Decorating Christmas trees, baking winter-themed treats and opening gifts are all typical traditions during the holiday season.
But for some new Canadians, the holidays are about creating new traditions that stick.
That’s true for Harmeet Singh and Manpreet Kaur, who are ready to spend their second Christmas in Toronto since emigrating from India in April 2018.
“Last year, that was a transition phase where we were just understanding what is given priority here … and learning how to get ourselves involved with Canadian culture,” said Singh.
“This year, I think we are all set. We are pumped for Christmas.”
Navigating a new country and its culture has expanded beyond Kaur and Singh’s private life — they also give advice to new immigrants about life in Canada on their YouTube channel.
Under the name Canada Couple, the two cover topics from how to dress for Canadian winters to how to find an apartment.
Christmas is still celebrated in India, but it depends where you live, he said. Religious celebrations like Diwali are still their top priority, but Kaur says she is enjoying the traditions that come with the Christmas season.
“Last year, we did exchange gifts with our colleagues and friends,” said Kaur. “But over here, what we really like is that people try and put a personal touch to it, as they always put a card and write.
“We learned that last year, and this year, we’re trying to implement it as much as we can,” she said.
For the couple, the best part about the season is the energy around the holidays, which is similar to the excitement around Diwali in India, said Singh. For Kaur, she’s smitten with Christmas cookies.
“That’s really amazing because baking is not as big a deal, it’s not too common in India,” she said. “People put so much effort … I really enjoy eating those different cookies.”
Kaur says she encourages Canadians who aren’t new to the country to share traditions and customs with new immigrants to make them feel welcome and a part of the season’s celebrations.
“Tell me about the traditions, like what they do normally,” said Kaur, adding that her co-workers have made her feel involved during the holidays. “That makes me comfortable, and I’m more comfortable asking them more about what they like to do … and how do we celebrate?”
Knowing which traditions work for you
Determining which Canadian holiday traditions to take part in and which to leave behind was what Saima Jamal had to navigate when she moved to Calgary 20 years ago from Bangladesh.
She remembers her aunt, who had been living in Canada since the 1970s, had a Christmas tree, a full turkey dinner and presents — which wasn’t what she was used to being Muslim.
“It was a good surprise, but a huge insight into how things happen in Canada,” she said, adding that she was shocked to see her cousins wearing Christmas pyjamas and opening gifts.
“Christmas back home was very, very different. Nobody really celebrated it, we just took a cake and went to our Christian friend’s house,” she said.
Jamal has put up a tree before, but the tradition didn’t stick for her and her family. Today, she spends her time with the Calgary Immigrant Support Society, a non-profit she co-founded to help settle refugees.
Depending on the needs of the refugees, sometimes volunteers have brought Christmas trees to their homes and shown them how to decorate one, she said.
They’ve also hosted potluck and community holiday dinners for specific groups, like Syrian refugees and their children, that involve a visit from Santa and gifts, she said.
“For the first time, they experienced Christmas in Canada, it makes them feel a part of Canada … like a part of the society,” she said. “It isn’t so much obviously religious, but it’s just about being part of Canadian traditions.”
Along with hosting refugees, Jamal recently organized a dinner event, along with new immigrants who have connected with the society, to feed the homeless in Calgary. That’s a tradition that’s the most rewarding, she said.
“There are lots of immigrants who are looking out, just like Canadians, for opportunities to help out in the community around this time of year,” she said. “They’re much more well-settled to give back.”
Very recent immigrants are still figuring out what works for them when it comes to the holidays, said Jamal. She recommends connecting with those families, especially refugees, at this time of year.
“Even if you have nothing to give, if you just come over for a cup of coffee and spend an hour talking to them,” she said. “That is sometimes the best gift you can give to a newcomer.”
Creating your own traditions
Connecting with new friends in their community in Calgary is what helped Rashmeet Dhillon and her family feel more comfortable with winter and want to celebrate Christmas, she said.
The Dhillons moved from Punjab, India to Canada almost 10 years ago when Rashmeet was 15 years old. She recalls new friends showing her how to make snow angels and their family attending holiday concerts at her sibling’s school.
“I was lucky enough to make some great friends, and they made me feel very included and part of the celebration culture,” she said.
For her family’s second Christmas in Canada, she and her sister convinced her parents to get a Christmas tree. The holiday wasn’t unusual for her, as in India they took part in Diwali and Christmas celebrations, even though they are Sikhs.
“We had to start with a little one, and then two years after that, we got a bigger tree as well,” she said. “And now, every year, we make it a thing where we don’t decorate the tree by ourselves, everybody sits together.”
Now, as an adult, Dhillon has her own holiday traditions, which include inviting her friends for a potluck and wearing a Christmas cardigan to work. She is also teaching her young cousins about the festivities, especially since they love decorating their tree.
Creating a secret Santa at work is an easy way to integrate newcomers, as it’s not a religious practice and simply involves gift-giving, she said.
“It’s a nice tradition to start becoming a part of,” she said. “It’s creating that space to just come and enjoy it, to have a good time and have fun with no pressure. I think those are always good.”