Christmas at Carty House: Creating my own Canadian Christmas

Ishimwe Marie-Laure


My family is from the East African country of Burundi, so I grew up there, in Rwanda, and in Kenya. I’m still new to Canada, but this year is my second Christmas living at Carty House in Sandy Hill, the only home in Ottawa dedicated to refugee women.

Christmas in Africa is a big thing and it’s a huge rush. Here in Canada, you have that rush but it’s prolonged because people have been thinking about holiday gifts since October. Back home, parents decide on December 24 how much they have to spend, and everything is bought last minute. You see Christmas trees being bought everywhere — people even carry them home under their arm while taking motorcycle taxis!

Traffic can get really bad in the city, and there are people who walk from car to car selling everything you can think of. My dad is a last-minute person so he would often buy his gifts while stopped in his car. You can literally do all your shopping in 30 minutes.

For a lot of families, Christmas is the main time of year when parents can do something for their kids. So it seems like the whole city has new outfits. Everyone is cooking good, looking good, feeling good. And everybody is together.

Growing up, we always hosted a lot of people for Christmas. I have five siblings, so we’re a big family. Christmas was knowing there were going to be a lot of good people around. My mom loves to host. For her it was the food and dressing well, and she’s the type of person who wants people to be happy. My dad is very funny and outgoing. He talks to everybody and would joke about everything.

On Christmas day we would eat chicken and rice because that’s the best thing to make for a big group of people. All the kids would sit on the floor. At the start we’d be shy to talk to each other, but then you share food and end up playing and talking.

Even when there was war, it felt like the rebels rested on Christmas. One thing about Africans is that they really respect that it’s Jesus’ birthday. It was always like, “Not today, it’s a party.” People could let down their guard and everyone would come together for a good time.

We grew up watching lots of western Christmas movies. So I thought Christmas in Canada was going to be like the movie Home Alone. I watched that movie a lot, and I remember how they had a house with lots of gifts, decorations, and a big tree.

Last year for my first Christmas at Carty House, we all decorated the house together, and I really liked that. I went to a British school in Kenya, so kids would always talk about their Christmas and I heard how different it was from mine. I’ve always wanted to experience a western-style Christmas.

Louise, the operations manager at Carty House and our Canadian mom, gave us gifts from Carty House and the staff planned games. Even though we’re all older, you could see the inner child in everybody because many of us never had this growing up.

And of course we still had African food! It was a collaborative meal and everyone cooked rice, chicken, and plantain. Because of this, Christmas still felt like Christmas from back home, but we also incorporated Canadian desserts.

Another thing that’s good about Christmas at Carty House is that you get to learn about and appreciate other cultures. All 10 of us living here come from different social backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, and there’s a huge age difference. At the same time, we’re going through the same thing as refugees in Canada. Because this is a transitional home, we try to cherish celebrating Christmas together, because we might not get to do that again next year.

Last year I also had Christmas with my brother. It really brought back memories to experience some Christmas from back home as well as a new Canadian Christmas. I love this blend.

I’m very close with my family and we always try to have a video call so we feel like we’re still celebrating together. My parents are big on that. It’s hard with the time difference because it’s night for them and they want to drink, but I can’t “cheers!” them at 10 in the morning. Seeing everyone growing up, having kids, and living their own life can be kind of sad sometimes, but it’s a good change.

It makes me feel like I can find my own way. That is what this move to Canada has really been about for me. A time to figure out who I am, what I want to do and what I like. That means finding my own Christmas, too.  ­ —  As told to Hilary Duff