For this year’s Santa Claus Book, Islanders share the most memorable gifts they have either given or received at Christmas and why this particular gift holds so much meaning.
Pam Roy of M’Chigeeng is busy during the Christmas season with her annual tradition of making gingerbread houses for all the kids in her children’s school classes.
“That’s what Christmas should be all about, giving,” Pam says, chuckling at the thought of the one year when she made 90 gingerbread houses for several classes when her children were in school at the same time.
“It makes me feel good; I especially love seeing the smile it puts on my kids’ faces knowing their mom was the one who brought in all of those gifts for everyone,” Pam says.
This year, Pam has already received the best gift in her life—her first grandchild, born two months early but healthy on October 4. Anyone visiting her at work at the bakery in M’Chigeeng Freshmart will be treated to a proud display of photos of her grandson, combined with the most appropriate sticker she had in the department—‘special.’
When she was growing up in Toronto, Margaret Cadieux wanted nothing more than a good pair of figure skates to have some fun exercise during the frigid winter months. But as the second oldest of seven children in her household, fancy gifts were hard to come by.
For years, she would wear her brothers’ hand-me-down tube skates, hardly a good substitute when compared to well-fitting and agile figure skates.
That all changed in 1959 when she was 16 years old and her parents gifted her a cherished pair of skates of her own.
“We all went out skating as a family on Christmas day,” Margaret recalls, hiding a smile behind her mask as she remembered the tale of Christmases long, long ago.
The Mindemoya resident has continued to skate all her life, turning the one-time gift into decades of fun, laughter and fond memories.
The Joshua-Mathews Family of M’Chigeeng has been contributing to the community’s anonymous gift drive for seven years, an action that siblings Lucy and Gray and mother Tracey all agreed was their favourite gift-giving tradition in the Christmas season.
“Just knowing on Christmas morning that someone will be opening a gift when they might not otherwise get one, it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling,” says Gray. “Those are the best gifts because you don’t know who they’re going to, but it’ll really mean something for them.”
Family is important to the Joshua-Mathews clan who enjoy sharing their time together especially at this time of year, evidenced by their shared trip to the grocery store where they met up with The Expositor.
It’s all about the home-made when Lauren Assiniwe, of Wiikwemkoong, plans out her gift-giving.
“I prefer that because you can tell someone put a lot of time into it, it’s something unique that they wouldn’t have and couldn’t get anywhere else,” she says, citing some of her past homemade gifts from crafts to carpentry.
“I’ll listen to what they might need in the three months before Christmas so I can figure out what they may want. For example, my ex-mother-in-law has a camp and I made her a ‘welcome to my cabin’ sign,” says Lauren.
It can be a big project to produce six to 10 gifts per year, but as her children grow up they’ve joined her construction efforts and enjoy the quality time they spend together.
“I think it’s a lot meaningful to get a gift like this. And I still see all the stuff I’ve made over the years at their homes, whereas one year when I had to buy gifts, they all disappeared by the next year,” Lauren says.
Sheina and Kevin Hemstreet
A fond family tradition for the Hemstreets has been creating hand-painted Christmas cards for all of their family and friends. It’s a small but heartfelt and time-consuming gesture that adds a personal touch during the festive season.
In the midst of one year’s card-creating session, Sheina managed to give the greatest gift, in her opinion—life.
“I was just finishing up with our cards one year when I started going into labour with our oldest child,” she says.
The hand-made Christmas gifts don’t end there. Between Sheina’s visual artistic flair and Kevin’s red-seal chef skills, the Tehkummah couple’s other gifts have included such extravagant projects as handmade chocolates.
Spring Bay’s Jennifer Rodger gave her four children some long-lasting memories at a recent Christmas by surprising them with plane tickets to Jamaica, an exciting gift that was competitively priced when compared to buying traditional gifts for all of them.
“It was perfect. I put the tickets in the bottom of a big box and filled the rest with sand toys like buckets and shovels. As they removed all of them they started to realize that we were going away,” Jennifer recalls.
The kids had never left the country before, let alone been on a plane, she said of her eight- to 14-year-old children at the time. “It gave them a story to tell of something unique, something different that they didn’t expect.”
