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We knew it would be different, and we were prepared to be a little disappointed but decided to go anyway.

They didn’t want the crowds all gathering in one place for the dancing lights because of covid, so that part was cancelled. Honestly, it was the best part: a huge “island” of trees of all sizes totally covered in lights of all colours. After dark the trees become dark shadows; it’s the lights that are the stars of the show. The music starts and they begin to dance in perfect time to the music, and all of it is reflected in the lake. It’s truly quite spectacular.

Every half hour music would suddenly boom out and the lights, intensified by being reflected in the lake, would dance in time to the beat. There were thousands of lights flicking on and off, changing colour, some in time to the beat, some following the melody, some following the great crescendos. We were spellbound. It was as if the music had come to life in technicolor.

The rest of the garden is decorated in lights too, but the dancing light show by the lake has always been the big attraction. And it’s cancelled because they don’t want big crowds gathering in one place even if it is outdoors.

So instead they spread the display of lights further and further throughout the garden, further than they’ve ever been before.

We follow the paths. We aren’t expecting much. And we sure aren’t expecting what we get! It goes on and on. Along every path, around every corner there’s something more to see – a tunnel of lights, huge trees filled with lights (not just a string of lights wound around, but the entire tree covered), trees with dripping lights, cones of light reflected in the lake,

a life-size sleigh, seemingly suspended in the air,

suddenly, unexpectedly, a group of reindeer in the forest,

a hummingbird hovering above,

and a veritable breathtaking carpet of tree roots spreading over the ground.

It’s extraordinary! I’m filled with excitement and joy. Pure joy. Eyes wide. Smiling.

One million lights. One hundred thousand happy holiday souls who go to see it.

The VanDusen Garden Festival of Lights is an astonishing display of lights and creativity that has my heart singing, probably all the more so because I’m not expecting it. I’m so much not expecting it that I don’t even bother to take my camera because I’d photographed it before, and I have to use my ancient phone to try to capture some of it.

I wrote recently about a visit to my favourite Montreal cafe. Because of covid it had been two years since we’d been there. Everything had changed, and I was disappointed. Much had changed at the Festival of Lights too, yet my reaction was quite different. And it all came down to expectations. I was prepared to be disappointed with the lights, and got far more than I could have imagined. The opposite was true with the Montreal cafe.

We hold tight to our imaginings, our past happy experiences, and try to recreate them. Letting go and approaching each experience as if it’s the very first time, even though it may not be, takes a level of awareness I’ve not yet mastered. You would think that after my experience at Pamukkale I would have remembered not to indulge in hopeful expectations, whether or not they are justified. The Montreal cafe experience has definitely nudged me again in the right direction. Without expectations there’s room to be open to what is, whatever that may be. At worst it avoids disappointment, at best it brings wonderful surprises.

But back to Christmas! In 2020, because of covid, we couldn’t go to Montreal to be with family, so Don and I hosted a potluck Christmas dinner with the close friends in our pandemic bubble. It’s so much fun that I decide to do it again in 2021 as “The Christmas Before Christmas” on December 4th.

I get all the seasonal paraphernalia out of the cupboards where it’s been hidden away. I have balls to hang,

and a red cloth to cover the desk, so there’s a place for all the gifts; thirty gifts, one from each of the six of us to each of the other five.

I have a table to set with everything Christmas,

and stuffing and gravy to make and a chicken to stuff, and when it’s time I dress in my finest red and green outfit. All is ready.

And then every one arrives with appies and the rest of the dishes for the meal, and the gifts, which we get to first. Why wait!

The aftermath of gifting and appies.

The aftermath of dinner.

There’s far too much going on to take photos, though I am a bit bemused that I don’t have a single photo of the meal. I don’t even remember exactly what we ate, but I do remember the traditional British Christmas dessert. Surati takes photos of the flaming pudding!

We bought last year’s pudding at a regular supermarket. It was okay, but a bit disappointing. A friend suggested Meinhardts, a high-end grocery store that sells all kinds of fancy exotic imported foods. Don finds a pudding there for the eye-watering price of $45. He has one of those fuck it moments and buys it anyway. Later we find out we could have gotten the same one at Walmart for $25. Whatever the price, it’s no better that the mass-produced one from the supermarket, which was under $10, and neither are close to the ones my mum made. But it’s still worth it! It’s not Christmas without Christmas pudding! Traditional British Christmas pudding is eaten with a hard sauce (brandy butter), rum custard, whipped cream, and ice cream. If you add enough of all these side dishes you hardly notice that the pudding is not up to scratch.

And then, on December 12th I create terrariums around my plants

and we fly to Montreal.

Christmas Eve we all get together – the whole fam damily. My family, and my sister’s daughter’s husband’s family. All sixteen of us. But not before we’ve all passed home PCR tests. With us all negative we know we can gather in safety and have a normal celebration. What sweet freedom it is.

It’s so good to see everyone again: hugs and kisses and warmth and joy and smiles, and kids running everywhere excited and happy wanting to get right now to the gifts under the tree

but first the eating of a most fabulous feast.

For the children the wait seems interminable, but finally it is time.
Don and I are peripheral members of this family. To all but one of the kids we’re people that they only see once a year who are somehow related to their cousin, so we are mostly witnesses to the unfolding chaotic jubilation. I find myself a seat on the couch and quietly watch the excitement as the gifts are distributed and opened. There’s an uninhibited joyousness in happy children that’s contagious and we all feel it.

When things settle down a bit, down in the basement the guys play video games,

but not for long. It’s time for the performances! We’re told that everyone has to share a song. This is fine if you come from a musical family, but especially because of that we know they’d really rather not hear either of us sing. Don reads The Grinch That Stole Christmas, and has everyone completely enraptured, especially the younger children. I recite a poem I wrote about my experience of life in the big game hunting camps of the far north, and so share with these urban Quebecers a completely different slice of Canadian life.

Everyone else has a song to share, even the littlest. Accompanying herself on guitar my great niece sings Joni Mitchell’s River in a full rich voice belying her ten years,


and then accompanies her mom.


The four siblings sing both separately and together,


and their mom is so good she should quit her day job.

Its time for a group photo to end the evening. Remarkably it only takes two tries.

And so at last we collect our winter coats and boots from the great mound in the mud room, and head off for a short sleep. There’s more to come tomorrow!

Next morning Christmas Day at home: in the living room there’s a pile under the tree and we gather in our pj’s to exchange homemade gifts.




Our fave gifts by far are from our great niece – best bookmarks ever!

And then the other two households arrive and we all line up for a sumptuous brunch: overnight-eggnog-french-toast, tofu-scramble, waffles-with-everything, cheeses-tomatoes-mandarins, egg-and-bacon-scramble, homemade-grapefruit-slice, and-on-and-on.


The boys play video games (again!)


the girls play with the train set,

and the adults exchange homemade gifts in a Secret Santa.


It’s organised chaos and, what with the eating and the Secret Santa, the table goes from nicely set to an absolute holiday-fun-disaster. What better image of a happy family Christmas than the debris that’s left on the table at the end of the day.

On December 27th we return to Vancouver filled up in every way.

*Photos by Suzanne Armstrong

Next post: More of the forgotten images in the Photo of the Day file.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.