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Spirit of Christmas still alive as hundreds of Canadians give the gift of giving

The most wonderful time in a not-so-wonderful year has arrived and Canadians from coast to coast aren't letting the pandemic put a damper on their Christmas spirit.

The most wonderful time in a not-so-wonderful year has arrived and Canadians from coast to coast aren't letting the pandemic put a damper on their Christmas spirit. From cooking special dishes to delivering early Christmas hampers, many have found creative ways to celebrate while still in the throes of COVID-19's second wave.

In Iqaluit, Nunavut, Sheila Flaherty cooked a piece of polar bear meat, or nanuq in Inuktitut, to serve to her family on Christmas Day.

"It's the most delicious red meat," she said. "It's a really delicate, delicate flavoured meat."

Flaherty had to saw the bone to get it to fit in her slow cookers, using a roasting pan to brown the sides of the shank.

She braised the meat in tomato sauce and cola, serving it with steam buns, tarts and a wreath cake.

Flaherty, an Inuk chef and entrepreneur, harvested the animal in September outside Iqaluit. It was her first polar bear catch.

She usually flies to Ottawa for Christmas to see her son and father, but she'll be spending it with her husband's family up north this year.

"My dad is 87 ... and Christmas is really important to him. He's really missing us."

"But we're taking comfort and refuge in comfort: which is cooking and baking."

Alex Watts, a former homeless man, is spending time with his family in Vancouver.

Every year, Watts helps others in Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside have the kind of Christmas he would have wanted when he was homeless. As part of his Hope And Love For You event, he gives away bagged lunches, gifts and cards to those who would otherwise get nothing.

Watts managed to get hampers full of food, toys, toques, mitts and scarves to 13 families after reaching out to churches and individuals for donations. He delivered the last one on Tuesday.

"Sure, I do miss it. But this is just temporary," Watts said in an interview about COVID-19 restrictions impacting his usual tradition of helping others on Christmas Day.

He is cooking a turkey for the first time in a long time, and looking forward to sitting down with his family for dinner, Watts said.

One of the highlights of his day is being able to spend it with his two-year-old son, he added.

"I'm a father for the first time in sobriety, so I get to spend Christmas Day with my little one and be there when he opens his gifts in the morning. That's extra special for me," Watts said.

In Alberta, paying it forward overtook this holiday season as hundreds of volunteers worked to provide food, gifts and clothing donated in record-breaking numbers.

The Christmas Bureau of Edmonton marked its 80th birthday by providing 45,000 people with Christmas meals.

"We saw a 15 per cent increase (in families needing help), which was unprecedented for us, We usually only see a two to five per cent increase year to year," said the charity's spokeswoman Katherine Stavropoulos.

Mohan Thomas from Mississauga, Ont., usually congregates with family members from other parts of the province to attend midnight Christmas mass at Merciful Redeemer Parish.

This year, however, he attended church alone.

He was able to make a reservation for the church's Christmas Day communion service, which was booked up within minutes online. 

People were guided in for a few minutes at a time to take part in the service, which Thomas said was 

"There has to be some way of practicing your faith, otherwise people will lose hope," he said.

Religious ceremonies are limited to 10 people indoors in Ontario's Peel Region, making it impossible for the church to hold a full Christmas Day mass.

Owen Keenan, the church's pastor, says hundreds of people usually attend, but this year it will only be held virtually.

For Jon Stanfield, chief executive of Stanfield's Ltd., it's been an exhausting year that's involved extensive changes at his firm. 

The factory in Truro, N.S., best known for its underwear, pivoted to protective clothing for front-line health workers. It had produced more than three million protective gowns by the end of October.

In the days before Christmas, Stanfield joined with 20 employees to load $1.5 million worth of clothing and underwear on trucks to deliver to the Salvation Army's central depot in Toronto. From there, the garments are delivered to homeless shelters across the country.

"I wanted to provide clothing for the backs and bums of more people that may be in need this year ... largely because of COVID-19 and job loss," he said.

Rev. Kyle Wagner, rector of Christ Church Anglican Church in Dartmouth, N.S., said having Christmas services online feels strange, but is necessary with the virus still circulating. 

"It feels kind of weird. There's some sadness for sure," he said. 

Wagner said he was still able to follow his Christmas Eve tradition of watching the film "It's a Wonderful Life" but it was a change of pace for someone used to working on the day.

"It's the first Christmas I didn't have to work, so really it was just kind of an early night," he said.

It's the first time his historic church, constructed in 1817, has closed on Christmas Eve since the Halifax explosion in 1917.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2020.

— With files from Emma Tranter in Iqaluit, Camille Bains and Nick Wells in Vancouver, Denise Paglinawan in Toronto and Michael Tutton in Halifax


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press