Newcomers merge Canadian gift-giving traditions with their own

Claudia Moser holds newly purchased holiday items. Photo by Anne-Laurence Godefroy

Claudia Moser, 32, strolls along the aisle of a craft shop, holding tiny organza bags and Christmas stickers in her hands. Though she will be away from friends and family this holiday season, Moser is one of many Vancouverites who hail from afar and are determined to maintain their native gift-giving Christmas traditions.

For Moser, who traces her roots to Germany, this means making an Advent Kalender for her boyfriend.

“There are not many German gift shops in Vancouver,” Moser says as she pays for her items. “So I went for the Canadian-style craft store.”

Traditionally, Christians use Advent calendars to count down and celebrate the days in anticipation of the day of Jesus’ birth. Many Germans craft the calendars themselves and offer them to family members. Claudia’s calendar will feature 24 little gift bags containing various sweets and presents, strung together by a ribbon and a Christmas tree branch.

But items for her calendar are scarcer in Vancouver than in her hometown of Münster, so Moser – like many other immigrants – finds that following her own traditions is not always as easy as she would like.

With one in five Canadians born overseas and about 90 per cent of British Columbians having a non-Canadian ethnic background according to Statistics Canada, there is a real mix of cultural celebrations and gift-giving traditions in Vancouver.

Christmas trees and Chinese dragons – Christmas in Vancouver. Photo by Anne-Laurence Godefroy

But some ethnicities are luckier than others: with about 56 percent of landed immigrants arriving in Canada each year coming from Asia, Chinese, Japanese and other Asian cultural traditions are easier to maintain here.

Given the history of Chinese immigration in British Columbia, Chinese customs have deep roots in Vancouver and are reinforced constantly by the 30,000 new Chinese immigrants that arrive in Canada every year.

As a result, authentic gifts such as Red Envelopes – containing money and offered to non-married young people on birthdays, funerals, new years and weddings – are popular and easy to purchase in the city. In fact, most Canadian banks give them away to their customers on Chinese New Year.

While Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in China – only about four per cent of Chinese are Christians – many Chinese Canadians have adopted the celebration after stripping it of its religious significance.

UBC art professor and artist Gu Xiong explains that Chinese families see Christmas as a great opportunity to reunite in addition to traditional Chinese holidays.

Xiong strives to keep a balance between his heritage and Western customs. In fact, he believes that a hybrid culture is expanding in Vancouver, where East meets West.

“It was great to discover a new culture and learn a new language, but I felt like it was time for me to recreate my culture,” he explains. “As an artist, I aim at sharing my Chinese background in the mainstream culture and create a hybrid identity here. That is what I enjoy the most.”

Embracing this hybrid identity, Xiong celebrates both Christmas and Chinese New Year with his family.

Vancouver’s large Japanese community also benefits from the widespread availability of traditional gifts and customs.

However, Makiko Hara, curator of the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Art, admits Japanese gift protocol isn’t always easy to maintain. In Japan, not only the choice of the object is important, but also its wrapping and the timing of the exchange.

To her, Japanese and Canadian cultures are blending for the best. “Gift-giving in Japan is rather a costly tradition,” she says. “Canadians have a more practical side.”

For other communities, gift-giving customs can be trickier to maintain, if they are possible at all.

Moser struggles to find authentic German material to make her calendar. She has an advantage: there is now a German Christmas market in downtown Vancouver. Unlike most craft markets which focus on local products, it features exclusively German and Polish-German arts and crafts.

“I might just go there and buy a calendar,” she laughs.