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Holiday Cheer: A Tsleil-Waututh Christmas isn't festive without family

Community members delve into what makes a Tsleil-Waututh Christmas special, as part of our annual Holiday Cheer section

Whether it’s hiding a Christmas pickle on the tree or throwing back Bucks Fizz the morning of, everyone has differing opinions on what traditions make Christmas important. Yet while rituals vary from household to household, one yuletide ingredient remains ubiquitous: Christmas, no matter its form, is a time for family.

It is certainly the case for members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. If Deanna George, fifth-term serving councillor, were to describe Christmas in a sentence, she would detail it as a day of “gathering together and sharing a meal with both sides of the family.”

The relationship between family and festiveness has been embedded within George’s seasonal psyche since childhood. Most of her Christmastime memories revolve around visits to her grandparents and, with her grandfather being the youngest of 13, get-togethers were more wonderfully cacophonous than they were calm and collected.

“Gran loved to take pictures, especially of all their visitors,” she says. “Our gran came from a close-knit family as well, so the pictures would either be in front of their Christmas tree or in the front yard under a big tree, especially if there was snow.”

The clan would sing Christmas carols while a young George would help gran in the kitchen, preparing her famed apple pies for the visitors.

Now with grandchildren of her own – four, from her four children with husband of 40 years, Bill Thomas – George is now the one setting holiday traditions and making memories for the next generation.

For Chief Jen Thomas, family and community are one and the same, especially in the context of Christmas, and childhood memories revolve around events they all attended together.

“Our whole community went to midnight mass, and as kids we used to race home afterwards to open our presents,” she remembers, adding how guests would come back to Thomas’s parents house afterwards and would stay till morning after a raucous night of celebration and gift giving.

“Our house was always full. Christmastime is all about family.”

Now Thomas is the one doing the hosting, as the woman at the helm of the upcoming 20th anniversary edition of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Christmas Craft Fair, a bustling event housed at the Nation's gym, and the annual community Christmas dinner. The two are arguably the most hotly anticipated happenings of the festive social calendar, with the dinner “always the biggest turnout” of any of the events.

The Nation’s seasonal schedule has come a long way over the decades, George points out. “From the early '80s to the early '90s we held small celebrations out of our administration trailers, and later out of our Gathering Place Cafe.”

Prior to the Nation’s hall burning down in the early '80s, its three matriarchs would come together there to host Christmas community celebrations with traditional turkey dinner. Presents, she says, would be handed out by the three wise women, “volunteer elves, or Santa Claus.”

The venues and the faces may have transformed over the years, from doting children to grandparents and small gatherings in cafes, to fully fledged fairs, but the core of a Tsleil-Waututh Christmas remains steadfast. When all the Bucks Fizz and apple pies have been devoured, family is what keeps things truly festive.

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News' Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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