Ask a child to define Christmas and you might get a tale about Santa Claus and baby Jesus, what they would like to eat or when they open their gifts.
Ask a senior, however, and your answer will be entirely different. Seniors in Alberni Valley care facilities—seniors who have run the gamut from their own youth to that of their own children and grandchildren—have a varied sense of family and traditions when it comes to Christmas.
In the days leading up to the official holiday, some residents at Abbeyfield House in Port Alberni sit in the common room and listen to the Port Alberni Fiddlers belt out tunes, while others work collectively on a puzzle.
At the front desk, a row of stockings each with a resident’s name stitched across the front adorns the counter. And a Christmas tree hung with cookie decorations sits atop a table at the entrance to a hallway.
“They’re made out of cinnamon, applesauce and glue to hold it altogether,” Joyce van Ingen, 89, said about the decorations, which she helped make.
Van Ingen is looking forward to Christmas at Abbeyfield, although holiday traditions here are different than those she observed when she was a child, and later a young mother with children of her own, she said.
Van Ingen grew up in Holland and came to Port Alberni in 1951 with her late husband Dirk and their first two children (their family eventually expanded to four).
A Lutheran, van Ingen celebrated Saint Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. Her extended family would gather and visit and all would enjoy a meal.
“We didn’t exchange presents, though. We didn’t do that until we came here,” van Ingen said.
Families put up trees, she recalled, and they were always fresh—never artificial. Van Ingen remembers that the family used to decorate the tree with lit candles that sat in special cups. There was always a bucket of water near the tree in case the candles sparked the branches, she added.
She remembers her last Christmas in Amsterdam. The family visited and had a nice meal, but what stood out was something that signalled changes that were to come to the holiday.
“We got our first string of electric lights. We couldn’t take them with us to Canada though because the electric current used here was different, so we left them with our mother.”
The van Ingens followed Dirk’s brother to Port Alberni and arrived at their new home in November 1951. There was a lot of snow then, van Ingen recalled, and the weather was neither too cold nor too hot.
The family lived in an apartment building on Lathom Road and had their turkey dinner in Canada at the invitation of their downstairs neighbour.
The family got used to Christmas in Canada.
The van Ingens travelled after Dirk’s retirement and the family celebrated Christmas in October instead. Another year, the power went out and the family celebrated by candlelight.
“I think that was the best Christmas we had,” van Ingen said.
Christmas has changed since the death of her husband and with her stay in Abbeyfield, but van Ingen has accepted this next phase in life.
“It’s nice here. We all know each other. On Christmas Day we have brunch and a special supper,” she said.
“Christmas is different when you are an older person. You don’t always have family but we have each other and the staff and we’re like a big family.”
Across town at Tsawaayuus Rainbow Gardens, the soft glare of a string of lights coiled around a Christmas tree reflects off of the face of a man in a wheelchair.
A light arrangement hangs on the wall at the entrance, where passersby are greeted by another Christmas tree and a wreath in the front desk window.
The holidays are quickly shaping up for the facility’s 40 residents, said manager Shaunee Casavant.
“We had a decorating party and invited families over to decorate this side of the facility and on the assisted living side. We try our best to make it feel warm so that residents feel like they’re at home.”
The facility’s auxiliary has been busy preparing presents for residents. The Alberni Valley Bulldogs hockey players have paid a visit. And the RCMP choir is expected.
“We always have something happening at this time of year.”
A regular complement of staff works on Christmas Day and receives extra pay. Other staff volunteer their time to come in and visit residents.
Many residents stay at the facility but some leave for a day or even a weekend to visit with their families. Some residents are alone with no visitors so staff have become their de facto family members, Casavant said.
Steve Tate, 70, will celebrate Christmas at Tsawaayuus. A bachelor, Tate used to celebrate with his extended family in Ucluelet and Nitinat Lake, and remembers his last Christmas outside of Tsawaayuus in 2009. “All of us around the table. That’s what I remember.”
Tate remembers his Christmases as a young man growing up in Nitinat. Times were tough but the family found a way to have a nice meal.
“My brother Dave went to Nitinat Lake and came home with a fresh duck. That was our supper and it was the best,” Tate said.
Some of his Christmases were spent in the Port Alberni Residential School, where he attended from 1952-1957. He would spend the day with fellow students, receiving a few presents.
“We never got to go home,” he said. “I went home for good after I was diagnosed with epilepsy.”
Tate has been a resident at Tsawaayuus since being felled by a stroke three years ago. Christmas is different now, he said, but at least there’s still a celebration.
“I have new friends. We have a good meal and we get a present. I enjoy myself,” Tate said.
This year he has a special activity planned on Christmas Day: “I’m ready for a crib game with Karen Mika, one of our board members,” Tate said.
“She’s pretty good and she beat me once, but I’m ready.”
Perhaps his present this year will be a victory.