“My daughter got me a pug,” says Elaine Bosje of Tehkummah in an excited voice as she describes the four-legged friend that has brought her much joy.
“I named him Sable, after the car my husband gave me many years ago. I don’t have the car any more but I do have my Sable,” she says with a laugh.
Elaine’s dog had passed and she was looking for another companion. Her daughter’s dog had a litter of puppies and Elaine asked what her plans were. When the daughter explained that she would be selling them, Elaine made her move and requested a pup for Christmas.
Since then, there has been much joy in her life. Elaine didn’t have much more time to chat as she prepared to get in her car to visit her Sable.
Sarah and Kit McEvoy
The McEvoys give their closest friends and family cherished gifts of homemade preserves, largely using their own home-grown ingredients.
“It’s a real labour of love, but they recognize that and look forward to getting these gifts,” says Sarah, who recently moved with husband Kit to Silver Water. “You’re putting your love into something that you grow all year, turn it into a sauce or another product and give it to a person you love and care for.”
Sarah said the canning gifts carry a strong sense of memories, too, both for themselves and for the people who receive their bounty.
“Whenever someone opens up a jar and makes a meal with our pasta sauce, for instance, they’ll be thinking of us,” she said.
Finding new purposes for old things is also a fond gift-giving tradition that fulfills Sarah’s desire to reduce waste and make sure someone can enjoy a tool or device for whatever it’s worth.
Renee and Scott Harper
Christmas is a time to remember that life’s simplest things can often have the biggest impact, said Renee and Scott Harper of Providence Bay. Renee reflects on how as a child, she always looked forward to her grandmother’s homemade socks. Scott’s fondest recollection took on a similarly home-made approach.
“Mom and dad couldn’t afford much when we were growing up, so one year they found some scrap wood and sanded it smooth to make a set of wooden blocks. I’ll never forget that,” says Scott. “I must have played with them for five years at least.”
He recalled that sometimes, even unintentional objects can bring much joy to a child’s life, such as large shipping boxes that can turn into nearly anything when paired with a child’s imagination.
“It’s the simple things that have the most impact,” he says.
Renee says she still had the homemade blankets she received as a child and recently crocheted her own blanket for a 13-year-old daughter, carrying forth the tradition to the next generation.
“The year our family decided to draw names and donate a gift to a charity of our choice in that person’s name was a huge success,” says Donna DenEngelsman of her favourite Christmas gift to both give and receive. “My favourite part was when people would ask if I was finished my shopping. I replied, ‘I just have to buy a goat’.”
Max and Bev Abotossaway
Most people know Max Abotossaway of Aundeck Omni Kaning as a long-time officer with the United Chiefs and Councils Manitoulin Anishnaabe Police Service, but what you may now know is that Max has always had a love of science, so when his mom gifted him with a microscope for Christmas when he was about 11 years old, he was over-the-moon happy, he recalls. And the first thing he scoped? “Well everybody’s got to check out their blood, of course,” he grins. That and the cellular makeup of plants.
“I found that pretty interesting,” Max adds.
Max’s wife Beverly remembers the Christmas gift she received from her husband of a limited-edition dreamcatcher jewellery set as her fondest memory.
“It was one of our best years with Gabe, and our future was looking so bright,” she says, referencing the couple’s eldest son, Gabe, who was in a serious car accident in 2012, at the age of 20, which left him with catastrophic injuries, including a traumatic spinal cord injury.
The Abotossaway family home is known for its festive decorations for each holiday and its’ all around positive outlook on life.
Kagawong coffee club
While out for a morning coffee outside of Manitoulin Chocolate Works, Billings Mayor Ian Anderson shares with The Expositor that he grew up on a small farm in southeastern Ontario, which had as its annual net income about $3,000.
“We weren’t in poverty, but I thought everyone had what we had,” he notes, adding that his family grew, and ate, their own food. “Christmas wasn’t really a big deal.”
Presents were always practical in nature, such as socks or clothes, but one year was different—one Christmas morning, there was a little red wagon.
“I can remember being just about dumbfounded,” Ian adds, though the wagon had to be shared with his brother.
Bryan Barker says the gift that sticks out most to him is one given to him by his father, an HO scale Tri-ang model railway set. “It was very small, very detailed,” he remembers.
