Alternative Christmas Viewing

Does the “bumbumbum” of Bing Crosby send shivers of fear down your spine? Do you secretly hope that when the little girl pulls Santa’s beard that it will come off and expose him as a fake? Maybe you even hope that Ralphie really will shoot his eye out with that BB gun. You, my friend, have Christmas movie fatigue. What hides under the guise of tradition mostly means getting stuck watching the same five movies every single holiday season, year after year after year. Apparently some people find comfort in this, but few movies are good enough to warrant such reverence – or repeated viewings. So here are a few truly alternative alternatives, most of which can be ordered from Amazon, or found online for download if you’re into that sort of thing.

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The 9/11 Club

Like everybody else in the western world, I remember where I was on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Like everyone else, I spent most of the day glued to the television, crying. Unlike everybody else, I got dressed up and went out to dinner at a local restaurant… to celebrate my birthday.

It’s been an ongoing joke through most of my adult life that my birthdays always suck. They just do. Many of my friends abandon me for the Toronto film festival, and plans have a tendency to not work out – like the time Greg and I planned a day at a museum and a nice restaurant for lunch, only to discover that both were closed. Last year, we were supposed to go see KISS at an outdoor concert the night before, but my allergies kept me trapped at home. So I woke up that morning in 2001 expecting my birthday to suck in some way. I just didn’t realize it was going to suck for the whole world.

Ten years later, I’m still not sure going out was a good idea. But we had a reservation for a dozen people and we didn’t really know what else to do. Being together seemed like a better thing than being alone. A few of us brought cell phones and throughout the sombre meal, phones would ring occasionally with news that another NYC friend was safe. A call from Carla to let us know she was home, but tired after walking to the Bronx from midtown. A shell-shocked Marcus, telling me that he had to walk past body parts on the ground outside his office near the Trade Centre, and hitch a ride back to New Jersey. Erika, who until only a month or so before, had been working at Deutsche Bank in one of the smaller buildings near the Trade Centre that collapsed from the force of the other buildings coming down, sat across from me, quietly shell-shocked.

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Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Taster Too?

As the food charity season winds down, we finish off with the biggest of the lot. Last night, Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste took over the lobby of the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as much of the street along Queen’s Park as 2000 guests descended upon 60 chefs and restaurants, and over 30 beverage purveyors for a night of eating in support of one of Toronto’s most beloved food charities.

There is no possible way the average person can sample every item, and even though Greg and I tried to share things, we still couldn’t get to even half of the things on offer. But here’s an idea of what we came across.

Above: steamed pork buns from All The Best Fine Foods and 100km Foods

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Goodbye Daniel

It is said that funerals are not for the dead but are an event wholly for the living – a way to mourn, celebrate and accept the passing of a loved one. And the people who attended the funeral of Greg’s uncle Daniel most definitely did all of the above.

If I had to come up with one word to describe the event, I’d have to say “Toronto”. Not that Daniel, or the event to celebrate his life, was all about civic pride, but rather that the event and the people who attended it represented everything that is good and wonderful about this city. Daniel was the hub for people from so many different cultures and walks of life to come together. Coming from a family who are Catholic and having lived for some years as a monk, Daniel moved to Toronto in the late 70s when he accepted that he was gay. I’m not a religious person, so I can’t speak to what compels a religious type of spirituality, but his dissatisfaction with the Catholic church and their stance on homosexuality provoked Daniel to explore other religions and methods of spirituality, and with that, other cultures.

He planned the service himself before he passed. Held in a United church and encompassing prayers from the Dominican friars from the University of Toronto (he worked as their personal chef for many years), it also included passages from the Koran, the Torah, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead as well as meditation and other prayers and hymns. One of the Dominicans sang the most beautiful a capella version of Ava Maria I’ve ever heard. After the service the reception included Indian sweets like jalebi and burfi – Daniel had always dreamed of going to India so Indian sweets were a perfect fit.

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Clean as the New Fallen Snow

We went to the Festival of Lights Solstice parade last night. Which I guess is what you do if you’re not quite sure how else to celebrate the season but want to pay homage to nature, pre-Christian traditions or just generally like the sound of hippies banging drums. Because you can be sure that all the real Pagans and Wiccans who consider this an actual religious event were probably not standing around in Kensington Market last night watching people walk around with lanterns.

However, the idea of celebrating the Solstice is much more concrete to me than the birth of Jesus. Yes, I believe Jesus existed, but I’ve always taken umbrage with the idea that early Christians moved the celebration of his birth to coincide with Saturnalia and the Solstice to lure pagans to Christianity through the temptation of a bigger and better party. Almost all of the “traditional” Christmas traditions predate Christ.

Also, as someone who is really into food, sustainability, supporting farmers and enjoying the harvest, the Solstice as the huge year-end celebration just seems to make so much more sense. On the darkest day of the year, it is just so logical and down to earth to celebrate the returning of the sun, without which we could not survive. After a long year of harvesting, the Solstice celebration is not only a way to enjoy what has been reaped in the previous year but a way to look ahead to the the year and new crops and new conquests.

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It Came Without Packages, Boxes or Bags…

Someone called me a Grinch today.

Not because I was ranting about how much I hate Christmas -I wasn’t and I don’t – but because I was ranting about the fact the people were complaining about having to do their Christmas shopping.

Now, I’m one of those annoyingly organized people. I make lists and check things off (much like the jolly old elf himself), and most people are not surprised to learn that I keep Christmas on a spreadsheet in my computer. That’s right – a spreadsheet. A workbook actually, with lists of what I bought for people, what they bought for me and what stuff I baked, how it turned out and who liked what (ie. no fruitcake for brother, extra Turkish delight for the folks).

