Tis the Season, For Many Reasons: Happy Holiday Memories and Treasured Traditions from Eastern Health Employees

This holiday season, Eastern Health is sharing some traditions of our many diverse employees. Last week, Zelda Burt from Corporate Communications shared stories of celebrated holidays while growing up in South Africa. We invite you to read on below for more stories from our employees about their festive celebrations! 

Making the Season Bright

In this part of the world, on a rocky island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, December heralds with it short days, less sunlight, cold whipping winds that bite to the bone and typically lots of snow. So, we bundle up and huddle close and many of us yearn for the brightness and warmth of summer days. Yet, there is a saving grace to the long winter ahead: at the darkest time of the year, there comes a beacon of light, hope and joy – because for many of us, our major religious celebrations, festivals and holidays coincide with this time year!

A winter scene at St. John’s Harbour

My Home for the Holidays

For me, a born and bred Newfoundlander from Outer Cove, December means celebrating Christmas with family and friends. It means a real, Newfoundland evergreen tree fully decked out in tinsel, garland or ribbons and bulbs of every colour, stringed with sparkling, rainbow lights. It means mass on Christmas Eve night in an old church brimming full of people, singing and praying. It means waking up mom and dad with my brothers before daylight on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought, and a stocking faithfully bearing an apple and orange to fill out the toe.  It means sitting down on Christmas Day to the biggest feed of turkey you’ve ever seen, complete with dressing made with Mount Scio savory, salt meat, Nan’s homemade mustard pickles and a drop of Purity syrup, if you’re so inclined.

But most importantly, it means time spent with family and friends and the wonderful, everlasting memories made with them over the years. No doubt, similar Christmas traditions play out in many homes across the province.

A white Christmas in Outer Cove

Eastern Health – A Place for All

Reflecting on my own traditions, I couldn’t help but wonder about how my colleagues at Eastern Health celebrate the holidays. As an employer of over 13,000 people, Eastern Health’s employees have vastly different backgrounds, may come from all over the world, may speak different languages and are of a variety of different faiths and religious affiliations.

As part of Eastern Health’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, we promise to provide patients, clients and residents with sensitive care that respects diversity. As an employer, Eastern Health extends the same commitment to our employees and their workplace.

“Eastern Health strives for an inclusive environment for all. Our Diversity and Inclusion Committee includes members from throughout the organization representing the distinct and complementary characteristics of many employees,” say Josee Dumas, human resources strategist leading Eastern Health’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. “Each and every one of us brings valuable knowledge, experience and perspective and Eastern Health is a stronger organization because of this.”

Regardless of where we come from or what brought us to Eastern Health and living and working in Newfoundland and Labrador, we all share at least one thing in common – a commitment to ensuring quality health care to the residents of this region.

So, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight the holiday traditions of some of the health professionals who make up Eastern Health and show that as much as we differ, be it in our seasonal festivities or in other areas of life, we also have many things in common. As you read on, you’ll notice many similar themes and values in the various celebrations – like the importance of family, the spirit of generosity and giving, the prominence of lights and, of course, food (especially cake and candy!)

I hope by sharing these memories and traditions it broadens your perspective on the world we all share, encourages you to reflect on and appreciate your own traditions more and inspires you to make new ones with your family and friends.

Thanks to Aruna, Claudia, Dacia, Julio, Katie, Lisa and Melisa for sharing.

Enjoy! Happy Holidays!

Aruna Ralhan O.T (R)NL

Regional Ergonomics Program Coordinator, Workplace Health, Safety and EFAP

Aruna Ralhan has lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for 30 years, but originally called India home. This time of year in India and in the Hindu faith is marked by the celebration of Diwali – the festival of lights – and is typically celebrated late in October or early November.

