Christmas in...

From Petawawa to Kandahar, and across this great land of ours, The National brings stories of Christmas celebrations.

This feature includes Christmas in Petawawa, Mellissa Fung's story on what Christmas is like for the children of Canadian Forces members serving in the mission in Afghanistan, as well as The National's holiday features from our local anchors in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and Vik Adhopia's report on the Christmas celebrations of Canadian troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

More features will be added to this feature page in the coming days.

Mellissa Fung's blog: Christmas in Petawawa

It was the images of the school children holding up the photos of every soldier killed in Afghanistan that struck so many viewers on Remembrance Day.  It is hard to forget the montage of the 152 names and photos that our producer, Bob Hilscher, put together. 

As we finished the shoot and were packing up to leave, Bob turned to me and said, "Those schools are special."

Of course they are.  They sit in small military towns across the country, full of the children of soldiers.  Bob and I thought we would ask Principal Terry Burwell if we could come back and see how the families cope with the holidays.  

We don't often hear from the children and the spouses of soldiers.  It seems only when a soldier dies that we learn they were married, with a daughter maybe, or two sons.  Perhaps we'll see a shot of the family at the repatriation ceremony in Trenton, but unfortunately, it's hard to understand what everyday life is like for those families when a parent is deployed.   

With this in mind, Terry Burwell opened the doors of his school to us and we were able to spend a day with the students and teachers of Herman Street Public School, just a few days before the beginning of their Christmas break.  

We weren't sure what to expect.  We were told that some of the teachers married to soldiers were willing to speak with us.  They want to explain how hard it can be to cope with spending the holidays alone, when your husband is in Bosnia, Rwanda or Afghanistan. 

It appears to be a good year for the teachers at Herman Street.  They all have their husbands home, but they're keeping a close eye on the students who will be missing their moms and dads.  

Teacher Candace Merson told us about a student in her Grade 5/6 class whose father is deployed on an 11-month tour in Afghanistan.  He won't be home for Christmas.  In fact, he won't be home until March.  Another teacher, Tracey Macmillan, said she sees the same anxiety, the same sadness in her students that she used to see in her girls when her husband was overseas.  

Jennifer Young admitted she's still expecting a phone call before Christmas - one that will call her husband back to Afghanistan.  She invited us to her home after school, so that we could meet her kids, 9-year-old Hannah and 6-year-old Scotty, and speak with them about what it's like to have their dad away all the time. 

"It's tough," Hannah told me, "we worry that he'll never come home.  That he might end up dying.  Or getting hurt, or losing someone important to him."  She added that he's lost a lot of friends there.  When I ask whether they're ready for their daddy to go away again, Scotty shakes his head with an emphatic "NO." Hannah was more circumspect.  "Well," she said, "I know he's going to be doing something great in another country, and he'll be helping other people that don't get the experiences we do here."

The next morning, we headed to the South Side Community Centre, where we were invited to the Play and Learn Christmas Party.  It was already in full swing when we arrived.  There was a gingerbread decorating station in one corner, mini-golf in another, and children chasing each other around the gymnasium, excited by the rumour that Santa might be dropping by.  

The Petawawa Military Family Resource Centre is a lifeline for many spouses left behind when a husband or wife is deployed.  It's a place where they can bring their children, meet other parents, and sign up for activities to keep occupied while their spouse is away.  This is where we met Ritika Chauhan and her 2-year-old son, Nikhil.  Ritika told us she's been coming here since her husband, Sanjeev, left for Afghanistan.  She had just moved to Petawawa and didn't know a single person.

"It's just me and my son and it's hard with a young child - to take care of him.  Sometimes it gets challenging.  But here, they do provide free childcare every month, and I just come drop him here and have my own time, which is great. He loves it here."

Chauhan's husband won't be home for Christmas, and she's not putting up a tree this year.  She says it just doesn't feel right.  But she's planning on getting together with other families over the holidays and says she's coping just fine for now.

Before we left Petawawa, Bob and I drove onto the base to take some pictures of the Afghanistan memorial, which was dedicated this summer.  A black granite maple leaf, with the names of the fallen soldiers etched on its face, it is a stark reminder of those who will never come home for Christmas again.  A stark reminder of how much these families sacrifice.  

I am grateful to them for giving us a brief glimpse into their lives, and for being so honest about their struggles.  In their hopes, their fears, and their fierce loyalty to family, they truly embody the spirit of Christmas.