Some people only dream of a white Christmas. I’m guaranteed one. It’s right there in the name of the place where I’m headed—the Great White North.
After nearly a decade of spending almost every Christmas here in Washington—and some pleasant holidays in the even warmer climes of Los Angeles and Mexico—I began going home to Canada again last year. The trip wasn’t just a reminder of how much I love my family. It was a reminder of what I’d left behind when I moved to the United States nine years ago.
I’m going up again this month, better prepared for the culture shock that awaits me. For instance, I know it’s already looking a lot like Christmas in northern Alberta: My sister, Kristy, sent me a picture of her children’s first snowman of the year—on October 22. I know I won’t need to step off the tarmac at the Grande Prairie airport to realize I’m in a different country. The realization will set in hours before.
I find that the farther away from the Eastern Seaboard you go, the manlier the men get. At Reagan, you see pundits and politicos, solicitors and scribes waiting for their flights in buttoned-up shirts and ties—some even in pink. They don’t look as though they could put together a stereo system, much less build something useful with a few pieces of plywood and a handful of nails. In Denver, where I often change planes, the look is more relaxed. Sweaters and jeans mingle with khakis and polo shirts. The men there might be able to perform minor car repairs. At the gate in Calgary or Edmonton, my hometown, for a flight to Grande Prairie, about an hour south of Kristy’s farm, I bet every man in sight could build a house. They’re all in jeans and most have hoodies. But they’re not always clean. This is oil country. (I was thinking about these fellows recently, when Kristy told me she wanted to set me up with a nice welder or farmer. “What would we talk about?” I asked. My interests run the gamut from literature to classical music, not exactly favorites with your average rig pig. “Do what I did,” she advised me. “I learned all about farming and trucks, and we talk about that.”)
Once I get to the farm, there’s sure to be something else distinctively Canadian to look forward to—besides my hockey-playing nephew and my nationalistic sister prone to saying “aboot.” I’m talking about Old Dutch ketchup potato chips. I can’t figure out why this company doesn’t export their product down south. A recent Facebook poll asked Canadians what they thought the national dish should be. The choices were: ketchup chips, Nanaimo bars, and poutine (a horrible mess concocted by the Quebecois, probably as a joke). Last time I checked, ketchup chips were winning.
Nanaimo bars are a triple-layer sweet square named after a city in British Columbia and often served during the holidays. But my favorite Canadian dessert is another Christmastime favorite, the butter tart. Think of a pecan pie, but with raisins instead of nuts, making it a much smoother sweet. And I haven’t even mentioned Tim Hortons; the donut chain has cornered three-quarters of the Canadian market in baked goods and 62 percent of the market in coffee.
You might notice all these foods fall into the broad category of junk food. Canadian cuisine isn’t famous for too many main courses. We need quick energy up in the north—especially our men—as we traipse around the cold in snowshoes, traveling from igloo to igloo.
No, we don’t really live in ice huts, though a motel in Grande Prairie calls itself the Igloo Inn. Just about everyone now has a remote car-starter, so it’s quite possible even to avoid the cold most days. Still, Canadians, as I say, are a tough breed. And many of us brave the chill to catch some deals on Boxing Day. Which is superior to Black Friday, by the way—Christmas is over, so you’re forced to buy things for yourself, perhaps spending those gift cards you received from your uncles and aunts.
After living the year in staid Washington, home to a president who wears mom jeans, I like to spend a wintry week in a place where the men are men. Sure, when I head north I leave behind my Washington tradition of a Christmas Day walk through Rock Creek Park. But perhaps I’ll take one when I return, to reacquaint myself with my chosen city. For sustenance, I’ll stash in my pocket a couple of smooth butter tarts.
Kelly Jane Torrance