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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Christmas past

BY Xavier Kataquapit Dec 21, 2021

Christmas was always a season of chaos and confusion for me as a child. It was a strange mix of excitement and joy along with feelings of anxiety and worry. 

On one hand, our parents did everything they could to follow the strange modern commercial Christmas that we saw happening everywhere else in the country and on TV. On the other hand, we had to take part in the religious history of the birth of a saviour named Jesus and the ceremonies of ancient Middle Eastern and European traditions. 

My mom Susan was born and raised in the northern remote wilderness and my dad Marius had lived his whole life in our home community of Attawapiskat. Both grew up in a traditional life of hunting, trapping, fishing and living off the land like our ancestors had for thousands of years. Their lives revolved around the land and the movements of the animals throughout the year. 

The ideas of Christmas must have been very foreign to them, but they followed in its tradition because it was part of the Christian faith. In more modern times, it was confusing for all of us to understand the commercial images of Santa Claus, snowmen, elves, Christmas trees, bright colourful decorations and lights everywhere. We just fell in line with the rest of the country, and we were mesmerized by the chaotic excitement of the year without understanding what it was all about. 

The best part of the celebrations for me was mom’s Christmas feast. It was a mix of modern foods with turkey, ham, salads and sugary desserts combined with traditional foods like roasted wild goose and stews of moose meat or caribou mixed with dumplings. As children we watched mom making magic in the kitchen with excitement and later as teenagers, we joined in and helped her in preparing food. 

One of her specialties was Christmas fruitcake. In Cree, this cake is called Kas-kah-pah-chee-kan. She made hers in a large round donut pan that provided enough cake for all of us. When we were much younger, mom only made one cake at Christmas. It wasn’t until we were older and could help in the kitchen that she started mass producing six, seven or eight cakes a year to share with family and friends. As a child, I was never fond of these cakes because I preferred the store-bought chocolates and candies. It wasn’t until later in the life that I started to appreciate this seasonal cake and now I enjoy it because it reminds me of those special times with my family and my mom. 

The most memorable moments from my family’s Christmas get-togethers were those times when there was no alcohol or drugs in the community. These were special times when we as children could feel safe, secure and happy. When adults in town were partying all that changed. Of course, we all realize now that the prevalent use of alcohol and drugs had to do with a history of colonization, residential schools and oppression. Many of us drank or used drugs to forget and to numb the pain.

No matter what the root cause, when we as adults turn to using alcohol or drugs, and especially at times of the year that are supposed to be happy, our young ones are terrorized. Most adults don’t realize the terror and trauma they cause to younger people when the holiday drinking takes over everything. The culture and traditions of our ancestors did not include these substances and life then was quite different as people were connected in a very direct way to Mother Earth. 

Our healing journey from the effects of colonization is a long one. It is my hope that you will give yourself, your family and your friends the gift of sobriety this Christmas and start the New Year with a life of healing and recovery. Don’t forget your children are watching your every move and they learn from you. If they accept that alcohol or drugs should be part of their lives, then you are responsible for letting that happen. 

If you are having problems with addictions, pick up the phone and reach out for help. Many of us have ghosts of Christmas past in memories that have to do with drinking or drugs and tragic circumstances. If we make positive changes for ourselves and those we love in Christmas present, then we can look forward to better times in Christmases yet to come. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.