Every family is unique, and every family that celebrates Christmas does so with at least one twist that makes it their own. Reel People asked four of Vancouver’s shining film and television stars – John Cassini, Rukiya Bernard, Aliyah O’Brien and Lisa Durupt – to share the distinctive Christmas traditions and memories that warm their hearts and homes each year.
John Cassini (Blackstone)
An Italian Christmas in “the Six”: John Cassini’s holiday memories begin with a wide shot of a Toronto street blanketed with snow, and zoom in on a family room filled with Cassini’s relatives engaging in all manner of Christmas Eve merriment.
They’d begin convening around 4pm to drink cognacs and whisky and coffee, place heaps of presents under the glittering fake tree – including panettone (Italian Christmas bread), bottles of booze (“Because that’s what Italians give each other”), and wrapped-up cartons of cigarettes – and feast until midnight. “They’d do their rounds, and come and go,” says Cassini.
Cassini and his brothers would open their gifts that night, with December 25 reserved for sleeping in, playing hockey, and taking in a movie at Imperial 6 Cinemas on Toronto’s iconic Yonge Street. “The biggest Christmas Day opening I remember had this huge, huge, huge poster in the middle of the lobby: King Kong,” recalls Cassini. “That one rocked me.”
Many of Cassini’s Christmas rituals have changed since he moved to Vancouver and became a dad – his kids open their gifts on Christmas morning, and there aren’t cartons of smokes under the tree – but he still loves a festive film, a fake fir, and kicking back with his loved ones. “For me, Christmas is very much food and movies and coziness and family,” he says.
Favourite Christmas songs: Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby ("'White Christmas’ has more value to me now because we never have them.”)
Favourite Christmas movies: “Back home, it was all of those religious movies. My mom would want to watch The 10 Commandments, so I have an affinity towards all of that stuff. Now, with the kids, Elf is a big hit. We’ve knocked off Christmas with the Kranks a couple of times, because he’s trying to get out of Christmas, and that’s kind of funny. I would love to say the standard It’s a Wonderful Life, but I’ll be honest: if I see another frame of It’s a Wonderful Life… I can’t do it, man.”
Rukiya Bernard (Van Helsing)
Stonewashed dreams: As any fan of 1983’s cult classic A Christmas Story can tell you, some of the most poignant Christmas memories involve many weeks of yearning for something special – like a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time – to materialize under the tree.
For Rukiya Bernard, that “something special” – when she was six years old and growing up in 1980s Toronto – was a pair of stonewashed jeans.
“Stonewashed jeans were the ish,” chuckles Bernard. “I wanted them badly” – so badly, in fact, that on that particular Christmas morning, she awoke before her entire family, crept to the tree, and broke one of the household’s cardinal Christmas rules: Thou shalt not open presents until everyone is awake.
“I saw the box that I thought might be the box of clothes, and I was just ‘To hell with it,’ which is against character for me, because I’m a goody-two-shoes,” says Bernard. She opened the box – carefully, so that she could re-tape it with no one the wiser – and, in a cinematic moment that would delight any A Christmas Story fan, gleefully beheld the highly coveted stonewashed jeans. They were, according to Bernard, absolutely glorious.
Bernard recalls hightailing it to the bathroom to try on her new jeans before she had to pack them back up. By the time she returned to the tree, her parents were awake, and she was busted. “But it was worth it, because I was so, so happy,” says Bernard.
Favourite Christmas foods: “I grew up in a very mixed West Indian and East African family. On Christmas, we would eat the typical turkey and ham dishes, but then there’d be Jamaican escovitch fish, which is a king fish made with a lot of vinegar and scotch bonnet and onions. It’s amazing. My mother would cook traditional Kenyan food, too; collard greens, potato mixed with peas and corn, and roasted goat. She’d cook for a whole week.”
Favourite way to start the season: “I love eggnog, and I’m happy to say I’m the only person in my household who actually likes it, so I get to drink it all by myself. That becomes part of the grocery list. The eggnog is the signal that it’s Christmas.”
Aliyah O’Brien (Insomnia)
All in the 'Framily': For Aliyah O’Brien, Christmas has always been about her “framily”: the family she was born into and her neighbours from when she was growing up on Vancouver Island who decades ago combined to become one big happy family of friends.
O’Brien’s framily celebrates Christmas with a turkey dinner, carolling, and zero presents. “We did away with presents years ago,” says O’Brien. “We just wanted it to be about getting together and connecting. It’s a big love-fest.”