I like to think I know what my recipients like and keep an eye open all year for appropriate gifts. That’s why my Grandmother’s gift was bought in August during a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and that book for my brother was nabbed at a holiday book sale in 2008 at a publishers warehouse sale. Yes, that’s right… I buy Christmas gifts a year ahead.

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The Glamour Boys on Parade

Growing up in Halifax, which is both a military town and a tourist destination, it was not uncommon to come across parades, guys in kilts, bands with lots of bagpipes or even the occasional tank while wandering around downtown. Here in Toronto, it happens far less often, and finding a military parade is kind of a treat.

We were walking past St. Andrew’s Church on King Street West, and we encountered a parade about to start. St. Andrew’s has long and historic ties to the 48th Highlanders (the church houses the 48th Highlanders Museum) and there was a special service on Sunday that involved them. People stood around outside, waiting for the bands and troops to march by before the service.

It was a cold windy day on Sunday, not one in which it would have been fun to wear either a kilt or a massive fluffy hat, but the regiment soldiered on (ha!) and after marching past St. Andrew’s headed north on University Avenue.

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Decades – One Down, Many More to Go

Ten years ago today, I was frantically putting the finishing touches on my wedding cake. And maybe my wedding dress. Or more likely, I was frantically cooking, which is what I do when I am stressed, and also preparing for the sumptuous party spread that I used to put on back then.

Everyone thought they were simply coming to a new year’s eve party. No one guessed of the cake hidden away upstairs, or that my Empire style red velvet frock was in honour of anything other than the new year. We stopped at five to midnight and our friend John from Boston performed the ceremony. Everyone was surprised. Greg’s wedding vows quoted Cartman from South Park. It was the perfect wedding – no gifts, no shower, no puffy marshmallow dress. Just us and our friends and a promise.

Ten years later, we’re still together and going strong. There’s been sickness and health, riches and poverty, good times and bad. I annoy him with my control-freak, perfectionist tendencies, and he frustrates me with his pokey old man ways and inability to hold a conversation first thing in the morning.

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Dead Yet?

Yesterday, Greg and I headed down to Harbourfront Centre to check out the annual Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) festival. I had heard from people who had gone in previous years that it wasn’t very good, but although the event was indeed small in scale compared to the summertime events that attract thousands and take over the entire Harbourfront complex, this was actually quite charming.

Along with a number of musical and dance performances, there were activities for kids such as a demo on how to make the traditional sugar skulls, cooking demos by local Mexican chefs, and a small marketplace, a restaurant area with a variety of Mexican foods, and a space where the traditional colourful shrines were set up in homage to famous Mexicans like Frida Kahlo and Cesar Chavez.

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Over the Moon

Despite the fact that it’s 32 freakin’ degrees celcius in Toronto today, it is actually Autumn. And in Chinatown, where they’re getting ready to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, they’re buying mooncakes.

Wikipedia says:

Mooncake is a Chinese pastry traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4-5 cm thick. A thick filling usually made from lotus paste is surrounded by a relatively thin (2-3 mm) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. Mooncakes are rich, heavy, and dense compared with most Western cakes and pastries. They are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea.

I’ve been able to find non-egg mooncakes all year long throughout Chinatown, but the ones with eggs are more readily available during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

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No Cupcake For You

Today on Serious Eats, Ed Levine mentions a piece in The New York Times about a crackdown on parents sending kids to school with cupcakes for birthday celebrations.Apparently, in an effort to stave off childhood obesity, cupcakes are now forbidden.

Folks in the comments section bring up some relevant issues, such as:

  • How can schools get away with selling/providing pizza and french fries in the cafeterias, yet ban occasional treats?
  • If you’re banning cupcakes, does that mean kids are going to stop selling candy bars or Girl Guide cookies as fundraisers?
  • Maybe sending kids to school with a healthy lunch as opposed to cash to spend at McDonald’s every day would mean the occasional cupcake would actually be okay.

The thing to consider is that in the original case, in a Texas suburb, every child was bringing cupcakes for the class on their own birthday. Over the course of the year, that’s a whole lotta cupcakes. It’s also creates a mini class-system within the school; kids whose families cannot afford to supply the class with treats, kids whose parents send store-bought cupcakes instead of homemade, or kids whose birthdays fall outside of the school year, are all kinda screwed in the cupcake wars.

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The Holiday That Canada Gave the World

The Labour Day parade goes right by our apartment. It’s senseless to try and ignore it – it’s loud and raucous and it takes a full two and a half hours for all 25,000 marchers to go past. That’s the right number of 0s there. Crazy, huh?

Parade marchers get into the Canadian National Exhibition (the finish point of the parade) for free on Labour day. Many groups had extras of the wristbands that are given to marchers and were handing them out to people watching the parade at the end of the route where we were. We were offered wristbands a half dozen times – next year we’ll plan on taking some and joining the crowd.

What I didn’t know was that Labour Day actually started in Toronto, but apparently this was the first place where people marched, in 1872. There’s a long history of the city being a “union-town” and with so much history, it’s easy to understand why.

People marched with their kids and dogs and families. Almost all unions had snazzy matching shirts or even jackets. There were plenty of bands, especially steel drum bands. While I still find it hard to muster up sympathy for things like the recent job cuts that will affect unions like CAW (Canadian Auto Workers) because I really believe there should be fewer cars on the road, I grew up in a union household (both my parents belonged to unions, as did I at my first job working at a hospital), so for the most part, I believe and agree with the presence and power of the unions.

The parade is really a celebration of humanity and what people can achieve when they pull together. Our society owes a lot to the work of unions, and while they’re not always perfect, they do a lot to make our quality of life one of the best in the world.

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