Navigating Western Holiday Traditions, for Newcomers

Navigating Western Holiday Traditions, for Newcomers

The holiday season is in full swing, and like many Canadian families, mine is no stranger to the traditions that come with it. I’ve already put up my Christmas tree and holiday decorations and started purchasing gifts for loved ones on my shopping list. I’m a second generation Chinese-Canadian, and when I was a child, my parents really embraced the festive spirit of Christmas with open arms. Neither of my parents celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ in their childhood, but they knew that embracing the cultural aspects of a Canadian holiday season can help us feel more connected and better integrated with the place we call home. 

Being first or second generation Canadian often means straddling two worlds; adopting Western cultural practices while holding onto the cultural traditions that reflect where our ancestors are from. As we approach the holiday season, it can be full of western holiday traditions like decorating our homes with an evergreen tree, exchanging gifts, and eating a feast. The roots of these traditions may be foreign to many people, including newcomers to Canada. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the three key traditions to get us into the festive season. Our hope is that this can be a guide for you on understanding and navigating how they may be adapted and applied (or not) in your families.

The Tradition of Decorated Evergreen Trees

In North America, we love to get together to decorate our homes with beautiful lights and often with a christmas tree as a focal point. The christmas tree has its roots in both ancient pagan customs and Christian traditions. The use of evergreen trees as a symbol of life and renewal predates the celebration of Christmas and was incorporated into the holiday over time. During ancient times, Egyptians, Romans, and Norse, revered evergreen trees and branches as symbols of life and fertility. During winter festivals, these societies would decorate their homes with evergreen boughs to remind them that life would return in the spring. Evergreen trees are also incorporated into winter solstice celebrations, which occurs annually on December 21. The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year and many cultures incorporate evergreen plants as a representation of hope and the enduring cycle of life. 

In the 16th century, decorating evergreen trees became a tradition in parts of Germany. The trees were adorned with fruits, nuts, and paper flowers. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who had German roots, popularized the Christmas tree tradition in Britain in the mid-19th century. An illustration of the royal family around a decorated Christmas tree was published, sparking widespread interest. In the 1700s, German immigrants brought the tradition of Christmas trees to North America but it wasn't until the 19th century that the custom gained popularity in the United States and Canada. Today, the Christmas tree has become a universal symbol of the holiday season, cherished by people of various cultural and religious backgrounds. The tradition has evolved, with people around the world decorating trees in their homes as a festive and joyous part of the Christmas celebration.

The Tradition of Gift-Giving

The tradition of gift giving during the holiday season in the Western world has evolved over centuries and is influenced by various historical, cultural, and religious factors. The practice has roots in ancient and more recent traditions. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was held in December and involved the exchange of small gifts and tokens of goodwill. It was a time of feasting, merriment, and generosity. During winter solstice celebrations in Medieval Europe, gifts were given as a symbol of hope and renewal. In Medieval Christian societies, the tradition began to extend beyond royalty to other social classes. In the 19th century, Christmas traditions were popularized through literature like Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” More recently, with the rise of department stores, the holiday season has become largely commercialized. Nowadays, gift-giving can result in excessive consumerism.  We hope that providing a bit of context about where and why this tradition came to be can inform your approach to gift-giving.

The Tradition of a Holiday Feast

There’s no holiday celebration without a feast! European settlement and Christianity largely influence holiday traditions in Canada, so for many families the holiday tradition of the feast occurs on the eve of Christmas. For those who celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights in Judaism, traditional foods, including fried foods and dairy products, are consumed over eight nights. 

Like many cultures around the world, sharing food and gathering over deliciousness is an opportunity to bond and connect with others. Many holiday feasts are characterized by an abundance of food, symbolizing prosperity and plenty. This symbolism reinforces the idea of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings of the season.

Over time, these diverse traditions have woven together to create the rich tapestry of holiday feasting that we experience today. Whether rooted in religious observances, cultural rituals, or communal celebrations, the act of coming together for a festive meal remains a universal expression of joy, gratitude, and connection during the holiday season.


The evergreen tree as a decoration, gift-giving as a symbol of goodwill and generosity, and holiday feasting to bring people together and bond, are all important parts of the holiday season in Canada. These traditions were foreign to my parents when they first arrived in Canada.  Growing up, they found their way to integrate them into our lives, which I think really helped them adopt Canada as their new home. Growing up, it helped my brother and I feel more connected to our classmates and teachers. Today, I’m excited to decorate my Christmas tree, exchange small gifts, and eat a feast with loved ones. As the holiday season gets into full swing, we hope that you can enjoy some of these traditions in your own way! If you know anyone who may be celebrating the holidays alone this year, please consider inviting them to your gathering :).

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