I Grew Up Poor and Without My Indigenous Ceremonies, But the Holidays Were Full of Joy

In my little community next to Kississing Lake in Manitoba, we learned that it takes a village to raise a child—and that real Christmas riches comes from community love.

Frozen lake in winter mountainsPhoto: Shutterstock

Wintertime Riches

I grew up in a little community in northern Manitoba next to Kississing Lake. My family is Métis and Ojibway, and I was the youngest of eight children. I’m 85 now, and back in those years when I was growing up, we were not practicing many of our traditional ceremonies. My mother even thought that it would be safer for me not to learn our language, because there was bullying in school if you were Métis or First Nations.

We would celebrate winter just by being together as a family and telling stories. One of the stories was about how wolves teach us that it takes a village to raise a child. In a wolf pack, when the babies are born to the female, they are not cared for just by the mother and father. The whole pack is charged with looking after those children, so when the parents go to get food, it’s not just for their own babies. They share their food with all.

Our community had immigrants from Poland, Ukraine and China. We had First Nations people who left the reserves, and then the Métis people. There were maybe 35 homes, none of them with running water or electricity. We never locked our doors. My mother believed if somebody was coming to visit and we weren’t home, they were welcome to come into the house and have a cup of tea. And all the children played together in the wintertime. One of our friends had a horse and a long sleigh, which was used to bring wood to the homes. We’d pile onto it—a whole group of kids all bundled up—and go for long rides through the woods where the men were cutting down trees for firewood.

Before winter arrived, we used to try to imagine how the ice on the lake was going to form that year. If the water was wavy when it was trying to freeze, it would be all lumpy and bumpy; if we had calm days, it was smooth as can be. We would hope it wouldn’t snow for a while, and when we thought the ice was thick enough, we’d build a big bonfire and skate around it.

We did learn the ways of Christmas, but we weren’t familiar with gift buying. The only gifts would come when we’d hang up a stocking—a tradition we picked up from the Christians who came—and were thrilled to find some Christmas candy in it, as well as some mandarin oranges.

Until I went to my first movie in the mining town 10 kilometres away, and saw women wearing beautiful dresses and living in big castles, I never thought that I was poor—or knew we were labelled as living in poverty. I had everything I needed: a comfortable home, wonderful food and I was dressed nice and warm. We had all the outdoors to play in, and we created our own games in the snow.

Read on to find out how a night of carolling brought a small town together.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada