Home for the Holidays
Reader's Digest Canada|December 2020
Home for the Holidays
In a year when so many of us are kept apart, a tribute to the comfort and joy of gathering with family and friends

My Year as the Virgin


MY MOTHER, MARY ANNE, and her friend Elizabeth had agreed to head up the annual children’s Christmas pageant at our local Catholic church, St. Anne’s in Peterborough, Ont. Their challenge was to transform 20 suburban youngsters from the year 1986 into shepherds, wise men and barn animals from the year 1.

“Why does she get to be Mary?” my older sister Kate whined.

“You had the role last year. Your sister gets to be the Virgin this year,” Mom replied. There may have been some spiritual nepotism involved in the casting (Elizabeth’s son, Tony, was playing Joseph), but I’d rather believe that our mothers recognized our raw talent.

Our costume budget was somewhat lacking so I wore my own white nightgown with a baby blue pillowcase bobby pinned to my head. Joseph wore a terry cloth robe and a brown bath towel on his head, held firmly in place with a curtain tieback.

There were no lines to memorize. Instead, as the lector read the story of Jesus’s birth, Joseph and I knocked on the imaginary door of the inn and looked appropriately downtrodden when the innkeeper shook his head and pointed to a wooden manger downstage centre. Bleating about the makeshift structure were a handful of children on their hands and knees with woollen sheep ears attached to headbands. Joseph and I calmly sat ourselves on a crisp pile of dry straw, among the livestock, to await the miraculous birth of our child.

I anxiously listened for my cue line, “The time came for her to have her child,” and then, with nary a labour pain, I valiantly lifted Baby Jesus from his hiding place behind a straw bale and set him into the empty cradle beside me. Jesus, in this scene, was played by my own Jesmar Newborn Baby. He was a wrinkled, anatomically correct doll I’d begged for Santa to bring me the year before. His real name was Daniel Edward Paul, but on this day, he was honoured to play the part of the Messiah.

The play was a success, and although not a usual occurrence during mass, the parishioners broke into thunderous applause—or at least that’s how I remember it.

Back at home, my younger sister, Kerry, and I held a post-mortem, and I imparted wisdom that would be helpful when the time came for her to play the Virgin Mother. Then we changed Daniel back into his fuzzy onesie.

“I didn’t know Jesus had an umbilical cord,” Kerry said.

“Obviously he does,” I responded. “He’s attached to God.”

A Sikh Christmas


THE CLICHÉ ABOUT living as part of two cultures is that you find a space between them. But sometimes you do the opposite: just lean into one side or the other as circumstance fits.

Perhaps that’s why, after moving to London, U.K., from India, my parents decided to celebrate Christmas. “We thought it would be a way to be part of English culture,” says my dad, “and then it just stuck when we moved to Canada.”

Last year, it was our turn to host my parents’ friends and their families for dinner on Christmas Day. On most visits to my parents’ home, when I head downstairs in the morning, my mom is listening to shabad, Sikh religious music. But on Christmas morning, the house is filled with a rather English mix of choral music or carols, making our Indian kitchen sound more like the inside of a church.

“Oh, are they talking about Jesus again?” inquires my father when he arrives downstairs. As an agnostic, he isn’t loyal to any particular religion. Nor am I, but something about the history and tradition of listening to carols while prepping Christmas dinner feels right.

At around six, our guests arrive. Sparkling wine, claret and whisky are generously poured into glasses. The house grows warm and cheeks turn flushed. Though we are all either from India or of Indian descent—and thus you might expect a tandoori turkey—my brother and I have decided Christmas is not a time for fusion.

“Should we add some chilies to the stuffing?” asks Dad. “Of course!” replies Mum, who can barely bring herself to eat something if it isn’t blisteringly hot. But my brother and I always veto them. When you’re an immigrant, it can be alienating that what happens inside your home rarely matches depictions on TV or in magazines. One reason I like Christmas is that when everyone else is gathering around a turkey, glass of wine in hand, so are we.

The morning after, when I awake with a fuzzy head, my mom is listening to her usual shabads. And I know what we’ll be eating for dinner: turkey curry.

Sacramental Soufflé



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December 2020