The December Spirit: Heading Home for the Holidays

As the Christmas-card winter unfolded before me, snow covering the cathedrals and the mountain, I felt unmoored. December wasn’t about snow.

In Vancouver, where I grew up, December didn’t look like a Christmas card. The skies were blue grey, the streets slick with rain. Sometimes my family and I went to the beach on Christmas Eve and watched the huge shipping barges and small boats dotted with Christmas lights, imagining the people on board, far from home. So, even long before the accident, I linked Christmas with boats and harbours—if safer ones.

I was always a Linus in December. Every year, I put aside my inborn grumbly cynicism and embraced the holiday season. It was easy: How could anyone not love more light? In December, the ordinariness of a hedge or a staircase could be transformed by a simple string of coloured lights. And there were other things to love, too: the eye contact held between strangers, the carols (and the complaining about the carols), the unspoken air of forgiveness. So many childhood memories are most vividly, tangibly set in December.

I can still feel the scratch of the worn hand-knit Christmas stockings and smell the coffee in my mother’s hand as she sat in her caterpillar green robe on Christmas morning. There was the year that our cat—oh, God, the poor cat—ate tinsel that, later, emerged from its rear like a terrible second tail. The retelling of this story became an annual tradition that never failed to bring my brother and me to hysterics.

At 18, I moved to Montreal for school. Suddenly, the know-it-all knew nothing. I fumbled in my classes, drank too much and had sex for the first time. All my changes happened in a plume of uncertainty. I was uncertain about the kids from private schools and big American cities and uncertain about my clothes and my mind. All that fall, even as the Christmas-card winter unfolded before me, snow covering the cathedrals and the mountain, I felt unmoored. I was so cold, and the snow made me sad. December wasn’t about snow. I wanted to go home.

My father picked me up at the airport with a strange look on his face. Something had happened, he said. A girl I went to school with, and the rest of her family, had taken a vacation to the Caribbean, but their chartered boat had vanished in bad weather. There were rumours of pirates and a captain who was a gunrunner. But the details, never resolved to this day, almost three decades later, didn’t matter—the family had vanished.

I knew this girl—not well, but I knew her. She was a year ahead of me at our small high school. She had moved to Montreal, too. She and her roommates had cooked dinner for me and the other Vancouver transplants earlier in the fall, offering us advice on how to get through. She was so kind. And now the world had been scrubbed of her. It was unfathomable.

Something unsafe and unpredictable was introduced into winter that year. Of course, things were different anyway, even without an uncanny tragedy to mark the shift. Childhood was over, and winter had changed forever. I would grow older and find my footing in Montreal and other cities. I would make a life on the other side of the country, because I was lucky enough to move on to adulthood, to tell a story here and there, to maybe make a mark.

Now, when I do get back to Vancouver in December, I take my children and my husband to the beach. We stand in the rain, and I point out the lit-up tankers and boats and ask my family to imagine, with gratitude, all the possible lives so far from home

The Mood: December

Every month has a mood, a feeling, some combination of memories, moments and nostalgia. You know it—you feel it—even if you’ve never really thought about it. To help encapsulate the moods of the months, we’re asking novelists to take on the calendar and evoke the feelings of each season through fiction, memoir or a mix of the two. For more of Katrina Onstad, check out the Weekend Effect where she investigates the modern pressure of just being alive.