No matter where we reside in Canada, there seems to be a dominant notion of what the winter holidays should look like. In rural communities such as Antigonish, the holidays generally represent Christian tradition. In metropolitan areas, like my hometown of Calgary, it’s a blizzard of sales, profit, and merchandise. The Santa, reindeer, and pine tree motif are plastered on every block, in every shop, and across every neighbourhood.
Growing up in a Buddhist household, I was acutely confused by my first few Christmases. I was five when I left China for Canada, and I had never heard of Santa before landing in the West. I wasn’t Christian, and I didn’t even know what Christianity entailed. Popular tunes like “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” were unfamiliar to my foreign ears. I was certainly aware of the themes going around my school, and when classes let out, my neighbourhood. The winter holidays were meant to be a time for family, friendship, and giving. There was an ideal that everyone should follow, I started to sense, which was portrayed on TV, in movies, and in countless advertisements, and it looked something like this:
A child sits on a plush couch, surrounded by their parents and extended family. They are lounging in the living room of an upper-middle-class home. The walls are decorated with green and red fairy lights, and a tree sits in a corner. There is a fake fire roaring in a glass-and-plastic fireplace. Everyone is smiling, joking, and exchanging compliments. They sip mugs of hot cocoa, the kind made with fresh milk and decorated with puffy white marshmallows. Some people are wearing red and white Santa hats, including the happy, rosy-cheeked youth. The family is clearly close, and they speak to each other without reserve. In fact, grandma over here seems to have hand-sewn matching sweaters for each and every individual.
Never in my life have I passed a Christmas like the one mentioned above. As a new immigrant, we passed on the holiday season not only because we weren’t Christian, but because popular traditions were inaccessible to us. Our limited English skills made well-wishing next to impossible, and the working-class jobs that my parents held did not pay enough for a tree and a stack of presents. We knew next to no one in the city, meaning that we never had enough people for a gathering large enough to be called a “Christmas party.” As I grew older, and as my mother upgraded to a white-collar office job, we eliminated the language and financial barriers from our list of obstacles. However, the trials that passed in the years since made ideal holidays just as unlikely. Our suburban home may be heated, but it wasn’t warm. The term “family” would always carry mixed memories for me, and “extended family” was something to cringe at. I am regularly reminded of my paternal grandparents, who lived in my parents’ house for a number of years and abused me both physically and emotionally. Sometimes the mention of holidays pushes me into my room, makes me slam the door, and draws tears from my eyes. In this sense, “happy holidays” is something of an ironic statement.
As I reflect on this past year, I have to say that 2020 wasn’t easy for me. I was fortunate enough to avoid contracting COVID-19, and so were most of my friends. But as the holiday season comes around, I face a new set of challenges. As people continue to shop around, and as they visit friends and family, danger seems to lurk around every corner. I am worried for myself, but I am even more worried for my younger brother. He has a weakened immune system, and a diagnosis of COVID-19 would probably mean a lengthy stay at the hospital. I want to connect with my Calgarian friends in person, and not being able to do so is very frustrating. I want to shower them with gifts -- especially my best friend who interns as a nurse -- but even my relatively affluent family is facing financial strains. I am only certain of one thing: for the twentieth year in a row, my holiday season will stray from Western ideals.
Despite everything that is happening and despite the many systemic and personal barriers that I’ve faced, I’ve chosen to stay positive. I am no longer expecting a fairy tale end to my year, something that I did when I was younger. I validate my own stressors, but I also remain aware of the immense privileges that I hold. I am a member of my community, a person of support for many, and a mental health advocate. Neither COVID-19 nor the holidays will change that. I will continue to speak up for what I am most passionate about, treat the people around me with kindness, and contribute to my city however I can. I will remember to take breaks, care for my own emotional wellness, and reach out for help when I need it.
As we move forward into cries of “happy holidays” and the personal realities that may appear anything but happy, we are all faced with the same choice I experienced. We may feel down about everything that is going wrong, but we do not have to give up control. We are all in different situations, and we all face diverse stressors. Some of us might be worried about our jobs or are already having a hard time keeping the lights on. Some of us are battling mental health struggles and physical maladies. Some of us are just dang lonely, and some of us might be cut off from our families all together. No matter what happens, we will all remain human, and humans have the inherent capacity for resilience.
Let’s do our best, everyone, and meet the new year with courage and strength.
About Jenny Li (they/them)
[Jenny is a third-year student and a proud Xaverian. They are pursuing an honours degree in Sociology with a subsidiary in Public Policy and Governance. Jenny is passionate about a range of social issues, most notably mental health advocacy. In their free time, Jenny can be found volunteering with Jack.org, starting new equity-seeking initiatives, and petting dogs. Jenny is most proud of their social supports -- peers, mentors, and professors who respect them for their curiosity, navigation of multiple minority identities, and relentless social activism.]