My jeans are too short. Last fall, posing in the fitting room of a well-heated Ann Taylor outlet in coastal Massachusetts, I thought their ankle-skimming length was edgy and brave. Three months later and 500 miles north, standing in the dark and stomping my short boots against frozen Canadian pavement, I’ve learned better. The wind scolds the narrow strip of flesh between boot and denim. My 10-year-old cousin, face mostly obscured behind woolen tuque and scarf, eyes my edgy ankles with reproach.
It’s Boxing Day, a post-Christmas holiday celebrated throughout the U.K. and former British colonies, and seven members of my extended family are huffing and puffing in the night air of an Ottawa suburb. We’re a fair-sized group, and our annual evening walk to Parliament Hill is taking a while to coordinate.
Aunt Stella pokes her head out the front door of her house. “Does anyone need another pair of mittens?” She is standing, slightly bent, over a crate of assorted winter gear. Mum has the same crate back home, though hers is a little larger—double the kids at home equals double the snowpants.
I shake my head. “No, no, we’re all set!” Mum sings. She’s wearing two sweaters, a parka, and the mittens I knitted her for Christmas. Aunt Stella scoots her two tiny dogs back into the house and locks up. The snow is already too deep for their stubby legs.
“It’s so much warmer than last year,” Uncle Jean comments. “Remember last Boxing Day? It must’ve dropped below minus 25 with the windchill.”
Dad pulls his scarf from his face. “That was a frosty one. Perfect weather for winter camping, though, with proper gear.” Mum drops her eyes and smirks a little. Winter camping is Dad’s favorite subject, and descriptions of Eagle’s Nest Outfitters DoubleNest Hammocks and Algonquin National Park last us the entire drive to downtown Ottawa.
Ottawa is a city defined by politics and historical statues, and by those criteria, Parliament Hill is its crown jewel. The sprawling lawn is dotted with stern-faced statues and towering High Gothic parliament buildings that house most of Canada’s federal government. The Peace Tower, a 92-meter structure encrusted with gargoyles, is visible from most of Ottawa and parts of Quebec.
Aunt Stella finds great parking, and the walk to the Peace Tower is only a short one, but as soon as I slide from the car, I’m already freezing. My dainty cotton gloves match my too-short jeans in cold-weather inadequacy; I keep my hands buried in my coat pockets. The temperature is about -10 degrees Celsius.
“It’s just so mild for December!” Mum says. My brother Andrew pushes his hood back, though he leaves his tuque on underneath.
We walk uphill for several minutes. When the land finally levels out, I scurry to the edge of the Centennial Flame. A low fountain on the edge of Parliament Hill, the Flame is fueled by natural gas and has been burning near-continuously since 1967. Up close, it looks like a regular fountain: Gas ripples down its slanted sides like water, pennies pebbling its course.
Also like a regular fountain, I remember as I arrive and hold out eager hands, the Flame gives off no actual heat. That fact, however, deters no one. Even the red-cheeked kids, dangling limbs to blue flame, seem more curious than disappointed.
Cousin Lucy catches up first, panting slightly, and slips through the crowd to toss a nickel in the fire. The rest of my family arrives shortly, and I follow them up the frozen path.
The Peace Tower sits at the center of Parliament Hill, fronted by a wide avenue down the middle of the snowy lawn. The lawn is dotted on both sides with spectators: tour groups holding cameras, families holding children, couples holding hands. A few are snacking on cinnamon sugar beavertails bought across the street. Reflected light flickers across upturned features, which are directed uniformly toward the Peace Tower.
Monstrous polar bears and 20-meter snowflakes are dancing across the sandstone face of Parliament. Luminous fireworks burst near the clock. This year’s light show is tinted faintly blue, like I’m watching through a film of lake ice. Judging by his expression, even my brother—stoic and gruff though he’s grown—is mesmerized. Curious, I wrench my gaze from the lights and look at the crowd around me. They’re mesmerized, too.
They’re also remarkably relaxed. Though my family is standing, many others have brought folding chairs or Hudson’s Bay blankets and sprawled across the lawn. I spot more than one backpack full of snacks. A little boy with snow in his hair is eating a clementine.
The temperature is many degrees below freezing.
Having lived in the country for the better part of two decades, I can confirm that Canadians do feel the cold. Given time and poor weather, Canadian eyelashes ice over. Canadian skin dries out and stings. Canadian digits go brutally numb.
Canadian mouths, however, admit nothing. The cold is a feature of national identity, and cold immunity is a point of national pride. A boy I knew in high school wore shorts every day for a year.
“Laura!” Dad calls me. “We’re taking pictures now.”
A tall mass of navy parkas and faux-fur hoods, my family poses for a dimly lit photo on Parliament Hill. A kind tourist holds the camera; she shivers as she removes one glove to press the shutter.
“It’s supposed to get cold tomorrow,” my cousin says.