My Nanaimo Noël

I grew up in the suburbs north of Montreal, and my concept of Christmas was set at an early age. Snow was a given. We never had to dream of a white Christmas when I was a kid—we just looked out the window. The season meant chilly temperatures and bundling up with a scarf, a knitted toque—with a pom-pom, of course—and woolen mittens. (Gloves? You josh.) Christmas also meant brightly colored lights strung around fir trees, windows, and eaves. And…well, there were a lot of things that made Christmas Christmas when I was growing up.

Which is why Christmas in California was just…weird. In the 20 years I lived in Los Angeles, Christmas never felt right (except for the years I scooted back to Montreal for the holidays). In L.A., everything was off. White lights strung around the trunks of palm trees. Balmy 750F weather. The travesty of fake snow. Forget woolen mittens and whiskers on kittens. In Southern California, Santa doesn’t need reindeer or a sleigh—he surfs into town.

Luckily for me, 20 years of bizarro Christmases did not alter my sense of the season, and I escaped back to Canada before I could be reprogrammed. Now I’m here on Vancouver Island, and this year, as the season approached, I began to wonder: How does the Harbour City “do” Christmas? Would the feelings I experienced as a child be rekindled? Well, as it turns out, there’s a lot of noël in Nanaimo.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

I can’t tell you how many times fellow Nanaimoans have told me it isn’t supposed to snow here. Mother Nature, however, begs to differ.

As someone who loves a white Christmas, I’ve been thrilled with Mother N’s shenanigans. In fact, as I write this, it’s snowing for the fourth time this season. Thankfully it’s not the heavy, wet stuff we had a few days ago (which froze into a lovely thick crust on my car). This is much finer and softer—like Santa is dusting icing sugar over us!

Speaking of Santa…

I had a brand-new Christmas experience this year when I visited the Santa Bus. The Santa Bus, you say? Apparently, in the weeks leading up to the Big Day, Santa lets the reindeer rest and tools around town on public transit. Actually, and more accurately, he and his elf Holly drive the bus to a dozen or so elementary schools. The kids get to visit with Santa, and Holly leads them in singing carols. But it’s not all fun and songs. Santa and Holly take the opportunity to talk to the children about bus safety, an important topic for youngsters who take public transit to get to school.

Once all the school visits are done, the bus—fully decked out in Christmas decorations—goes into regular service. Commuters on any of Nanaimo’s 17 routes may find themselves boarding the Santa Bus during the holiday season and being driven to their destination by the jolly old elf himself.

Many residents of Nanaimo also get into the spirit of the season, decking their homes with boughs of holly, strings of lights, rows of candy canes, and skating penguins. While some folks are modest with their ornaments, others approach decorating like they’re on Christmas crack. No chance of Santa missing their homes on Christmas Eve. Little chance of NASA satellites missing them either.

Truly, in Nanaimo the signs of Christmas are easy to find, but nowhere more so than at the various shopping centres. Trees and tinsel, reindeer and snowmen, and of course Santa Claus—in his miraculous, multiple embodiments—are everywhere.









But it’s not just a “Do you see what I see?” experience. If you can manage to hear above the din of shoppers, you may just catch Andy Williams crooning…

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

This past month, I’ve been happy to discover that Nanaimo does Christmas pretty darn well. Granted, it hasn’t been the same experience that I enjoyed as a child. But how could it be? Our childhood memories are unique and untouchable, impossible to recreate. But that’s not cause for regret, as long as we remain open to creating new memories.

That said, there is one childhood experience and memory I will continue to enjoy for years to come, thanks to Charles Schulz.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”

I’ve seen “A Charlie Brown Christmas” about 50 times. (It’s an annual must-watch.) Like many fans, I can recite the dialogue along with the characters. Yet even after all these viewings, when I watch Linus take the stage to tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about, I’m moved. Not just because Linus’s recitation of Scripture is so beautiful. But because the bald-headed kid had it right about the commercialism of Christmas. In the frenzy to buy gifts and spend, spend, spend, we’ve forgotten what Christmas is really about.

Or have we?

I got a great deal on an ’87 sleigh!

In Nanaimo, it seems like Santa Claus and Christmas trees are everywhere, but nativity scenes…well, they’re harder to find. Would Charlie Brown despair? Maybe not. For as he discovered when the gang transformed his sad little tree, Christmas is also about friendship and compassion and love.

So what does that mean for nonanimated folks like us? Well, here’s my thinking: Although the religious aspect of Christmas may hold little or no significance to many who observe the holiday, a day that moves families and friends to get together to celebrate being together is a day to cherish.

And with that I’d like to say, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”

And a very merry Christmas to you!

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