Bryan hadn’t expressed any particular attraction to model trains, and he suspects that perhaps it may have been more of his father’s interest at the start, but from there a lovely tradition grew. Each Christmas Bryan would receive more model sets and he and his father eventually created a whole model train world in their basement, complete with paper-mache train tunnel. Bryan would eventually pass the Christmas tradition on to his own children.
Sue Barker is the youngest of three sisters and her parents would take great pains in ensuring that Christmas presents were a great surprise, keeping them at her grandparents’ house until the big day.
“One year I got a life-size (it felt like it, anyway) pink teddy bear, which I absolutely loved,” she smiles at the thought.
Each night Sue would take her teddy to bed, and each night her sister would take it from her.
Years later, while sharing Christmas stories as an adult with her family, Sue learned that the teddy she loved so dearly was, indeed, meant for her sister.
Vicky Anderson says that the best Christmas gift she has received is Christmases spent with the entire family together under one roof, and can’t wait until this happens again.
Diane Larocque of Billings comes from a big family complete with six brothers. When she was six years old, Diane recalled sitting with her family on Christmas morning and becoming more and more disheartened as brother after brother opened their gifts, but there was nothing for her.
“I thought Santa had forgotten me,” she recalls.
But suddenly, there was Diane’s gift, a baby doll.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about this doll—she came dressed in jammies—but to Diane it was the best gift she could ever ask for, and she still has it to this day.
Deb Flaxman of Billings tells The Expositor that the most thoughtful gift she received was from her grandmother.
“I was 19,” Deb shares, “and my mother gave me a Pyrex casserole dish filled with her own baking,” including the macaroons Deb loved.
The Pyrex casserole dish acknowledged her entering adulthood while the baking showed the love and care of her grandmother, which still stands out to this day.
Everyone who knows Tom Sasvari of Gore Bay know that he is a die-hard Boston Bruins fan. One Christmas, a friend and co-worker created for him a custom goalie mask that was painted in black and gold, had the Bruins logo and listed all the Stanley Cup winning years in gold paint.
“It was the coolest gift I ever got because it was so unexpected,” Tom says.
Ken Nicoll was sporting the Christmas gift he has received in recent years that means a lot to him when The Expositor caught up with him in Gore Bay. The blue Reebok hoodie was a present to Ken from his sisters two years ago.
“They really nailed it,” he says, sharing his love of hoodies and the practical nature of the gift.
“I don’t get to do Christmas very often,” Ken adds, explaining that he won’t get to see his mother and sisters this Christmas either, as he will abide by public health’s urging of the public to limit travel during the pandemic.
For Sheguiandah’s Kevin Dunlop, he recalls a pair of bright blue hockey pants as one of his most memorable gifts received at Christmas.
The hockey pants, while practical for use as a member of the Sheguiandah Cubs hockey team, had greater significance for the youngest of five boys as the year before, Kevin had had heart surgery at SickKids in Toronto, which meant he wasn’t able to play hockey or any other sports until his months-long recovery was complete.
“It was more or less to say that I could go back to being a kid again,” Kevin muses.
Linda Bowerman of Little Current has many fond Christmas memories, but a special treat on Christmas Day she will always remember is a season ticket to the Little Current arena.
“On Christmas morning we would run to the tree to see if there were envelopes there with our name on them,” she shares. Within those envelopes were coveted season tickets, valued at $1, which meant all the public skating a kid could ask for.
This special present came courtesy of Linda’s “Uncle” Dubs Lockeyer.
Little Current historian Sandy McGillivary recalls a childhood Christmas during the Second World War when “toys were getting kind of scarce.”
On Christmas Day, he found a cardboard machine gun, which pleased him to no end (Nazis and Allies was the popular game of the day, which a cardboard machine gun worked well for).
Sandy is known or his unique and thoughtful gifts at Christmas, “gifts that can’t be bought at a store.”
Some of the gifts he’s handed out at Christmas over the years are DVDs featuring photographs he’s taken with corresponding commentary, or mugs, also featuring his custom photography, with such themes as Manitoulin wildflowers.
“I like to give gifts where part of yourself is in it,” Sandy adds.
