This First Person column is written by Lynn Lau who lives in Oakville, Ont. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
It was November 1977 when my family arrived in Canada from the eastern edges of the crumbling British Empire. My parents were young, idealistic and ready to raise their toddler celebrating Christmas like other little Canadian kids.
Just the previous year, they had been a footloose young couple singing along to Bing Crosby on their Simca car stereo: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” in tropical Singapore, the island of my birth.
But there was just this one thing my parents could NOT get behind — that exotic Canadian tradition of buying kids whatever we wanted for Christmas just because we thought to put it on a list and stick it in the post for Santa.
Our first Christmas in Alberta was a flurry of urgent survival tasks: job hunting, house hunting, finding a small down jacket thick enough to pad my little body from the alarming blizzards.
We had a little tabletop Christmas tree that first year and possibly a free turkey from my dad’s first employer. My parents’ memories do not line up on the free turkey and I was too little to have much memory of any of it.
By the Christmas of 1978, there had been time to accumulate some of the necessary artefacts of a proper Canadian Christmas: a red two-door Chevy Malibu with enough trunk space to stow our new seven-foot plastic tree from the downtown Edmonton Eaton’s — my dad’s favourite store for their legendary sales. I remember the colourful Christmas lights displayed on the suburban bungalow we moved into that year.
How could I not? It had been such a struggle to string the eaves with lights that my dad left them on the house year-round for the next decade. My mom followed the Campbell’s soup label to make stuffing for the humongous turkey from the Sherwood Park Safeway that would take five hours to baste and just as many weeks to eat.
I don’t recall that much about gifts until the Christmas of Grade 1, when the stocking was stuffed with peanuts and a Rubix Cube I hadn’t asked for, accompanied by a poorly forged document purportedly from Santa. I couldn’t read cursive yet so my dad read aloud Santa’s explanation for what happened: my gifts had been diverted to a relief fund for the children of the Ethiopian famine.
I was a pretty savvy six-year-old, so this story sounded suspect because the last year, my classmates had returned from their Christmas holidays reporting actual Santa sightings in their living rooms, and piles of new toys from Zellers or the Consumers Distributing catalogue. My parents say I didn’t complain much. But when my spunky little sister got old enough to notice the discrepancy herself, she loudly demanded better and more presents.
Partly, it was economics — my dad was supporting two households with one income (my grandparents came over in 1980). But the other part was cultural, and maybe, principle.
I count among my grandparents three Buddhists and one atheist, none of whom had much practical experience orchestrating Christian holidays. Lunar New Year was traditionally when Chinese children got showered with new things — not Christmas.
My mom was the eldest of eight siblings who grew up on a Malaysian rubber plantation. Her cohort did not have much in the way of store-bought toys; for fun, they caught frogs by the river’s edge. As a young convert educated in a Catholic school run by Chinese Jesuits, Christmas was a solemn event about the birth of Jesus, Christmas hymns and midnight mass.
For my dad growing up in colonial Hong Kong, Christmas was a public festival of urban glamour and glitz — strolls to harbour views to take in the spectacle of Christmas-lit skyscrapers. Later, as a student leader, Christmas was the experience of keeping up appearances at fancy hotel balls.
As an adult, I understand too that our ancestral culture frowned on asking for exactly what you wanted. The task of gift recipients was to graciously accept whatever presents were on offer. It would be a terrible breach of manners to preempt the ritual of gift-giving by asking for exactly what you had in mind. No exemptions for children!
And so, with my own children, I find myself similarly recoiling from the apparently widespread tradition of attempting to fulfill their precise Christmas wishes. I suppose my husband and I could afford to if we were inclined, but we are perennially unable to get into the spirit of buying them whatever they want for Christmas.
For better or worse, the tradition started by Grandpa Lau has stuck.
I tell myself it’s for the environment, and in that vein, my boys have come to expect some random thing I’ve found at the Goodwill store or on Facebook Marketplace, wrapped with a bow and under the tree. It just feels right for me.
Mostly, my kids do not complain – after all, we are a family that talks about climate change, neocolonial capitalism, and its inequities. Fortunately for them though, my in-laws are like your typical grandparents with no qualms about spoiling their grandkids with whatever they want for Christmas.
As someone raised by Social Justice Santa, I still have a bit of a problem with that.
Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here’s more info on how to pitch to us.