dynamics at Christmas is a challenge.

For instance, when an extended family gets together to celebrate “le grand reveillon,” there’s as much theatrical pyrotechnics as there is food and wine.

Picture a hypothetical family gathering. The room is warm with love and goodwill and women-the men are watching fishing shows in the basement. Suddenly, a relative (we’ll call her Kojak) accuses her 78-year old sister-in-law of only marrying her late brother because he owned a hot set of wheels.

All hell breaks loose and arms flail while some scold Kojak and others support free speech. One aunt storms her spiked heels toward the door and threatens to cut Christmas short and others are bawling. You join the men in the basement ’til the storm passes and explain to your Anglo boyfriend that this happens every year.

French-Canadian Christmas becomes a lot more understandable once you’ve seen it first hand. And once you understand it, you love it. The upside of these kinds of wild antics is they’re a sign of a family that’s still close.

So, if your family comes across about as incomprehensible as the teacher in Charlie Brown’s Christmas, then rest assured you’re not alone. But over debates about homosexual marriage with your backwoods uncle, or while you’re mired down in trying to convince your godmother the whole Virgin Mary thing is fake, don’t get upset. Do like the priest said, instead: If something really pisses you off this month, cherchez de comprendre.

With the aim of peace and happiness this season, try giving the great gift of love.

Or a muzzle.

– Sylvie Hill