“It is the food I remember,” says Orville Aguonie of Sheguiandah First Nation. “When we were kids we were a big family, so my parents could afford one present for each of us. But when Christmastime came around we got to eat as much as we wanted,” he laughs. “We could gorge ourselves on turkey and pies; we never got pies any other time. So, for me, it was always about the food at Christmastime. There was always lots of great food.”
For hockey-obsessed kids there was nothing like finding a pair of ice skates under the Christmas tree, but it was the labour of love in creating a place to use them that really stands out in the memory of Lyman Aguonie of Sheguiandah First Nation. “Skates,” says Lyman when he thought back to his favourite Christmas present, but when it came to his favourite memory. “My dad would make an outdoor rink and we kids would play hockey. Our friends would come over and we would all play hockey.”
Reuben Allen of Manitowaning recalls the year he didn’t get the present he was hoping for…hockey gloves. “I wanted hockey gloves so bad. I asked for new hockey gloves.” Unfortunately, he learned a hard lesson about Christmas snooping. “I was snooping and snooping, and there they were! I found my new hockey gloves. I told my mom that I was getting new hockey gloves for Christmas.” He eagerly opened the present with his name on it. “I said ‘look at my new…’, but there were a pair of old hockey gloves. I never got the new ones, she must have taken them back or given them away for me snooping. I never did that again.”
“Being able to celebrate my three kids’ first Christmases,” says Andy Roque of Manitowaning, whose children are now heading into the teenage years. “That was the greatest gift.”
For Duffy Wemigwans of Wiikwemkoong the most memorable present was a toy police car. “We didn’t get a lot of presents back in those days,” says Duffy recalling the present that he remembers best from his childhood. “You pushed it and it went by itself, it had sirens and everything.” Most youth today find it hard to relate to the magic contained in a single Christmas present and the orange that could be found in the stocking by the stove.
Debbie Kalleo of Wiikwemkoong’s childhood involved a lot of foster homes, but the memories of Christmas that stick with her most involved the families she stayed with. “I remember when I was little, it was seeing the different ways that people do Christmas,” says Debbie. “Like going to church and the different little traditions that people had.”
A multi-coloured beaded tie was the most memorable gift that Mona Oshkabewisens of Wiikwemkoong recalls giving. “It was for my son Marlon when we went to Cuba for a wedding. Marlon hated getting dressed up, but I it had all of his favourite colours in it—so it really encouraged him to wear it more often.”
Not only did Marlon like wearing his tie, it also gave him an opportunity to be a bit of a storyteller. “He got to tell a little story about where it came from and stuff,” says Mona.
“My favourite present was when I got an Elsa doll,” says Emmalee. Like many young girls, Emmalee was quite smitten by the adventures of Disney’s Frozen princesses. The doll remains one of her favourite presents. The story of the princess who struggled to contain her powers after nearly killing her younger sister Anna has become one of the most beloved of the many Disney stories featuring princesses. “I like her hair,” shared Emmalee before turning back to her computer screen.
“I don’t know what age I was, but I remember it,” said Jacob Wemigwans. “We lived in a long house and there was a long driveway. “We come down and a cop car stopped by. We went down to go see what was going on. He had gifts for us. That was from the telethon way back when. The cops brought the presents for us. That must be over 50 years ago. That really sticks in my mind. I think that was the first present I ever got, I don’t remember ever getting one from before that. It was from the Sudbury Telethon, the police helped deliver the presents.”
The Sudbury Telethon began in 1949 on the streets of Sudbury when the Sudbury Chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartets partnered with the Salvation Army to raise funds for presents for needed children.
It was a few years later that the newly christened television station, CKSO (Canada’s first privately-owned television station), and broadcasting pioneer Wilf Woodill took up the mantle and really pumped up the volume. As late Sudbury barbershopper Ernie Savard was wont to note, the television evening raised more money in a few hours than the barbershop quartets could in six weeks.
Later, the Sudbury Lions Club partnered with the television station and, more than 70 years on, the effort is still going strong, albeit mergers have led to the station now being called MCTV. Local musicians like Peter Nelson and Robbie Shawana have added their talents to the musical mix of entertainment—but it is the memories instilled in the young recipients of the Children’s Christmas Telethon that still resonate 72 years later.
