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In Canberra from 2 Dec 2022 to 15 Feb 2023. It’s been eight years since we’ve all been together. Eight years!

Photo by E. Garran

From the left: Suzanne, Carol, Alison, Julie. Suzanne lives in Montreal. I live in Vancouver. My other two sisters live in Canberra. We were hoping to have a big family reunion for Christmas 2020. We all know what happened to that. And it wasn’t only us Canadians who would be coming home, it was the rest of the family – the kids and grand kids and great-grand kids spread all over Australia were coming too – a huge family reunion. This Christmas it finally happened.

But the story of Christmas in 2022 begins in November.

The First Christmas:

What began with the pandemic has become a tradition. In 2020 Don and I have our #covidbubble friends over for Christmas since none of us can travel to be with family. Then in 2021 we went to Montreal for Christmas with family there, so early in December we have the Christmas Before Christmas with the same group of friends. This year we do it again, in November before we go to Australia. Christmas Before Christmas has become a tradition.

I pull from the secret depths of the cupboards all the Christmas paraphernalia, and hang some decorations.

There are six of us this time and each person brings a gift for every other person, so there are 30 gifts to be opened. The gift rules suggestions are that they are to be inexpensive, second-hand, homemade, consumable (ie can be eaten or drunk), or bought from a local business; it’s basically a big fuck you to the rampant consumerist pressures of the season. We will not be bought!

After appies and Prosecco, and gift opening, we feast on roast chicken with stuffing and gravy, and roast vegetables, followed by traditional flambéed British Christmas pudding. After three different tries I finally understand I will never be able to buy a Christmas pudding like the one my mum used to make, not even if I spend $45 for an imported one from England.

The Second Christmas:

It’s our first day in Canberra. I’m not yet awake but have emerged from the bedroom Don and I share at Julie’s house. Julie, who has probably been awake for two hours by this time, is all excitement and enthusiasm. I know this great place for coffee. Let’s go there and then we can . . . .
Sure! I say through bleary eyes. Why not?
It’s just the beginning. In the next 17 days we are out for breakfast/brunch/morning coffee 11 times. After that I stop counting. I become addicted to fruit toast for breakfast. And almost every coffee outing right up until December 25th is accompanied by shopping for Christmas – food, drinks, the tree, gifts. We have much the same rules for gifts – homemade, or second hand, or consumable. We have so much fun exploring all the op shops (thrift stores) in Canberra and Queanbeyan, and find some fabulous stuff. Most days it’s me and Don, Suzanne, and Julie and her daughter Ellie.

Some finds: Morgan is mad about fishing and Don finds a book about it. I have a photo of him fishing in Canberra that I took a million years ago. I find a frame for it. Ben loves F1 so we get him an F1 calendar. A quirky shirt for Tim and a floral hair piece for Liz. One day I find a large pottery vessel with small handles on top. I take it to Ellie and ask if she thinks her mum would like it. Tied to one of the handles is a small terracotta disc with a santa face on it. Ellie flips over the disc and Julie is written on the back of it! I guess it was meant to be. Don’s gift to Julie is to polish all her silver!

Photo by Julie Garran

There are other things I remember, but I’ve mostly forgotten all the goodies we got for others and what they gave us. What I haven’t forgotten is how much fun we had, and how good it felt to be home.

It’s tree decorating day! Julie pulls out her stash of decorations and we get to work.

Even Sylvie, Ellie’s sweet greyhound, wants to be part of the action; or more likely wants to be as close to Ellie as she can get.

Ellie has made everyone a Christmas stocking and we hang them next to the tree.

She has even made Sylvie a special Christmas outfit.

As the day draws near the family starts to arrive. Julie’s three sons and daughter-in-law arrive from Melbourne, and Merimbula, and far north Queensland, and her grandson comes from Wagga Wagga. Or is it Wollongong? I have so many rellies I’ve lost track. There’s a lot of hugging and laughing, catching up and hanging out.

