ByMona Bapat, PhD, HSPP
With influences from Scotland, England, Germany, France, and the U.S., Canadians enjoy a rich holiday filled with family and tradition.
Christmas Trees and Wreaths
For example, the Christmas tree is a decoration found in many Canadian homes. Although it is originally a German Christmas tradition, Canadians love Christmas trees. In fact, the country produces about 70,000 acres of Christmas trees each year. Advent wreaths and Christmas wreaths adorn many homes during the holidays, as well. Canada exports about 1.8 million trees a year, and its residents have enjoyed the tradition since 1781 when, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, a baroness placed a tree in her home and decorated it with white candles.
Children anxiously await the arrival of Santa on Christmas Eve, although some families may wait until New Year’s Day for present exchanges. Christmas stockings are hung with the hopes of being filled with presents and goodies the next morning. Like Americans, many Canadian children believe Santa comes down the chimney and leaves presents by the tree to be found in the morning. Some families do all of their gift-opening on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day.
Christian Canadians often attend a midnight mass, one of the oldest traditions in Canada, in which congregants enjoy a variety of worship music styles ranging from traditional organ and choirs to modern worship bands. Many of Canada’s oldest and most beautiful churches are rich with history and offer a memorable atmosphere during the mass. The mass is followed by a large dinner called a réveillon.
Traditional Canadian Holiday Cuisine
Typical foods served during the Christmas holidays include:
Beef, turkey, or goose as the main dish
Tourtière, a meat pie served in Quebec and other provinces
Ragoût de pattes de cochon, or pig’s foot stew, served with pickled beets on the side
Vegetable and sauce side dishes
Puddings, such as rice and plum
Doughnuts, pastries, fruit cake and cookies
Yule logs which are known as la bouche de noël in Quebec
The Christmas feast is a big deal in Canada. As such, Canadians purchase around 3.1 million whole turkeys every Christmas.
In general, Canadians have been known for restraint in their gift-giving. If they practice restraint in that area, they are more liberal with the giving of Christmas cards. It is a popular tradition, and family members often include money in their cards.
Provincial Canadian Christmas Traditions
Canada is a vast country with many cultures, and the traditions in each province differ.
In the northern areas of Canada, native Inuits will celebrate Sinck Tuck. This celebration involves much feasting, dancing, and the exchange of presents. It is linked to their celebration of the winter solstice, and the meals often include caribou, raw fish, seal, and other foods they love that are native to the area.
Masked mummers often roam the streets of Newfoundland during the holidays. They ring bells, make noise, and ask for candies and treats at homes. If the home’s host can guess who is behind the mask, the person must take off the mask and end his or her annoying ways.
In other provinces, Christmas traditions may include the following:
Residents of various provinces, including Newfoundland and Labrador, celebrate with outdoor holiday Christmas lighting on their homes.
In Nova Scotia, German immigrants in 1751 brought the tradition of Belsnickling. In this annual parade of tomfoolery, the Belsnicklers dress in wild costumes, play musical instruments, go through the town from house to house, and if neighbors guess their identity, the Belsnickler gets to eat some cake or cookies.
As noted in the Canadian Encyclopedia (linked above), Quebec has a tradition of setting up Christmas-theme markets in which vendors set up shop around large Christmas trees and present Christmas decorations and pastries to the public. While this is happening, church and school choirs gather in the market and sing their best Christmas carols. Horse-drawn sleighs are also a tradition in Quebec during this time. QuebecAdabra! occurs in Quebec City and has a German Christmas market, several choirs and nightly light shows.
On Prince Edward Island, families will gather to make meat pies together, which will be served after the midnight mass or for breakfast on Christmas morning. Other family traditions on the Island include giving one another a present of pajamas on Christmas Eve, then celebrating a feast together on Christmas Day.
In many provinces across Canada, neighborhoods will have pickup hockey games at the local neighborhood rink (which is sometimes a frozen over pond), or in the street. After a blissful afternoon of friendly hockey, the players return to their families for a big Christmas dinner.
In Toronto the Santa Claus Parade is an annual favorite and takes place in November. It’s the biggest holiday parade internationally with approximately 500,000 plus spectators enjoying the show.
Some spectacular fireworks are set off in Niagara Falls, part of the Winter Festival of Lights. The festival features holiday lights throughout the city and various concerts and holiday-themed events.
Lights are a common theme in the Canadian provinces and British Columbia is no exception. Vancouver has the Rogers Santa Claus Parade which occurs on the first Sunday in December.
National Capital Christmas Lights
Government buildings of the entire country are lit together as part of Christmas Lights Across Canada. The National Capital Commission started Christmas Across Canada in 1985. It helps unify the country by bringing together the 13 provinces and regions with the capital to create goodwill between Canadians.
More Canadian Holidays
Like other countries around the world, the holiday celebration does not end when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas day. Instead, the holiday season is celebrated by many people through January 6. Two of the major days between Christmas and the first week of January are Boxing Day on December 26, and La Fête des Rois (the festival of kings) on January 6.
Boxing Day is a federal holiday recognized by the Canadian Labour Code. It follows the English royalty tradition of bestowing goodwill on to the less fortunate. Historically it was the day after Christmas where alms boxes were opened for the poor at churches, gifts (boxes) were given to the poor and boxes of leftover food were gifted to servants. Today there are several ways Boxing Day is celebrated in Canada:
It’s known for the best after Christmas sales in the retail industry and is the biggest shopping day of the year in Canada.
Major sporting events, especially hockey, are also played on December 26th.
If Boxing Day happens to fall on a weekend, many employers will give their employees the next workday off or holiday pay on the next workday.
Because it’s often a day off, many Canadians using Boxing Day as a way to take a break and enjoy the extra time off after Christmas. It’s also a day known for hanging out with friends since the previous week is usually heavy with family activities.
Others follow the origins of the day and spend time doing charity work by themselves or with a group.
In Newfoundland, residents practice “mummering” which is a parade based on the life of St. George and enacts scenes from his story.
La Fête des Rois
La Fête des Rois, primarily celebrated in Quebec, marks the end of the Christmas season. It means “Party of the King.” A special cake is made with a small bean hidden inside. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the hidden bean is named the king or queen for the day, similar to the French tradition of the three kings cake.
Canada Is the Perfect Place for Christmas
Believe it or not, the items mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg of what Christmas is like in Canada. With its beautiful, wintry environment, millions of Christmas trees, and rich abundance of varied Christmas traditions, Canada just might be the perfect place to celebrate Christmas.