Aruna Ralhan, regional ergonomics program coordinator

“On the day of Diwali, we worship Goddess Laxmi, seeking her blessings for happiness and prosperity for the coming year,” Aruna explains. “Earthen lamps known as diyas are lit all around the house to brighten the paths for her to come.” She also notes the light is a symbol to take the darkness away from hearts and minds. In fact, Aruna’s favourite memory of Diwali is spending time with her brothers as a child, lighting candles and diyas around the family home and trying to keep them all lit so that their home was the brightest and Mother Laxmi could easily find it.

Much like other seasonal celebrations, preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance with lots of thorough cleaning, baking, cooking, decorating and shopping. In India, Aruna recalls, marketplaces know as bazars are beautifully decorated and people shop for decorations, gifts, sweets, fireworks and jewelry.

Food plays an important role during Diwali, as it does in many Indian celebrations. There are lots of sweets and a special meal is prepared for the evening. Mothers prepare their children’s favourite dish so there can be quite a bit of variation in what is served from family to family.

Although the dates don’t line up directly with the December holiday season, Aruna notes that there are many similarities between the festival of Dewali and Christmas traditions. “Holidays are meant to be enjoyed with our loved ones,” she says. “Sometimes, in today’s materialistic world we can get so caught up in the gathering of things for celebrations and exhaust ourselves so that we do not have the energy to give what we all need, and that is time – time to love, live and laugh together under one roof.”

Dr. Claudia Sarbu, MD, MSc, FRCPC

Medical Officer of Health

Originally from the Eastern European country of Romania, Dr. Claudia Sarbu, eagerly shares some of the unique Christmas traditions of her homeland. According to Dr. Sarbu, there are several significant holidays celebrated during the holiday season in Romania, which kicks off after St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), when according to local legends, vampires and evil spirits come to light.

Boots and shoes filled with gifts from Sfantul Nicolae

First, Sfantul Nicolae’s Day (St. Nicholas) is celebrated on December 6. Dr. Sarbu explains that on the evening of December 5, children clean their shoes or boots and leave them by the door in hopes that Sfantul Nicolae will leave them some small presents. Romanian tradition states that if it snows on December 6, Sfantul Nicolae has shaken his beard and winter can begin.

True Christmas celebrations begin in Romania on Christmas Eve (December 24). According to Dr. Sarbu, that’s when families decorate their Christmas trees, usually in the evening. In Romanian this is called ajunul craciunului. Throughout Christmas, most Romanian homes are filled with neighbours, friends and relatives. There’s dancing, cooking, storytelling, and carol singers at the door.

Carol singing (colindatul) is a very popular tradition in Romania. “On Christmas Eve, children go from house to house performing for adults in hopes they will be rewarded with treats,” says Dr. Sarbu. Adults will carol on Christmas Day evening or night, often preforming a traditional Romanian carol called the “Star Carol.” It is common for carolers to carry a pole topped with a star of coloured paper, decorated with tinsel, foil or bells and a picture of the nativity or baby Jesus in the centre. In many parts of Romania, the capra, a goat may be dressed up with a multicoloured mask, and accompanies the caroling, while jumping and dancing to the music.

“While food is an important part of recognizing Christmas in Romania, for many people, so is fasting or not eating,” says Dr. Sarbu.  “Romanians are a religious people and usually practice fasting throughout the holiday season, typically from November 14 – December 24. This is called the Nativity Fast and according to the Orthodox religion, during these 40 days leading up to Christmas, people must not eat meat, eggs or milk.”

When the fast is over, it’s time to indulge! Traditional Romanian Christmas foods include roast gammon and pork chops, ciorba de perisoare which is a slightly sour vegetable soup made with fermented bran and pork meatballs; sarmale cabbage leaves stuffed with ground pork and served with polenta; cozonac a rich fruit bread; Romanian doughnuts called gogosi and cheesecakes.

Dr. Sarbu and her family celebrating Christmas

New Year’s Eve is also an important celebration in Romania and is sometimes called “Little Christmas.” Dr. Sarbu shares that traditionally, a small, decorated plough called a plugusorul is paraded through the streets on New Year’s Eve. It is meant to help people have good crops during the following year.