By this time Don and I have moved to Carol and John’s to make more room at Julie’s. Morgan has pitched his tent on Julie’s balcony; there’s no more room left inside.

This is the small Christmas, at Julie’s place. Only 12 of us: the four sisters, two husbands, Julie’s four kids, one wife, and one grandchild. Are you keeping track, making notes? There’s going to be a test next period.

Christmas Eve we all gather around the table for a takeout meal of mouth-watering Malaysian food: king prawns with cashews, satay chicken, mixed vegetables with mushrooms, snow peas with mushrooms, hot rock salted eggplant, boneless five spice chicken. We visit into the night, catching up on everyone’s lives. I can’t remember the last time I saw any of Julie’s boys, and it’s the first time I’ve even met Liz though we’ve been FB friends for years so it feels like we already know each other.

Christmas morning it’s gift giving time! Early, but not too early; we all gather in the living room and go round the circle one by one, opening one gift at a time.

Carol gave everyone homemade rocky road chocolates containing homemade Turkish delight, and homemade marshmallows! Whoever even heard of homemade marshmallows?! Tim made everyone balsamic reduction, as in homemade balsamic reduction. Ellie made us all Baileys, as in homemade Baileys. Here I am opening my jar of Baileys. Silvie wants to try it too. Over the course of my stay I drink all of that Baileys – pored over vanilla ice cream. Yum!

Photo by Julie Garran

This is why we open the gifts one by one: Ellie is a gifted seamstress and someone (Suzanne I think) gave her an ancient booklet of sewing instructions about 100 years old, and Ellie reads some of it to us. We’re all in stitches! 

Photo by Julie Garran

And Suzanne made this fabulous patchwork apron for Liz, which just begged to be modelled for the whole room.

One of my favourite gifts is a book of family photos from Julie, and another favourite comes from Suzanne. It’s a collage of photos she took at the Christmas Before Christmas in Vancouver.

Photos by Suzanne Armstrong

Finally we are done and it’s time for the feast! It’s all cold and ready to go. Everyone has helped make the dishes: salmon cooked in soy sauce and maple syrup, sliced ham, potato salad, a couple of green salads, and Coronation chicken. Julie’s contribution is six different flavours of her homemade ice cream.

In the afternoon people nap. Don and I and some of the others go for a walk on the golf course out back. In the evening there’s a serious-fun game of cards.

The Third Christmas:

Disaster! No chef can be found! Carol and John’s apartment is in a complex that has a restaurant. They’ve booked the restaurant for December 28th. The regular chef is on holidays for two weeks and management has been unable to find a replacement. What to do? The cost of catering it is eye watering, so the meal for 29 people is passed out among the family. Three people agree to each bring one dessert big enough for ten people. Salads are ordered. Don and I help with the set up: arranging the room, arranging ham, and fresh prawns, and cheeses on huge plates. It all works out in the end though was definitely more stressful than anticipated.

Twenty-nine people. All but two of them are family. Carol and John’s kids and their spouses, and grand kids and their spouses, and great-grand kids, have come from all over – from Sydney, and Brisbane, from Cairns and Lismore, from a farm near Coffs Harbour, and from Alice Springs. One by one, two by two, all the troops arrive until finally everyone is gathered.

We start in the apartment with appies, and gifts for the four littles,

and then head down to the restaurant for the big Christmas feast.

Ha! I didn’t take any photos of the food. It was really good though.

Christmas 2022 will be one to remember. All the out-of-town rellies left soon after. It was so good to catch up with them again, no matter how briefly; heart connections established and reestablished.

Suzanne and Don and I stay in Australia for another seven weeks, five in Canberra with a short trip to Sydney, and two weeks at the beach. All that to come.

Next several posts: After we left Athens last May we spent eight days in Crete, the largest of the Aegean Islands. During our week there we visited Chania, Rethymno, Balos Lagoon, Elafonisi, Heraklion, and a true travel highlight, the Palace of Knossos.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.