As late December arrives, large delicate snowflakes fall from the starry night sky creating a heavy blanket of snow on the ground. The streets are lit up with bright holiday lights: green, blue, red, yellow. Hints of warm yellow light shine softly through the windows of each house on the street. Feelings of warmth, joy and togetherness grow as families enjoy hot cups of cocoa while gathering around the flickering flames of their fireplace. As the holiday spirit kicks in, we often wonder what may be happening inside the homes of those who celebrate Christmas. The importance of understanding and respecting our neighbours’ religious celebrations, cultures and traditions is often overlooked. This holiday season, I took the time to understand what Christmas is all about for my neighbor, Irenea McKenna.

 Irenea moved to Canada from Germany with her family in 1949. At the time, her family’s Christmas traditions were quite simple. Her grandparents would send her parcels from the United States of America, filled with small goodies. For Irenea, these parcels were the greatest gift of the year. Through our conversation, I realized that although Irenea has seen Christmas change remarkably, her family still finds joy in maintaining the traditions that existed many years ago.

 “Christmas is a real essential part and parcel in the fabric of our lives. It’s a very special time as our entire family comes together culturally and religiously,” said Irenea, who was born in Lithuania. Her mother prepares for the big Christmas Eve feast five days in advance. Foods such as fish, cranberry compotes, bread with poppy seeds and a slice of communion bread are all part of it. “My 93-year-old mother used to make 12 dishes without any help, but she’s cut it down to about 6,” said Irenea, gratefully.

 On the night of Christmas Eve, Irenea and her family visit St. John’s Lithuanian Church in Mississauga. Irenea’s family has kept a religious tradition of getting communion bread or wafers from their church, which is shared by every family member at the dinner table.

 Christmas trees are always fun to put up in the McKenna family. Irenea’s children and grandchildren will help her decorate it using ornaments they’ve kept for years. Christmas Day is an exciting time for her grandchildren, as they spend the morning opening presents.  

 Several years ago, Irenea and her husband would spend all night wrapping gifts for their children to open in the morning. “One Christmas, we were wrapping till 5 a.m., and the kids came down and unwrapped everything but didn’t know what belonged to whom. We had to do it all over again,” said Irenea, laughing at the memory.

 In November, she begins gathering gifts and storing them in her closet for her friends and family, as she isn’t a fan of last minute shopping. “We’ll give to whoever’s been in our lives, even if it’s a little gift,” said Irenea. She believes that gift giving is one of the biggest parts of Christmas. But one of the biggest changes she has seen in gift giving is the shift to consumerism. “We used to get the smallest things and they were the greatest. Today, with television ads, we have to go around asking what people want, but I like to think of my own gifts,” she said.

Although Christmas has changed drastically, some families such as my neighbors’, have held on to traditions that are passed on to future generations. Irenea says that her children “are carrying the tradition. There’s excitement in the spirit of Christmas, as you make it feel good by doing all the things you do and coming together.”

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