Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's no place like Winnipeg for the holidays

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- "In Winnipeg at Christmas there's lots and lots of snow/Very clean, and crisp and hard/And glittering like a Christmas card/Everywhere you go."

So reads the first stanza of English poet Rose Fyleman's simple but telling yuletide love letter to the Prairie town.

Fyleman's poem, which was memorized by thousands of Winnipeg school children in the 1940s, goes on to describe the lights, the parties and the food associated with the season. Not surprisingly though, most of her finely crafted words are reserved for the cold and the snow.

For the first 30-odd years of my life, I celebrated Christmas with family and friends in Winnipeg, the coldest city in the world with a population greater than half a million. Since moving to Palm Springs, California, I have yet to experience the ideal Christmas Fyleman so aptly describes.

In Palm Springs at Christmas/It's sunny and warm/With no snow/Just like every other day of the year.

Southern California's near-perfect weather may be suitable for playing a round of golf or a few sets of tennis on Christmas Day, but temperatures in the mid-70s (F) can't set the tone for a holiday that requires snow and cold to be authentic, if not memorable. After all, Santa drives a sleigh, not a BMW convertible.

It may sound insane to Winnipeggers who are enduring temperatures that cause polar bears to curse, or to the lucky ones fleeing to Mexico or Cuba to lie on the beach with a pina colada while soaking up the sun, but I would love to spend more Christmases in Winnipeg.

In California, Christmas doesn't have the same festive feel. It may be due to Thanksgiving, the more celebrated of the two holidays, landing three weeks prior to Dec. 25, but I think it has more to do with the weather than anything else.

Winnipeg is famous for its houses wrapped with Christmas lights that have become part of informal tours. In Palm Springs, the odd house is lit up and decorated in the spirit of the season, but a plastic yard Santa and his sleigh being pulled by Rudolph, sitting on a green lawn next to a prickly pear cactus, seems out of place.

The brutal winters that despotic Mother Nature doles out not only creates a winter wonderland, it also promotes the affability of Winnipeggers. When it's extremely cold for many months of the year, people are forced to socialize in close quarters, usually the kitchen.

These parties are where intimate human bonds are formed and that famous Canadian sense of humour is incubated. It's all about survival. Let's face it, if there's dozens of people partying in a small home, somebody better be funny or a fist fight might break out.

It's not just the ideal winter backdrop that Winnipeg's weather sets for the holidays that makes me yearn for a Prairie Christmas, it's the entire experience that I miss.

The season at the heart of the continent begins long before the big day, and the open houses don't end until after the Ukrainians have stopped celebrating.

Trips to the grocery store, beer vendor and liquor commission must be carefully orchestrated and executed before they close on Christmas Eve. Loading up on beverages and snacks is essential for an enjoyable holiday. Even though the lack of beer, wine, and hard stuff might make you hangover-free, it also makes you the scourge of the neighbourhood.

This planning creates a tremendous feeling of anticipation (and a little anxiety), which adds to the enjoyment of the celebration when it all finally comes together.

As grocery stores and liquor marts are open on Christmas Day in California, there's no need to rush around to stock up on food and drink.

Maybe it's because I haven't experienced -30 temperatures for some time, or maybe I'm being sentimental, but I'm seriously considering making a Christmas pilgrimage to Winnipeg.

I'm not the only one who thinks Winnipeg is one of the best places in the world to celebrate the holidays.

I'll let the last stanza Fyleman's Winnipeg at Christmas speak to a city that sometimes underestimates itself:

"So, if someday at Christmas you don't know where to go/Just pack your bags I beg/And start at once for Winnipeg/You'll like it there I know."


Bruce Clark, a comedy writer, is a former Winnipegger who summers in the Whiteshell.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2008 A15

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