A Christmas Party for Everyone

A Christmas Party for Everyone

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I needed a big finish for the show… and I was stumped.

It was the biggest show of our lives, by far. Last Christmas we did a Dave Kelly Live show at Lunchbox for 110 people. This year, we’d grown a bit and the show was at the Jack Singer for 1,600 people. Everything was in place. Our secret Show and Tell guest was Stephen Hair to talk about his 23 years as Scrooge at Theatre Calgary’s Christmas Carol. Our DKL Award Winner was Nichol M’Carthy, a young woman who started a mentorship program for immigrant women who needed support to make it in a new city. Dave Pierce was part of the show and he brought an entire orchestra. We had 123 Young Canadians and our special guest was Jann Arden who would sing from her Christmas album.

And it was a great show…

My job was to come up with a big ending based on a local holiday tradition.

We sat around and talked. What are the Calgary Christmas traditions or holiday traditions? Is there something unique about Christmas in Calgary that isn’t the same as if you had Christmas in New York or Rome or Saskatchewan?

The plan was I’d talk about all the great things that make a Calgary Christmas, and then at the end, I’d pull out the one big one that every Calgarian knows and use it as the finale.

But I couldn’t find anything. We had Dave Pierce and his Orchestra, 123 Young Canadians, and Jann Arden ready to sing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and I had nothing.

We don’t gather in the old town square with candles on Christmas Eve like they’ve been doing in some European cities for hundreds of years. We don’t have a 100-year-old tree-lighting tradition like Rockefeller Center in New York. For that matter, the majority of us don’t have the old family home in Calgary that we’ve been going to for Christmas dinner for the past 50 years.

Calgary doesn’t have its own traditions, I realize,  because most of us aren’t from here. Some of us are. But for most of us, Christmas is a time when we do one of two things: Go back to where we grew up in Winnipeg or Halifax or wherever –  or – the clunky phone call: “Hi Mom and Dad. Uh… this year we’ve decided to try starting some of our own traditions.” That’s it.

I realize that the one thing my kids can say that I can’t – it’s the same thing that most of my friends kids can say. They were born in Calgary. We weren’t.

It’s because we’re young, and Calgary’s traditions are the traditions of newcomers. A place where most people come from somewhere else and brought bits of their traditions with them. Which is why maybe your Christmas meal is Kosher or Vietnamese, or, if you’re like my Aunt Patty, built on cream of mushroom soup.

So for weeks before the show I kept trying to find the thing that we all do in Calgary, and I couldn’t find anything.

And then I was telling someone how excited we were to be performing at the Jack Singer and they asked, “Who was Jack Singer anyway?” And I had to admit I didn’t know. So I did some research.

Jack Singer was a very successful Calgary real estate mogul and philanthropist, with holdings across Canada and the U.S. He was a character, a larger than life man who loved open shirts, suntans and cigars; a man who died only a few years ago at 95 years old.

Jack Singer’s parents moved to Calgary from Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1900s. His mom Bella worked as a cleaning lady in Calgary’s tallest building at the time,  the Palliser Hotel. While she worked there, she bought rooming houses and then brought over Polish Jews who were being persecuted in the times leading up to World War II. When he was old enough, Jack did the same. The Jewish community, the arts community, the Calgary community owes a lot to Jack (and Bella) Singer.

Her message, as was Jack’s, was simple: Come to Calgary. You’ll be welcome here.

And for as long as there have been people here, this meeting of the two rivers was a place people came together, to trade, to argue, to talk, to laugh, and if it was our house, to yell at the kids to get off the ping pong table.

And then it hit me. I had it. The thing that’s unique to Calgary Christmases (or Alberta Christmases) is simple.

Whether we came here by foot, by horse, by train, plane or automobile – when we are at our best (sometimes we aren’t) but when we are at our best, our city tradition – the thing that says “Christmas time in Calgary” is this:

Welcome.

When we are at our best, it doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, it doesn’t matter who you love, and most importantly, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. When you come here, then we all want you to be from here.

Because many of us don’t have big family dinners in town, we have open houses and invite the neighbors. We ask new Calgarians to join us at our table. Our tradition is a tradition of saying welcome, come in, sit down and have a drink. Tell me about yourself.

Whether you’re Bella or Jack Singer saying, “Come to Alberta. It’s better here. You will be accepted here.”

Whether you’re Stephen Hair saying, “I might play a Scrooge – but we’re using toonies to make the best of Scrooge.”

Or a ballet dancer travelling the world – you are bringing Alberta with you.  

Whether you’re Nichol McCarthy who said, “If we give them a chance, young women will change our city to become something better than we can even imagine.”

Whether you’re Jann Arden saying, “How you doing, mom? Let’s go for a walk.”

When we are at our best, when our city is truly in the Christmas spirit, we are a place that says, “Welcome.”

And in that moment, we can say, we’re home. And in that moment, we can say, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

And then Jann came to centre stage and sang.

Phew.

Merry Christmas everyone. I hope you feel welcome here.

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