CHRISTMAS 21 - Stephenson Christmas a food-filled affair
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
For Citizen weekend photographer John Stephenson and his wife Maria, the holidays mean plenty of food and family, no matter where they happen to be that year.
The Stephensons live in Brussels, having moved there just a few years ago after John retired. They were looking for somewhere near Lake Huron and, after looking at a few places, ended up in Brussels. John grew up in Toronto and he and Maria used to live in Alliston before moving to Huron County.
Now they host some celebrations over the holidays, notably with Maria’s sister, with whom she’s very close. Maria’s sister is 13 years younger than her, so Maria essentially raised her. Maria said she thinks of that sister’s children not as nephews, but as her grandchildren.
They get together either on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day, depending on the year, and there is always plenty of food around.
John and Maria last spent the holidays with that part of the family in 2019, when they came to Brussels for brunch on Christmas Day around noon. They were planning on having that part of the family back to Brussels this year after missing last year, but like so much during the pandemic, they would have to wait and see. The plan was, tentatively, to spend the holiday together on Boxing Day. Last year, Maria said, was the first Christmas ever that she and her sister weren’t together for the holidays.
John and Maria traditionally spend Christmas Eve together alone just for some time on their own.
When they lived in Alliston, John and Maria would host big Christmas celebrations, bringing in excess of 30 people to their home to celebrate Christmas. John had to custom-build some tables for the large gatherings, taking great care to eliminate the problematic gaps from table to table that can result in a spilled drink.
They would go to Maria’s sister’s home too on occasion. However, that couldn’t happen until John fixed another problem at their own house, constructing a special doggy door for the couple’s dogs that allowed them to come in and out of the house, meaning John and Maria could spend more time away from the house, knowing the dogs would be safe, well fed and able to make their way outside to do their business.
Growing up in Toronto, John found Christmas to be a busy time for his family. He said his family wasn’t able to buy a house on their own, or even rent one, so they often would split a house with relatives. At Christmas, when more family came over, there was barely enough room to accommodate everyone, he said. He could remember years when he and the other kids would eat their Christmas dinner on the stairs. Each would pick a stair and dig in.
There were a few rules around the Stephenson household to keep the kids honest around the holidays as well. The first was to combat any snooping around that the children might do.
John says his mother had a rule that, if you found a gift before it was wrapped and given to you, it went back. So, that kept everyone from digging around the house too much.
The second rule was that everyone had to eat their breakfast before they could open their presents on Christmas morning.
One year when John was about seven or eight years old, he got a little creative and did something he still remembers to this day for how it disappointed his mother. He got up really early and dressed his siblings, bringing them downstairs and feeding them some breakfast so they could all open their presents.
His mother came down the stairs to see the kids all playing with their toys and he said she cried all day, so he swore he’d never do that again either. John’s mother, who is 88 years old, will still mention that Christmas, he said.
Maria said Christmas wasn’t really emphasized in her home when she was a kid, so that’s why she really goes to extremes to enjoy the holiday now as an adult.
She spends weeks leading up to the holidays cooking and baking in preparation. With her Italian heritage, food is in her blood, so she’ll make everything from cannoli to other cakes and cookies for the holidays. (Her brown sugar fudge recipe, a holiday favourite at John and Maria’s house, was featured in The Citizen’s holiday recipe section a few weeks ago. That recipe, after some investigation, has been in the family for generations and Maria thinks it dates back to the late 1800s.)
For years, when John and Maria lived in an apartment complex, John would take on the role of Santa Claus for the children of the complex. That only lasted for a few years, however, before John no longer took on the role of Santa Claus, though it was something he loved to do for the children of the community.