Christmas Traditions and Customs in Canada

Petit Champlain Quebec City Christmas

SOPHIE-CARON / Getty Images 

Christmas in Canada is celebrated in much the same way as it is in other Western countries. As it is across the globe, Dec. 25 is the official holiday in Canada, with many Canadians also taking time off on the afternoon of the 24th (Christmas Eve) as well as Boxing Day, which is celebrated on the 26th.

Canada is a multicultural country, so many other holiday traditions aside from Christian ones are observed in December and throughout the year. Hanukkah celebrations are widespread, especially in Toronto and Montreal where there are large Jewish populations. On Christmas Day, pretty much everything in the way of retail and services is closed, except for the occasional convenience store. If you're looking for a bar or restaurant for a good holiday meal, a hotel is a good bet. 

Christmas Eve is the last chance to get Christmas shopping done, with most stores staying open until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.; lots of people leave work for the day by noon or shortly thereafter.

Canadian traditions include decorating a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts. On Christmas Day, a special meal is prepared; it often consists of a roast turkey, seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Traditional favorite Christmas desserts reminiscent of England include Christmas plum puddings, mincemeat tarts, and rich fruit cake. Christmas crackers, which are packaged tubes that contain small items like gifts and paper hats, are popular favors.

On Dec. 26, Canadians shake off their food comas and hit the malls for Boxing Day, the biggest shopping day of the year, when stores slash prices in an effort to attract holiday shoppers.

Travel Around Christmas

The week between Christmas and New Year's is a popular time to travel in Canada. Lots of people head for southern climates or across the country for a holiday visit. If you're looking for a travel bargain, consider flying on Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, or New Year's Day. Flight fares peak the weekend before and the days after Dec. 25, and again on Jan. 2.

Public transportation in Canada over the Christmas holidays will most likely be operating on a reduced schedule on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and New Year's Day.

Holiday Weather

Be prepared for cold weather if visiting Canada over Christmas; however, the climate does vary from west to east coast, with Vancouver in British Columbia as a whole being much milder and wetter. 

In popular destinations such as Toronto and Montreal, located in southern Ontario and Quebec respectably, the weather is much harsher and snowfall can be dramatic. You'll want to pack plenty of warm clothing—including a winter coat, waterproof boots, hat, gloves, and thermal underwear—plus UV-blocking sunglasses to protect against winter glare. If you're planning to drive, be sure to take extra precautions, such as packing an emergency kit and refreshing yourself on winter driving techniques.

Toronto Winter Fun on Nathan Phillips Square
Katrin Ray Shumakov / Getty Images

Christmas in Canadian Cities

Christmas parades are popular holiday celebrations in Canada, and most major cities across the country hold a Santa Claus Parade in November, with some spilling over into December. Festivals of lights are popular events, too, and set many Canadian cities aglow.

But while Christmas traditions are similar right across the country, each city has its own unique spin on them. Be sure to check local listings to keep up-to-date on city-specific parades, light festivals, Santa Claus sightings, and Boxing Day sales.

Read on to discover some of the top things to do in Canada's biggest cities around the holiday.

Toronto

Although it's cold, Toronto at Christmas is bustling and festive. Toronto's Santa Claus Parade holds the record as the longest-standing children's parade and has marched jolly St. Nick across town for more than a century; the event, which attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators every year, features floats, bands, and Celebrity Clowns, in addition to Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Meanwhile, Toronto's annual Cavalcade of Lights takes place from the end of November to the first week of January. Held at Nathan Phillips Square, the event features the city's official Christmas tree, festive light displays, ice skating, a Christmas market, fireworks, and musical performances.

Visitors to the city can also enjoy the elaborately decorated department store windows in downtown Toronto, Casa Loma's Christmas at the Castle event, and, in nearby Vaughan, Winterfest at Canada's Wonderland.

Vancouver

Vancouver during the Christmas season stays festive with the Rogers Santa Claus Parade, which draws hundreds of thousands of spectators downtown every year. From the end of November to the beginning of January, the Festival of Lights takes over 15 acres at Van Dusen Botanical Garden and features a "Dancing of Lights" display, winter garden, and holiday treats.

For those who'd like to escape the city for skiing and snowboarding, Cypress Mountain is just 30 minutes north of Vancouver, while Whistler Blackcomb is about a two-hour drive away.

Ottawa

As Canada's national capital, Ottawa celebrates any holiday in a big way, and Christmas is no exception. Throughout December and into January, visitors can find a massive multimedia projection on Parliament Hill, complete with digital images and music that showcase the country's winter landscapes. Confederation Boulevard also gets the holiday treatment this time of year, with thousands of bulbs transforming the ceremonial and discovery route into a delightful "pathway of lights."

Other festive activities throughout the season in Ottawa include the Magic of Lights at Wesley Clover Parks. The 2-kilometer, drive-thru light show features holiday scenes and characters, as well as a "Holiday Pit Stop" that boasts a walk-through light tunnel. Visitors can also enjoy ice skating through a maze, shopping at the Ottawa Christmas Market, or attending one of the family-friendly Country Christmas Days at Saunders Farm.

Montreal

Montreal is another Canadian city that is darn cold but still charming over the holidays—especially in Old Montreal, with its historic buildings and cobblestone roads. The city puts on plenty of festive events starting at the end of November, with the annual Santa Claus Parade (locally known as the Défilé du Père Noël) kicking off the season every year since 1925.

Luminothérapie, which takes place throughout the holiday season and into March, is one of the city's most popular winter events. Free to the public in the Quartier des Spectacles district, Luminothérapie is a competition where local artists display interactive public art installations and video projections. Merry Montreal, meanwhile, is a city-wide event where three public spaces—Place Jacques-Cartier, Square Dorchester, and Square Victoria—get decked out in public art installations and festive lights in December.

Quebec City

The scene in Old Quebec City over the holidays is storybook perfect: snow-capped 17th-century buildings, cobblestone streets, and Christmas lights. From mid-November to mid-December, the city plays host to a German Christmas Market (Marché de Noël Allemand), where you can shop handmade gifts crafted by local Québecois artisans before warming up with some mulled wine. Place D’Youville is a popular place to go ice skating, and many concerts and special events are staged to celebrate the season, including many that highlight the city's long history.