Canadian Christmas traditions you may not know

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You already know that it’s all about a white Christmas, family, and sharing cheer around the Christmas tree. But have you heard about Canadian Christmas traditions like Belsnickeling or Réveillon?

Well-known traditions: Christmas crackers, Santa and gifts

Canada is such a multicultural country that holiday traditions from all over the world are celebrated here. Diwali, Hanukkah, and other multicultural celebrations are recognized, some even widely-celebrated. The traditional Canadian Christmas, however, draws from French, British and American traditions.

Families start putting up Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving and Halloween. You will see multicolored twinkling lights lining the exterior of houses as well as snowmen and reindeer on porches. Inside, you may catch a glimpse of a Christmas tree and other festive symbols like stars and mistletoe. Children hang oversized stockings along the fireplace mantel which they expect to be filled with goodies when Santa Claus visits on Christmas eve.

Red and gold Christmas crackers

Christmas crackers by CC BY

On December 25th, Christmas Day, families share a feast and exchange presents. There’s usually roasted turkey and all its trimmings, eggnog, and desserts such as plum pudding, mincemeat tarts and fruit cake – a nod to their English roots. Another custom carried over from England is the exchange of Christmas crackers as party favours. Christmas crackers are festively wrapped tubes usually containing small toys, a piece of paper with jokes on it and a paper hat inside. It makes a small popping sound when you pull the two sides of the wrapper to open it. The next day, the 26th is Boxing Day. Similar to Black Friday in the US, many Canadians leave home early and brave the cold to join long lines at malls or stores to shop for good deals. But in these pandemic times, expect more online shopping than people lining up at stores.

Want to know how this tradition came to be? Read What is Boxing Day and should you celebrate it?

Christmas Events

Most major cities hold Santa Claus Parades in November. These are long parades featuring various decorative floats. The last float, and the most awaited one is Santa on his sleigh, of course! Toronto’s Santa Claus parade holds the record as the longest-standing children’s parade established in 1905. Not far behind is Winnipeg’s Santa Claus Parade, the city’s longest-running free community event launched in 1909.

Aside from parades, lights festivals are also common. There’s the Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, Christmas Lights across Canada in Canada’s capital cities, Toronto Cavalcade of Lights, Vancouver Festival of Lights at the Van Dusen Botanical Garden and the Airdrie Festival of Lights (35 km/22 miles from Calgary). Another eagerly awaited event is the annual performance of the Nutcracker Ballet. This is performed by the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto and Hamilton, Goh Ballet in Vancouver, Alberta Ballet Company in Calgary and Edmonton, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Winnipeg.

It is unfortunate that most events are postponed because of COVID-19, especially indoor performances. However, some outdoor events may still be allowed. Check public health announcements before going.

The Mummers Parade, St.John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism)

Lesser known Canadian Christmas traditions

  • Mummering or Janneying (Newfoundland and Labrador) – This is the practice of visiting several homes while in disguise. Groups of friends and family will dress up, wear masks and go to a neighbour’s house where they will be poked and prodded and asked questions. Mummers usually mask the sound of their voices to make it harder for hosts to guess who they are. When a mummer’s identity is found out, the host offers them food and drink. Today, this custom has been banned in some areas of the province (probably because of the security risk that the activity poses) but there are still some regions that practice it. St. John’s holds the Mummers Festival and Mummers Parade annually.
  • Belsnickeling (Nova Scotia) – Similar to the Newfoundland tradition, adult revelers went Belsnickeling by dressing up (some in Santa costumes), visiting their neighbours, having a few drinks and challenging their friends to guess their identities (they usually wear something over their heads). This fun activity with German roots is now a dying tradition. Only a few Nova Scotians know about it.
  • Taffy Pull (Northern Canada) – This is a French Canadian tradition dating back to the 19th century. On November 25th, St. Catherine’s day (patron saint of students and unmarried women), households make taffy and share it with everyone. The taffy party also serves as an opportunity for single women to meet and mingle with single men during the holidays. While the tradition of making taffy has been kept alive by many French Canadian communities, the taffy pull as a “speed dating” event has all but faded.
  • Réveillon and La Fête du Roi (Quebec) – Réveillon or midnight meal is a huge feast that lasts until the early hours of Christmas morning. The traditional meal used to consist of a stew made from pigs’ feet (Ragoût aux pattes de cochons). Nowadays, families feast on Tortiere, a meat pie, among other holiday goodies. Christmas season officially culminates on January 6, La Fête du Roi. On this day, French Canadians share a cake with a bean hidden somewhere inside. The person who gets the slice with the bean is hailed as king or queen for a day.
  • Chicken Bones (New Brunswick) – Chicken Bones is a spicy cinnamon candy filled with bittersweet chocolate. The bright pink and shiny candy is considered a holiday treat that has been a tradition since 1885. Why? Nobody seems to know. What is known is that Chicken Bones continue to be a Christmas staple in the East Coast.

Do you have unique Christmas traditions in your home country? How will you be celebrating the holidays in Canada?
Article updated November 3, 2020.
Sources: Christmas in Canada, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Christmas traditions and customs in Canada, Jane McLean, Trip Savvy; Christmas in Canada, Why; The story behind the weirdest Maritime Christmas candy, Julia Wright, CBC; Christmas traditions across Canada, Kat Walcott, Ottawa Life; Mummering and Janneying, Memorial University; and Nova Scotia Belsnickeling is real – and here’s a photo to prove it, CBC Radio. Accessed December 6, 2018.

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