Gatherings, having that big midnight supper after church,” says Brian Peltier. “People coming over, it was at my grandparents’ Leo and Sophie Peltier’s house, so everyone gathered there,” says Brian. “That was what I most remember, families getting together.” For large extended families Christmas time was a time to gather, enjoy good food, music and laughter. The house might not have been large, but everyone was welcome. “We kids would fall asleep,” he laughs. “We don’t do that anymore.”
“I grew up in Toronto,” recalled Giselle Aiabens of Wiikwemkoong, who says she has many great Christmas memories, but the first that springs to mind was when her stepfather would dress up as Santa on Christmas morning. “He would bring little presents to the kids in hospital,” said Giselle. “He would bring little presents home for us as well. One I remember really well was a pen that was really a radio. This was, like 40 years ago, things like that were unheard of back then. Then there was a little dome with a cat in it, a little feather boa, a small bottle of perfume. It was a magical time.”
Mary Lou Manitowabi
“The only good thing I remember is I was so happy to get some oranges, apples, nuts and candy,” recalls Mary Lou Manitowabi of her early childhood Christmas, “and one doll, it was special. Oh, and cutouts, we used to get cutouts. We played with those all the time. One toy and we were happy.”
“I remember colouring books, we used to get colouring books and crayons, but there were only six crayons in the package,” laughs Genevieve Peltier of Wiikwemkoong, who was about five or six at the time. “We put our Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve. It was real and there were candles, my mom would have candles sitting there. It was the most beautiful thing.” Before the advent of strings of multi-coloured electric lights, many families would place lighted candles on small holders on their trees. The effect was magical, but transitory, as the small candles would not last long and the highly flammable evergreen tree could not be left unattended for a second.
“We would always get a lot of clothing, socks and such, things we needed,” recalls Cotnee Kaboni, of Wiikwemkoong, of her earliest Christmas memories. “We got one toy.” It may be hard to imagine the immense changes that have occurred in the culture of Christmas celebrations five or more decades’ past, especially when it comes to how many gaily wrapped packages lie under the typical family Christmas tree. “You know there wasn’t a lot, but we were happy with what we got. We didn’t know that we didn’t have much, that one toy was a big deal for us back then.”
“My dad used to play tricks on us,” recalls Samantha-Lynn Brennan. “One year he got us a Super Nintendo (game console) and set it up on the television. Then he filled the box with walnuts.” What then ensued was a roller coaster of emotions. “We started opening it up and saw the box and were like ‘oh wow, we got a Nintendo’,” she recalls, bouncing in remembered excitement. “When we opened up the box it was just walnuts and we started crying, my father laughed and said ‘turn around, look behind you, it’s all set up on the television.” The children were so focused on the presents under the tree and that just-the-right-sized-box. “We never even noticed that he had already set it all up for us ready to go.”
“We had our Christmas at home, but then we went out visiting all the family,” says Ray Fox of Wiikwemkoong. “That’s something we won’t be able to do this year. It’s something we will miss.” Mr. Fox’s favourite memories were echoed time and again, focused more on great Christmas moments shared with friends and family than what lay under the Christmas tree.
Bruce Naokwegijig of Little Current recalls the year he got the “number one son” award. He was gift shopping for his mother when he happened upon a flower shop window that contained a stunning floral arrangement featuring exotic flowers and five blue butterflies. “The flowers were not from around here,” he says, “they were from way down south.” The flowers and the butterfly combination made for a memorable moment.
“In 1974 our family lived in a small apartment,” recalls Lynda Trudeau, of M’Chigeeng. “But in 1980 we started building our house. We moved in on Christmas Eve. That was the best gift ever, to have our own house.” It was a heady experience and although she still had to share a bedroom with her older sister, it worked out well. “My sister and I shared a room originally, but not too long after she left for school. S she wasn’t there all the time so it seemed like my own room,” she laughs.
“I don’t know, there is too much to remember,” laughs Jasmine Pitawanakwat, but when pressed she lost all hesitation. “It has to be Christmas at my grandma’s house That’s my favourite Christmas memory,” she said. The magical memories of childhood
“When I was young my father bought me my first pellet gun,” recalls Marcel Cooper of Wiikwemkoong thinking back to that Christmas of his 13th year. “I was a happy little boy,” he chuckled thinking back to hours of happy plinking.