Home for the Holidays
It was not a huge house, but it was ours. We were intimately involved in the building process, not just picking colours for carpets and slate tiles, but on a daily basis as we bought a house just a couple of blocks away in order to have a place to reside while we watched our new home be completed. We knew every inch of the house, and even when we sold it, the house that was once our home was held tight in our hearts as the place where we celebrated many special holidays, including Christmas. Even after it was no longer where we lived, it was the home of our memories, and a place we would always remember fondly.
On May 3rd, that house, just steps from the beautiful boreal forest and nestled in a small, close-knit neighbourhood, burned to the ground. While we did not lose our current home, that loss was still keenly felt as homes are about more than concrete and plaster, bricks and mortar; homes are about memories.
2016 has been a year unlike any other in our community. While we have faced some difficult times, the Horse River Fire presented an entirely new set of circumstances for the place tens of thousands call home, and for some it threw the concept of home itself into question.
The phrase “home for the holidays” has taken on both new meaning and new poignancy this year. Thousands were able to return to their still-standing homes, carrying with them a new found appreciation for both the homes and the sentiment. In sharp contrast, others were unable to return home due to an event that left their homes either severely damaged or destroyed by a catastrophic event, and this holiday season is likely to provoke not only strong emotions but powerful memories of homes that are now gone.
The spirit of the holidays has always been alive and well in Wood Buffalo, but after a year in which so much has changed there is a chance that this spirit will shine even brighter as residents recognize the challenges still facing so many other members of our community.
One of the greatest challenges may be in the days leading up to Christmas, as community members struggle with memories of years gone by and the significant changes our region has seen in such a short period of time. Traditions, which are the cornerstone of every holiday, will be part of this challenge, but there may be a chance to embrace some new traditions, including one that comes from a small country that also experiences long, dark and cold winters and yet which is ranked as one of the happiest on the planet.
Denmark has long been the home of a tradition turned philosophy called “hygge” (pronounced “hoo-ga”) which is based entirely around the concept of making life cozy. Warm blankets, hot drinks, delicious foods, bright candles and time with good friends are the key components of hygge. This Danish lifestyle choice is widely attributed to being a key factor in their remarkable “happiness quotient”, and is based solely on the ability to focus on the small joys in life in which to find comfort and peace.
Forging new traditions, whether they are developing new social opportunities for friends and families to enjoy or new ones we develop because we find ourselves in temporary housing, may well be the balm community members need to remember that while we have been through so much we continue to rebuild and recover as both individuals and a community. Small traditions may take on new significance, and while there is almost certainly going to be some sadness, one can only hope the residents of the community give to each other this season as others gave so freely to us during 2016. And then, on December 31, we have the chance to turn the page on a difficult year, and begin writing a fresh chapter for a new one.
The truth is that no person of this community needs to go it alone this holiday season; if ever there was a time to reach out to friends and neighbours and find them reaching back, this is it. We have all been through a deeply impactful collective experience, and we will all likely find ourselves working through many emotions during the holidays of 2016. It is my hope we will find ways to share those feelings and emotions with each other, allowing ourselves the chance to continue to bond and heal as a community and support each other through the holidays just as we have through this entire year.
For me, I find myself thinking back to years spent in a little house beside the forest, bedecked in brightly coloured lights and pine wreaths. I think of the little girl who once lived there, so in tune with that home that her tiny handprint could be found in the very foundation as she placed her warm little outstretched hand there just moments after they poured it. I think of how she is now seventeen, and how she was the one to check the satellite photos and tell me that the little house that was once our home was no longer there. This year we will not dwell on the sadness of losing that house, although our entire hearts go out to the ones who call it home now, and all the others who have lost their precious homes. My daughter and I will focus on the memories, the ones that cannot be touched by fire and that will burn brightly in our hearts and minds forever, of holidays of happiness and togetherness and the pure and simple joy of being together. We will practice both saying and embracing hygge, surrounding ourselves with warm blankets, warm drinks, and warm hearts. And we will welcome any and all who wish to share the holidays with us, because this year, wherever you are, home will truly be where the heart is. My heart just happens to be right here, in Fort McMurray, Alberta.