A palm tree in a living room with christmas lights


The Memory Of Our First Canadian-Egyptian Christmas Is Helping Me Handle This Year’s

Dec 22, 2020

I grew up in a family of staunch Christmas traditionalists. My parents loved Christmas and no effort was spared to make it a time that we looked forward to with great anticipation each year. Later in life, I learned that not all families were so specific about their traditions — from the order of Christmas events, to the exact snacks we'd have by the fire.

Looking back, I realize that my parents were working incredibly hard to balance all they wanted for the holidays with the demands of their professional, family and community commitments. Somehow though, aside from the annual Christmas tree fight, they always managed to make it seem like the most natural thing in the world.

"I opened the door ... to find my father-in-law, husband and infant son laughing hysterically as they held up a somewhat agitated but very much alive turkey for me to see."

As an adult, I now see how much effort went into creating this magical Christmas atmosphere. I know my parents took a lot of joy in the process, and as children (and let’s admit, as young adults, too), my siblings and I revelled in it. Yet now as a mom myself — in an inter-cultural, inter-faith marriage — I am reflecting on which elements of my childhood Christmas are fundamental to me and why. It's important for me to understand this. Instead of trying to replicate my childhood holiday memories because that’s how I think Christmas "should" be, I want my husband and I to develop traditions that have meaning for us. And most importantly, I want us to enjoy them.

I realize that at 38 years old, I may be coming to the party a little late. Many of us worked through these internal and family processes early on in adulthood. But it wasn’t until I got married and started a family of my own that I felt responsible for Christmas.

And this responsibility seemed all the more pronounced when I moved to Egypt and married into a family who had never celebrated Christmas before.

Christmas is different this year. But the first time Katharine Hagerman experienced a holiday on-hold, it was after her father passed. Read how her family handled it here.

My husband and in-laws were incredibly enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas together. The first Christmas after our son was born, we had recently returned to Cairo from Canada, accompanied by half a suitcase of fully-wrapped Christmas presents. I was a new mom and tearfully missing spending the holidays with my own mom, but we had spent an extremely long summer in Canada, so it was time to take up our residence back in Cairo.

It was difficult to be away from the nostalgia of Christmas in my childhood home, but there was something so formative and comforting about figuring out what Christmas would look like for us.

"I still miss my immediate family in Canada, and Christmas with snow, and the warmth of a fireplace and cookies only my own mom can bake."

As I prepared for the holidays as best I could with a baby, my husband and in-laws repeatedly stepped up with excitement and thoughtfulness. Where would we find a Christmas tree in the desert? I opened the door one afternoon to a potted cedar sourced from a nearby nursery. Turkey not as common in the grocery stores of Cairo? I opened the door another afternoon to find my father-in-law, husband and infant son laughing hysterically as they held up a somewhat agitated but very much alive turkey for me to see.

This was turning into a next-level Christmas experience and the baking hadn’t even started yet.

That first Christmas we spent together in Cairo surprised me, in a good way. And I've noticed a similar pattern each year since. Leading up to the big day, I tend to get a bit homesick and nostalgic, but then somehow, when we wake up on Christmas morning, none of that seems to matter as much. That first year, I think my favourite moment of the day was the look of joy and excitement on my mother-in-law’s face when I explained that we didn’t have to wait all day to open the stockings hanging in the living room, we could take them down and see what was inside right now with our morning coffee in hand. We could all be kids again for a few moments.

As the day went on, my husband’s extended family came by, hot dishes in hand, and together we celebrated with turkey, stories and laughter. I looked across the room to my husband — surrounded by cousins I had only just met, giggling as we played charades in English and Arabic — and I realized that we were making Christmas for us right then.

Janice Quirt's family is having fish tacos for Christmas dinner because, as she writes, what does it matter if we break traditions for one year?

In the past years, we've continued figuring out what Christmas means to us as a family. An advent calendar now hangs in our living room, filled with treats mostly for Mommy and Daddy, but we share with our now three-year-old son. Last year, I learned how to make my mom’s Christmas morning stollen, and it did the trick in bringing the right amount of Hagerman family Christmas to Cairo.

This year, as we plan for a COVID-19 Christmas, the extended family visits will have to be put on pause, and after four years we have finally given up on the hope that we can successfully replant a potted tree in the garden — so we're borrowing an artificial one. The lights have been twinkling in our living room for weeks, and tonight we will assemble our first gingerbread house together.

I still miss my immediate family in Canada, and Christmas with snow, and the warmth of a fireplace and cookies only my own mom can bake. But this year feels different, perhaps because we're continuing to strengthen our own traditions, or because this year it feels like we are in solidarity with the rest of the world. Together we are stepping back and stepping into a smaller-scale — but just as intentional and special — Christmas in our own homes.

Article Author Katharine Hagerman
Katharine Hagerman

Read more from Katharine here.

Katharine Hagerman is a global public health consultant currently based in Cairo, Egypt, with her husband and their three-year-old son. She holds a master’s of public health from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. During non-COVID times she spends summers ultra-running and teaching yoga in her hometown of Haliburton, Ontario. She occasionally writes a professional reflective blog turned personal musings page.

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