Dr. Sarbu wishes ‘Crăciun Fericit’ (Merry Christmas) to all of Eastern Health’s clients, residents and patients, as well her fellow employees.

Dacia Wallace

Licensed Practical Nurse, Pleasant View Towers

The first word Dacia Wallace uses to describe Christmas in Jamaica is “magical.” According to her, one of the most magical events of the Christmas season is the Grand Market held in most towns and cities of Jamaica on Christmas Eve. She describes them as vibrant, colourful, street markets, usually in town centres, where shoppers can make their last-minute purchases. They last well into the early morning of Christmas Day and transportation services even remain in operation right through the night to facilitate shoppers as they hurry home with their parcels.

Dacia Wallace, LPN at Pleasant View Towers

As Jamaica is largely a religious country, the role of the church in Christmas celebrations is significant. Many people attend services early on Christmas Day or for some religious groups, like Catholics and Anglicans, they will celebrate a midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

After religious services have concluded, next comes the food. “The Christmas dinner is the centerpiece of the family activities on Christmas Day,” Dacia says. “In most Jamaican families, Christmas dinner is a significant feast with a choice of several meats – ham, curried goat, roast beef, roast pork, or chicken accompanied by rice and peas – at Christmas, pigeon peas (known locally as gungu peas) are the preferred option.”

A Traditional Jamaican Christmas Dinner
Source: The Traveling Natural

The Christmas meal is not complete without sorrel (a drink fermented from the hibiscus sabdariffa plant with rum and ginger) and the highlight of the evening – Christmas cake. The traditional Christmas cake in Jamaica is dense, black fruitcake, made with various fruits and soaked in rum for months. The cake is also infused with rum after is baked, so Dacia advises to enjoy it responsibly! It’s common for Jamaicans to go house to house on Christmas Day partaking in Christmas dinner and exchanging Christmas cake. In fact, Dacia says exchanging Christmas cake is as popular a tradition in Jamaica as exchanging gifts. She explains, “Cake makers are fiercely proud of their productions and jealously guard their recipes.”

In a tradition that Dacia compares to mummering in Newfoundland and Labrador, years ago in Jamaica, Jon Kunnu (John Canoe) bands were a staple of Christmas celebrations. These fife and drum bands would parade the streets, dressed in colourful carnival costumes depicting various elements of Jamaica’s religious and cultural mythology and history and symbolizing religion, agriculture and fertility. The performances were so intense and energetic that, Dacia shares, they would sometimes even scare small children!

Julio Panama

Cyclotron Engineer, Radiopharmaceutical Sciences of Diagnostic Imaging, Molecular Imaging Facility

Originally from Mexico, Julio Panama has been living in St. John’s for about two years. The holiday season in St. John’s certainly differs from that of his home country. For instance, Mexico recognizes three big celebrations during Christmas time. As a predominately religious country, all three of these celebrations originate from the Roman Catholic Church and over time have transformed into Mexican traditions.

Julio Panama, cyclotron engineer at the Molecular Imaging Facility

The first of the Christmas celebrations in Mexico comes on December 12. This day commemorates the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to a Mexican farmer in the early 1500s. Approximately nine million Mexican people each year travel to Mexico City to place large flower ornaments at the shrine.

The second celebration is December 24 and 25 which is mainly a family holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. “These days are fairly similar to those in Canada,” says Julio. “Families get together for food and fun and Santa brings presents.” The main difference is timing. In Mexico, December 24 is a day of relaxation. People sleep in, eat a big breakfast around noon and gather their energy for the party to come. Extended family will gather at the grandparents’ house at about 8:00 p.m. when the festivities commence, he explains. Until about midnight, everyone will play games, chat and eat lots of delicious finger foods.

