Holiday story contest winners recall the past

Happy Holidays and many thanks to all of our readers who shared their treasured holiday memories with us and our readers.

The high quality of writing from all of our storytellers made choosing winners a difficult task, but in the end, we had to make our choices. The stories ranged from humourous, to heart-warming, to heart-breaking.

In the last issue (Dec. 4) we ran the third-place story, A Most Curious Christmas – a reminiscence of a Prairie childhood Christmas, by John Ellis. Following are our first-place story, Lost and Found Christmas, by Anna Gray, and the second-place story, by Lorraine Shenken-Robbin.

Our thanks again to our talented and generous readers – we wish you all the best over this holiday season, and hope next year finds you with new treasured memories to share.

by Anna Gray
As a child I used to love the approaching holidays – gingerbread aroma in the air, a sparkling Christmas tree, long awaited gifts, giggles, and family warmth…And then, one day it all changed. I was 24 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly after Christmas. I found myself avoiding lavish holiday celebrations and instead began taking international trips to far away places where Christmas wasn’t a holiday, but just another strange Western tradition. Little did I know that my experience in one of such places would bring a new meaning of Christmas for years to come…
I was travelling in India and decided to make a stop-over in the ancient city of Varanasi located on the Ganges.  Varanasi was a typical overwhelming Indian city with cows wandering along narrow alleys, women in colourful saris carrying woven baskets on their heads, donkeys and horses moving overloaded carriages, goats nibbling on flowers left by pilgrims on the temple steps, and dogs warming up by the fires along the Ganges banks.  At night pilgrims would set lit candles wrapped in coconut shells afloat, and the entire river would glow as if reminding us of our past.
It was December 24th, Christmas Eve. A hotel worker greeted me with a smile and wished me a “Happy Christmas.” I smiled back and told him I wasn’t celebrating the holiday.  He smiled again. I walked to the rooftop restaurant to have my usual dinner, and realized that the entire place was transferred into a Christmas fairytale – with glistening hand-made lanterns, sparkling stars, colourful lights, and flickering candles.  It was done just for us – Westerners – who for one reason or another ended up far away from home. Suddenly, a drum band of giggling children appeared and started to sing Christmas songs in broken English, which were later followed by local Hindi songs. It was obvious how genuinely happy the kids were to treat us to home away from home. As a finale, a large homemade cake was brought to the dining hall. Suddenly, I started to feel what seemed to have been lost – a sense of joy and unity. Here I was in a foreign country among complete strangers, and yet it seemed like I was surrounded by long term friends around a large family table. Instead of a Christmas tree we had banana-leaf bouquets, and instead of symbolic reindeer we had actual monkeys climbing the hotel walls, and yet it felt so right. For the first time in a long time I re-gained the meaning of Christmas.
It is the genuine nature of human connection that makes us cherish the holidays, it is the kindness and generosity that give us hope and strength to face the unknown, it is the support from loved ones or sometimes complete strangers that helps us find ourselves again and look forward to the next holiday, whether it is Christmas or Hannukah, Kwanzaa or Diwali…

by Lorraine Shenken-Robbin
“Doesn’t anybody know how to do anything right?,” Dad whispered, loud enough for his voice to carry across two rows of onlookers at Kew Gardens. We were waiting in the cold night air for the lighting of the great Menorah.
Dad harrumphed, “How ridiculous. You start at the other end like Hebrew reads. He’s doing it wrong.”
Dad changed careers from florist losing money, to adman spending money, to winning a career as producer, directing people “they were doing things wrong.”
Dad was Zaidy to my two children. I cuddled my baby daughter. Arlo, 3, bopped over to hold Zaidy’s hand. Dad stopped kvetching, smiled and said, “I dig your batman hat.”
Dad first ran from his Jewish mother to elope with my Protestant Mom at 22. He ran from my mom and his three kids, for a younger woman at 38. Dad searched for that heightened sense of free falling into fresh love at 60.
While waiting for love, Dad lived in a lower apartment in a house in the Beach. We lived a short walk away. We visited him often. There, my children seemed content to play on the floor as he indulged reading his newspaper in his armchair. I stood in his kitchen peeling, chopping and stewing. It annoyed me when he ignored my kids and they loved him anyway.
I was Daddy’s girl at 5. He was proud of my childish perfection. I turned into a churlish adolescent and Dad became critical. After we moved away from the Jewish relatives, Dad announced he didn’t want Judaism “shoved down his throat”. I sought out stories of religion to fight off his imposed decree.
As the menorah glowed its first two candles on Queen Street, Dad said, “Let’s eat Latkes.”
We were attending a Latke Party at the Synagogue on Kenilworth.
At the front desk of the temple, I presented my gourmet specialty.  Dad took the children downstairs to the party. When the man found out my specialty was chicken wings, he said, “We can’t serve these. Sour cream. No meat with dairy.”  Feeling ignorant, I swore to celebrate Hanukkah next year at home my way.
When I arrived downstairs, my hot face was cooling. Dad was laughing, enjoying the sharing traditions and company of my kids and lots of people from the neighbourhood. Dad believed in feasting. He  said,” Where’s your contribution? I want to try.”
“Me too” said Arlo. He still wore his knitted ‘Batman’ hat.
I told Dad, “Not allowed.”
As we left, I picked up my tray of chicken wings.
Dad said, “I am starved.”
“How could you be starved after devouring those latkes?”
“I am,” he said, “hungry for wings.”
My little Batman piped up, “Me too.”
Dad has been dead five years. I cherish this Menorah memory of the time he lived close, in the Beach, when my children looked up and saw my 6-foot, silver goateed Dad, in camouflage ski jacket and yellow baseball cap – as Zaidy.

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