A falconer, a university student from Vietnam, a toddler and a miniature horse gathered around the Christmas tree at a farmhouse in Nova Scotia for a turkey dinner shared by 10 near-strangers who found you don't need to be with family to feel like you belong.
In seasons past, Patty McGill thought of herself as a Christmas "floater" — her children and grandchildren live in Quebec — leaving the 63-year-old matriarch with no one to feed during the holidays except the horses on her farm in Blockhouse on Nova Scotia's south shore.
Fearing her Yuletide delicacies would go to waste, McGill decided to share her Christmas dinner with strangers in the same boat as her.
RSVPs started pouring in
She had a friend post an invitation on social media offering a seat at her dinner table to those unable to spend the holidays with their families, and once news outlets caught wind of the gathering, the RSVPs started pouring in.
As Chuck DeCoste pulled into the driveway of Hinchinbrook Farms accompanied by two people he barely knew in his electric-blue, eagle-emblemed Jeep, he was unsure what the Christmas Day celebration had in store.
DeCoste heard about McGill's mission on the radio. The falconer had left his loved ones — including his prized bald eagle, Hercules — in British Columbia to move to Halifax for work, so he felt that he "fit the bill" for the festive get together but wasn't sure if he would fit in.
Inside the farmhouse, Peter de Vries, a volunteer for McGill's therapeutic horseback-riding program for children with disabilities, was put to work offering guests beverages as they met each other for the first time in person.
Looking out the window as the early arrivals trickled in, de Vries said he felt a vague dread wash over him. The retired medical writer, who spent much of his life in the United States, sensed there might be some "negativity" attached to the situation that he and many of the guests found themselves in.
'A little bit of the awkwardness'
"We are the people that had nowhere to go for Christmas," said de Vries. "Maybe a little bit of the awkwardness at the beginning was because we all came from different areas ... and here we are, thrown together for dinner."
McGill, dressed in billowing orange, cut through the tension by embracing each guest as he or she walked in.
Her animal co-hosts made the rounds as meal preparations got underway. Bunnies nibbled away in their cages overlooking the dinner table as it was crammed with chairs for the last-minute guests.
McGill's two huge, shaggy dogs slobbered over all the fresh faces while her cat hid from the commotion.
Manifestation of Christmas spirit
A miniature horse, who barely outsized the hounds, stopped by to taste the Christmas tree, blending right in amongst the home's various equestrian-themed furnishings — the horse blankets draped over the windows and couches, a steed-shaped Christmas wreath and a metal stand made of horseshoes by the wood stove.
Shortly after breaking the ice, both DeCoste and de Vries found their initial reservations about the event were misguided.
"If you're looking for a manifestation of the Christmas spirit, this is a good place to look," said DeCoste.
"There is something genuinely beautiful about sharing with other people ... I think one of the beautiful things about Christmas is that people let down their guard a little bit, and something like this is definitely a champion of that idea."
'Family' of sorts
Had it not been for McGill's unconventional holiday celebration, DeCoste said he likely would have spent Christmas Day by himself, taking care of chores, doing some light reading and going to bed early.
Instead, he went horseback riding and joined in the "adventure" of meeting new people and hearing about what brought them to McGill's table.
De Vries said the cross-section of people — young and old, urban and rural, of every origin and creed — made for a family of sorts.
He tiptoed around holiday cliches, but found the festive camaraderie was so palpable, it was hard to avoid sounding like a Christmas TV special.
"We're all just a bunch of ordinary people, there's nothing special about us," said de Vries.
"A group of people who live alone can come together on one day of the year and really enjoy themselves in the spirit of Christmas .... No strings attached."
Toddler captivates guests
Nicole Carter, who drove from Halifax to the farm with her 18-month-old child and Vietnamese university student Hahn Pham in tow, said the crowd formed an "instant family" within minutes of meeting each other, like catching up with long-lost relatives at a family reunion.
Having recently separated from her partner, Carter said she makes a special effort to create her "own kind of family" for her daughter, Norma Jane.
Guests fawned over the toddler, who seemed to prefer the company of the horses and goats in the barn outside.
"I'm looking forward to Norma Jane giving (gifts) to everyone ... I want her to experience the joy of giving," said Carter.
"There's something nice about coming together with just a whole bunch of other strangers. It's not like someone kind of inviting me because they feel sorry for you."
By the time the cranberry sauce was passed around, the dinner table conversation was flowing easily, going "round and round and round" the room, according to de Vries.
"It was very inclusive without trying," he said.
The gathering began in the mid-afternoon and lasted well into the night. As guests hugged their goodbyes, they arranged to make plans for the post-holiday season.
Christmas 'floater' no more
A Christmas "floater" no more, McGill marvelled at how people with "no basis for commonality" could cement new friendships over the course of just a few hours.
"Christmas is a time where you can feel not so whole when you're not with people you want to be," she said. "By having people come in today, I really feel whole. I really did feel like it was Christmas for me."
McGill said all she had set out to do was cook an old-fashioned turkey dinner for a handful of strangers, but as word of the gathering spread, the idea was adopted in homes across the country.
"It's a very Canadian tradition if you look at how we open arms to communities," she said.
"We're meant to be together as people, besides family .... People need people and we should do this year-round."