Along with a Christmas tree, in Mexico it is very popular to have a Christmas village. In fact, Julio says more time and efforts goes into the village than the tree. “At midnight, everyone gathers around the Christmas village,” he recalls. “Usually my grandma sets a baby in the village to symbolize the birth of Jesus, then we all take a few minutes to wish each other a happy and merry Christmas.”

The Christmas meal will be served around 12:30 a.m. “Food and drink are the main attraction of any Mexican holiday,” says Julio. Turkey and other Canadian food are sometimes made for the holidays but it is not the tradition. A typical Christmas meal will include things like pozole (a Mexican soup of pulled pork, a special type of Mexican corn), romeritos (seepweed in mole sauce), roasted pork legs in chile rub, and a cod dish called bacalao (salted cod, tomato-based sauce, olives, capers and chiles).

Usually the fun and games last well into the wee hours of the morning. According to Julio, Christmas Day is then used as a day to recuperate and catch up on sleep from the night before – and it’s a day to open presents from Santa!

The third important holiday celebration in Mexico is on January 6 which recognizes Three Kings Day or Epiphany Day. Julio describes this as a much quieter night where they have a family dinner much like a Thanksgiving dinner in Canada. The main difference would be at the end of dinner there is a traditional cake/bunt called rosca de reyes that is only made for this specific day. What’s special about this cake is that it has small plastic figurines inside (symbolizing baby Jesus). Usually four or five of these figurines are in the cake and each one marks a responsibility for planning a party for the next holiday on February 2.

“Once dinner is over, we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings, which is much live Santa all over again. Kids wake up the next morning and the Christmas tree is again packed full of gifts – mostly toys this time,” says Julio. In Mexican tradition, Santa typically brings gifts of clothes or other practical items whereas the Three Kings bring toys and fun games for the children!

Katie Dicker

Senior Aboriginal Patient Navigator

For the past eight years, Katie Dicker has been working with Eastern Health in St. John’s, but her hometown is Nain in Labrador. As Katie speaks about what Christmas is like in Nain, it’s clear it holds a special place in her heart. “The most important part of Christmas is family. Especially now that I live in St. John’s, I appreciate the time that I am in Nain so much more,” she says.

The Moravian star shining in a window in Nain

The Christmas season in Nain begins on the eve of four Sundays before Christmas Day with Advent, she shares. Residents of the community put up an Advent tree, hang the Moravian star in the window and children will hang their stockings on the eve of Advent – but they won’t be filled by Santa this night! In the Inuit tradition, Nalujuk will come to fill the children’s stockings!

Katie’s niece at the Christmas Eve candlelight service

The Moravian faith is prominent in Nain so religion plays a big role in Christmas celebrations. On Christmas Eve, candlelight services bring together the majority of the 1,200 residents of the community. One of the most special parts of the service, according to Katie, is that all children under 16 will get an apple with a lit candle, leaving the church aglow in candlelight. It’s a beautiful sight and with the sounds of church choir singing beautifully in Inuktitut – the perfect Christmas scene is set. “That’s when I get into the Christmas spirit,” she says. “You can just feel all the happiness and excitement in the church.”

Other events take place in the church throughout the Christmas season. On December 28, there is a Children’s Day at the church called a Love Feast. Children will have biscuits (traditionally a Purity round biscuit) and tea which have been blessed. On New Year’s Eve, a memorial service will be held at the church in honour of all those who have passed throughout the year. A late-night service beginning at 11:30 p.m. helps ring in the New Year in Nain.

Food plays a big role in the celebrations over Christmas, including a hearty dinner on Christmas Day with extended family. Years ago, the star of the meal was usually goose. These days, Katie says, it’s more common to find turkey or ham on the dinner plate. Spending Christmas in Nain, Katie looks forward to having a meal of some of the other traditional foods in Nain, as well, such as seal, fish, moose, arctic hare, porcupine or partridges.

