For Blyth's van Leeuwens it's all about church, family
BY DENNY SCOTT
Members of the van Leeuwen family in Blyth focus a lot of their energy around Christmas at the Blyth Christian Reformed Church, where patriarch Gary is a pastor.
The focus on church is in itself a tradition, Gary said, as Christmas hasn’t changed too much for him over the years.
While some churches mark Christmas with Christmas Eve celebrations, Gary said there’s a long history of Christmas Day celebrations in some Christian Reformed Churches like his own.
“The focus is on a Christmas-themed service and most of our people enjoy that,” he said.
“Christmas Day is a big one for us,” Gary said of his family. “Following the service, we usually have a Christmas meal, a tradition for both my family and my wife’s family. Then after that we open gifts.”
He went on to say his family’s practices are the probably traditional fare for most people.
The family meal is always chicken or turkey, Gary said, a tradition that has followed him since he was young.
“Growing up on a dairy farm, beef wasn’t a celebratory meal,” he said.
When looking back on the Christmas celebrations of his youth, he said that, after church services, there was often a time for extended family, and while that tradition has continued, he said this year will be an obvious exception.
Growing up on a farm, however, meant that Christmas was actually a matter of chores first, then church, then celebration.
“It was less relaxing than you think,” he said. “We never travelled on Christmas Day, growing up, it was always family time at home.”
He said that, as a family, he, his wife and children have decided to carry on that tradition as well, partly because of Gary’s job and that travelling after church services would result in a very long day.
“Growing up, my mother’s family got together for Boxing Day,” he said. “There was a big celebration with my cousins. In my extended family we always drew names for Christmas gifts and, for years we’ve continued to do that.”
The van Leeuwen children can also look forward to finding their first initial, in chocolate form, under the tree, another tradition from Gary’s youth.
“It was always the same size of box every year, and we always knew what it was,” he said. “My brother Ian didn’t always get his first initial though, because [the letter] ‘I’ was hard to find.”
Gary’s wife Helen’s family celebration included spending time together, which has continued on.
“We usually get together with her brothers and sisters sometime through the Christmas holidays, whenever it’s convenient,” Gary said. “It’s hardly ever on Christmas Day, however, as there is a lot more travelling with my wife’s family who are from eastern Ontario. The last few years it’s been difficult with weather and with kids having jobs.”
There are some traditions his family left behind, Gary said, when they came from Holland, like going to two church services on Christmas Day and one on Boxing Day, alongside the normal two services that are held on Sunday.
“If Christmas was on Monday, then on Sunday you would have two services, then again on Monday and then one on Boxing Day,” he said. “That’s not a tradition we’ve kept.”
Whether it was when he was young or more recent celebrations, Gary said the big focus for his family is the spiritual side of it.
“Our focus on Christmas has never been Santa Claus or the gifts,” he said. “We keep that to a minimum. We don’t spend a lot, and we’re never in debt in January.”
Gifts for the family, Gary said, aren’t extravagant.
“Gifts are some practical things, nice things we might not otherwise get,” he said. “But gift-giving isn’t the highlight, the celebration of Jesus’ birth is.”
As far as Blyth Christian Reformed Church is concerned, Gary said that this year there may be a Christmas Eve service alongside the Christmas Day service to accommodate as much of the congregation as possible.
“It’s not normal, but we thought we’d do it,” Gary said. “It’s important to celebrate Christmas.”
The church can currently host up to 30 per cent of its regular capacity, Gary said, which means 90 people.
“Not everyone will be able to attend, and some probably won’t due to lack of comfort with the situation, but we will have our online Christmas Day service,” he said.
The online services aren’t as popular as they were when the pandemic first struck, van Leeuwen said, as there were 200 views or so per video and that’s now down to 80 or 90.
For more information, follow the Blyth Christian Reformed Church on Facebook.