Baisakhi Roy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media
Zohra Shahabuddin has fond memories of their first Christmas as an international student two years ago. The snow, the malls glittering with festive decor and the bustle of holiday shoppers felt very familiar.
“All those Hollywood Christmas movies that we used to watch back home came to life — it was truly magical,” says the Vancouver-based marketing professional.
Although most newcomers find their first winter in Canada the toughest, Shahabuddin was immediately enveloped by the warmth of their local classmates who invited them to fun-filled parties with games and food and lots of snow play — a novelty for the young student who missed their family back in Pakistan terribly. New friends supplied them with tips and tricks on how to navigate gloomy days when the sun went down sooner than usual.
“After the first time, it became easier and I actually enjoy getting into the holiday spirit now,” they say. “I am looking forward to attending various Christmas tree lighting events throughout the province and visiting the holiday markets, which is one of my favourite things to do.”
Though accustomed to the cold, Shahbuddin is planning to spend a major chunk of the holidays this year with their brother in warmer environs, in Texas.
Spending quality time over money
Toronto resident Rini Joshy too is looking forward to hunkering down with her family over the holidays with a favourite holiday movie and homemade treats.
“We intend to prioritize meaningful and intimate celebrations rather than focusing on extravagant spending,” she says.
Having immigrated from India just last December, the holidays were pretty much a blur for the young family of three, which includes their six-year-old child. From navigating public transport to job hunting to enrolling their child in school just three days after arrival, the family had plenty of settling pains to get through.
“The events of last year unfolded quite fast, prompting us to deliberately take a more measured approach this year, aiming for more meaningful and slowed-down celebrations,” Joshy says. “Instead of elaborate gifts, we have always preferred special family outings for birthdays, even back home.
“We plan to maintain a modest celebration but will still welcome family and friends to join us for our kid’s birthday. Similarly, for Christmas, we aim to emphasize the joy of spending quality time together. Our focus will be on creating a warm atmosphere, perhaps by engaging in festive DIY decorations or having an intimate potluck meal and singing carols with our close circle of friends. These thoughtful activities add a personal touch to the celebrations without the need for excessive spending.”
With a couple of December birthdays also thrown into the mix, the Joshy family is opting for a scaled-back celebration this year, like many Canadians. A recent survey by BMO revealed that holiday spending is a major source of anxiety for almost 51 per cent of Canadians this year, caused by the rising cost of living. While 78 per cent of respondents said that they are planning to buy fewer gifts, on average, Canadians believe it will take three months to pay back their holiday bills.
Hope in times of despair
Despite the financial strain, some families who traditionally do not celebrate Christmas are trying to make the holidays as memorable as they can, especially for their children. Iranian-born Aki Barabadi and her husband make sure that the tree is up and the presents are wrapped for their six-year-old daughter Maneli every year.
“Holiday season here in Canada has been pretty much the same for the last three years we’ve been around,” says Barabadi, a Vancouver-based communications professional. “Since we have a child, we make it a point to set up a Christmas tree, even though back in Iran we never really celebrated Christmas; our New Year, Norouz, in March is different.
“So we mostly didn’t have big plans, just regular work days. We did manage to squeeze in a night or two for some hangouts with friends — one for Christmas and another for New Year’s Eve — just to chill together. We’d grab presents for our little one, but not for myself or my husband. We want our daughter to feel the same excitement as her friends do during the New Year in this country. But for us, it’s a different vibe.”
The killing of Iranian activist Mahsa Amini in 2022 had a sobering effect on the family last year and this year too, it’s been an effort to keep the spirit alive. “Last year, the events in Iran following Mahsa Amini’s tragic death really had a negative impact on our lives and our usual celebrations,” she says.
“These kinds of crises are something we’ve somewhat grown accustomed to, having lived in the Middle East and facing similar issues in the past. The ongoing crisis in Gaza has been on our minds.
“The soaring cost of living and grocery prices have indeed been challenging this year, but they haven’t drastically altered our celebrations. We’re still navigating through and trying to make the most out of our festivities.”
Creating new memories with family and loved ones, enjoying Canadian traditions and hoping for a peaceful and safe holiday season is a recurring theme for most newcomers.
“I did want to try skating, but my friend did and she broke both her arms, so I won’t be doing that anytime soon,” says Shahabuddin. “This will be my time to unwind, to hibernate and then emerge refreshed for the new year,”
Says Barabadi: “One thing I’ve come to appreciate is how Canadians find ways to celebrate and be festive throughout the year. I find it intriguing and enjoyable how stores and decorations change for various occasions like Christmas, Canada Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Thanksgiving.
“It’s a vibrant display of festivities that I’ve grown to like and admire. For me, it’s more about Christmas morning when my kid unwraps the presents and I see the sheer joy on her face. That moment is the most precious and special time for us during the holidays.”