Nalujuk Night in Nain

The season wraps up on Old Christmas Day (January 6) with Nalujuk Night. Katie explains that kids will hang their stockings one last time the night before on January 5 for Nalujuk to fill. Then on January 6, Nalujuit can be seen out on the streets dressed in furs and seal skin and carrying a stick or chain. Nalujuit chase the children until they sing a song and are pleasantly rewarded for their singing, with candy.

Lisa Zigler

Manager, Mental Health and Addictions

For Lisa Zigler, the holiday season is marked by one of the most significant events in her Jewish faith – the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, also referred to as the festival of lights.

Lisa Zigler is a manager with the Mental Health & Addictions Program

Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew and commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Lisa shares that according to legend, it was a time when the Jewish people had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. During the conflict, there was a small amount of oil that would be used as a source of light and heat for the Jewish people. It was believed the oil would only last one night, but miraculously it lasted for eight nights. Lisa explains, “That’s why we celebrate eight nights of Hanukkah and why this holiday is known as the miracle of oil.”

This year, Hanukkah is observed from December 12-20. “On these nights, I light a Menorah which holds eight candles along with an additional one which is used to light the candles. Together, with family and friends, I light the Menorah with a blessing while reflecting on what is important in my life and the lives of others such as health, hope, happiness, resilience and peace.”

Lisa’s Menorah

During Hanukkah, small gifts are exchanged amongst family and friends. Food also plays a key role and various traditional foods are enjoyed and often cooked in oil to reflect the miracle of the oil that is being celebrated. According the Lisa, latkes, also known as potato pancakes, are a delicious and popular treat during Hanukkah festivities.

Along with Hanukkah, Lisa says, “I am quite blessed to also celebrate the Winter Solstice with my wife who is a Pagan and Christmas with my in-laws. The holidays are a time to celebrate diversity and to remember what we all have in common. Blessed Be!”

Melisa Valverde

Digital Communications Manager, Corporate Communications

Melisa Valverde grew up in and celebrated many Christmas seasons in Colombia. “As a tropical country, Christmas in Colombia is warm and full of vibrant sounds and vivid colours,” she recalls.

Melisa Valverde Cárdenas, digital communications manager with Eastern Health

According to Melisa, Colombia is largely Catholic, so many of the holiday traditions have a religious origin. In fact, baby Jesus is the one who brings presents to children, and not Santa! Colombia is a diverse country, and different regions have different ways of celebrating. For the most part, the beginning of the season is usually marked by ‘Día de las Velitas’ (Day of the Candles) on December 7, leading up to the ‘El Día de la Virgen Maria’ (Day of the Virgin Mary) – also a national holiday, on December 8.


“I remember as a child waiting anxiously to commence these festivities as I knew it was the beginning of the holiday, where school had ended and we could stay up past bed time, and the promise of summer vacations was ripe in the air,” Melisa recalls. “I would join my family and friends at night to hang lanterns on the trees, and line the sidewalks with candles. It was sort of magical – everyone would come out to socialize and laugh in the soft glow.”

Bogotá, Colombia. Source: el-periplo-aragones.blogspot.ca

The ‘novena,’ which literally means ‘ninth,’ is likely the strongest Christmas tradition in Colombia in Melisa’s view. The novena starts nine days before the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. People gather each day around the nativity to read part of the journey that Joseph and Mary endured up to the birth of Jesus. During a novena, people sing traditional Colombian Christmas carols, called villancicos, eat traditional goodies and spend time with one another.

The holiday season in the tropics is full of festivals and gatherings. Besides Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year celebrations are a big deal in Colombia. “These are welcome excuses for family and friends to gather and enjoy each other’s company,” says Melisa. “We get together and reminisce about the year past, share plenty of food (pig roasts being a favourite!), dance, listen to music and share well wishes for the year to come.”  ■

 This story was written by Tracey Boland, media relations manager for Eastern Health.

2 responses to “Tis the Season, For Many Reasons: Happy Holiday Memories and Treasured Traditions from Eastern Health Employees

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