O’Brien traces this emphasis on family, friends, feasts, and fun back to her late grandfather. “He was instrumental in getting us all connected and he’s the reason that we’re so family oriented,” she says. Her grandfather figures prominently in one of her most treasured holiday memories: Christmas Day 2013, when O’Brien (aided by boyfriend Aleks Paunovic of The 100 and Van Helsing) snuck her then-ailing grandfather out of the hospital so that he could partake in the framily feast.
“He wasn’t supposed to leave the hospital, but we wheeled him into the back of the house and he ate the most amazing dinner with us, and he laughed so much, and then we snuck him back into the hospital and they were like, ‘We knew you broke him out,’ but he had the best Christmas ever. It was wonderful. It was amazing. And then he passed away a few days later.”
In recent years, the framily has found a special way to honour O’Brien’s grandfather at the festive feast. “We always make him a little plate of food, because he loved Christmas, and he loved family,” she says.
Favourite Christmas-y role: “When I was a kid, me and my friends in the neighborhood would put on a Christmas play in my basement. We’d write a whole Christmas story and play a bunch of characters and invite the neighbours. That was when I started acting, actually.”
Lisa Durupt (Murder, She Baked)
As seen on TV: For many Vancouverites, the Christmas season begins December 1, when we break out our advent calendars and ugly sweaters. For Lisa Durupt, the Christmas season often begins in the summer.
Over the last several years, Durupt has appeared in a string of holiday movies produced by and for the Hallmark Channel – which, in order to hit TV screens in time for Christmas, must be filmed months in advance, often in downright un-Christmasy conditions.
“One we filmed in May in Squamish in the middle of a heat wave,’” says Durupt, who has two festive films on Hallmark this season: Operation Christmas and A Dream of Christmas. “You’re bundled up, and you’re just sweating, and all the director can say to you is, ‘Play the cold.’ You’re trying to pretend that you’re so cold, but really you’re trying not to melt in your own skin.”
Growing up in Winnipeg, Durupt’s Christmases were about PJs, sleeping late, and hockey; these days, they involve taking her grandparents to church on Christmas Eve, making sure she has enough Baileys to pour into her coffee tumbler for when she walks her dog on Christmas morning (“There’s nothing better”), and watching the World Junior Hockey Championships on Boxing Day.
Favourite Christmas song: “I love Boney M’s version of ‘Feliz Navidad.’ No one really knows the words, but everyone tries to sing it every Christmas.”
Favourite Christmas season activity: “I love to do Christmas baking. But my thing is I have to bag it and give it away right away because I’ll just want to eat it. For me, white chocolate almond bark is Christmas one hundred times over.”
Sabrina Furminger, Reel People columnist
Have Yourself a Merry Little Birthday: I have one vivid Christmas memory that stands out from all of the others. It was November 27, 2010, shortly after 10:30am. I had just given birth to my daughter after 38 agonizing hours in labour – and for the bulk of those 38 hours, I (and my birth team) had listened to the same Christmas music mega-playlist on constant repeat: selections from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas; Christmas with the Rat Pack; and a Christmas classics album that included the iconic Judy Garland rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I’d selected that playlist as my birthing soundtrack because Christmas music had always lifted my spirits, but I hadn’t intended to listen to it for 38 hours straight; once the waves of pain began, we were all too distracted to change it to anything else.
So by the time the nurse handed me this tiny, swaddled, foreign being that had only moments before emerged from my birth canal, I was so drained and so emotional and so out of my depth that I didn’t know what to say, to the baby or to anyone – and so I mustered the last of my strength and croaked out to the child in my arms, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas…”, and started to weep. I count it among the most beautiful and pure moments of my life.
Now, whenever that song plays (which is does frequently during the Christmas season), I think of the moment when everything changed, and I remind my now six-year-old daughter that, before I said anything to her at all, I sang her a special Christmas wish.
Favourite Christmas movies: Scrooged, Die Hard, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and A Christmas Story. Boxing Day is reserved for my annual Star Wars binge: Episodes 4, 5, and 6 – and this year we’ll add The Force Awakens to the line-up. No Lucas prequels allowed, although next year, we’ll probably begin with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Favourite Christmas tradition: Stockings. I love the fact that each member of my extended family tiptoes down to the fireplace in the middle of the night to fill the stockings – even though (with the exception of my daughter) we’re all grown-ups and we all know what the others are doing. We still try to fill those stockings in secret. It’s kind of adorable.