A Nordiq Canada Community Holiday Season: People, Pickles and Momo

December 22, 2022

Nearing Christmas, 1975. Two months out from the XII Olympic Winter Games being held in Innsbruck, Austria and a 20-year-old Sue Holloway was, in her own words, “definitely on the bubble.”

“I was in no way a shoo-in to make that team,” admits the first Canadian athlete to ever do the double, competing in both a Winter (cross-country skiing) and Summer Games (canoe/kayak).” I had to work very hard.

“So, I was very nervous. There was a lot of stress.

“Of course, I was preparing for the Summer Olympics in Montreal, too, so it was kind of a lot on my plate.”

The Olympic cross-country trials that year were scheduled for Quebec City, a favourite of the Ottawa-raised Holloway’s after winning nationals there, in early January.

The team had been training out west but upon returning east to prepare for Quebec City found a worrying lack of snow.

“Just before Christmas,’’ reminisces Holloway, “the coach said: ‘Well, we can’t stay here (in Ottawa), there’s no snow, so we’re going to go to ski with the U.S. Team in Telemark, Wisconsin.’ And then he told us that the trials had been moved to Thunder Bay.

“I was like ‘Whaaaaaat?’ I was very disappointed that I wouldn’t be skiing my last race in Canada in Quebec City, and that I’d be away for Christmas.

“I had never been away at Christmas before.

“My mom was awesome, ‘Don’t worry darling’ she said, and put together this package of Christmas things – crackers, a cake, cookies, all kinds of fun things.”

Usually last to the airport for the flight to Thunder Bay, Holloway was shocked to arrive and find no other athletes there.

“The coach eventually came rushing in with (skiers) Burt and Ernie – Burt Bullock and Ernie Lennie – and said ‘OK, we’ve gotta go!’ I said: ‘Where is everybody? Where’s the team?!’ There was just the four of us.”

Turns out many skiers decided they didn’t want to go to the U.S. over the holidays and chose to stay in Ottawa.

“So, I told the coaches: ‘I don’t want to go to Telemark. I want to be home. I’m getting off.’

“The coach had to calm me down from Ottawa to Thunder Bay. And by the time we reached Thunder Bay for the drive to Wisconsin, I was like: “Okay, fine!’”

All the angst and frustration of not being home, in familiar surroundings, for the holidays evaporated upon reaching Telemark.

“All of the U.S. skiers were there. We had a condo. We literally stepped out of our accommodation and onto the ski trails. We got lots of coaching of course and had some spectacular races against the U.S. on really awesome trails.”

Rallying to the situation, “the boys were in charge of the beverages and girls in charge of the gifts.”

Everybody pitched in and together fashioned a makeshift Christmas tree from branches collected outside, created decorations for it, paper chains and paper stars, and set up a $5-maximum Secret Santa gift exchange.

“We sang Christmas carols and danced,’’ Holloway recalls. “Had a great meal. It was the most lovely Christmas imaginable.

“From there, I had a great trials in Thunder Bay, went on to make Team Canada and compete in Innsbruck. I thought the whole thing was going to be a disaster and it turned out to be one of my most memorable Christmases ever.

“And, guess what? My mom invited all the National Team athletes from Ottawa to have Christmas at our house. I was away for Christmas but the whole National Team came over to my parents’ house for dinner!

“I’ll never forget that Christmas. Just goes to show.”

With Christmas 2022 in the offing, and Hanukkah underway, the time has arrived to re-visit cherished traditions, re-live cameo-keepsake moments and memories.

A time of joy, for family and community.

The nordic ski community being no different.

“We are lucky as we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas,’’ says Jo Wolwach, Nordiq Canada board member, “with birthdays thrown in just to liven things up.

“But the best memory has to be the times we have had friends and neighbours over to light the candles, the hear the Hanukkah story, eat latkes and numerous homemade sufganiyot” – Israeli jelly donuts – “and end the evening singing folk songs.

The Wolach family’s involvement in cross-country is extensive, with Lahav acting as a tech, Idan assisting Nordiq Alberta and Roni on board as a club coach. For them, as for many, cross-country skiing is a family passion.

With Christmas 2022 in the offing, the time has arrived to re-visit cherished traditions, re-live cameo-keepsake moments and memories.

A time of joy, for family and community.

The nordiq ski community being no different.

For noted course groomer Dirk Van Wijk, whose many high-profile projects includes his role as chief of course preparation at Whistler Olympic Park during the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in 2010, a special Christmas custom remains vivid in memory.

“As a youngster, growing up, one of my favourite Christmas memories involves a very Dutch tradition,’’ reminisces Van Wijk, who grew up in Chelsea, Que., just north of Ottawa, in the Gatineau Hills. “Every year, there’d be a knock at the door, my sister and I would open it and there, magically, would be a toboggan full of gifts, from Saint Nicholas.

“Typically, that knock would come on Christmas eve.

“One year – I guess I was around 10 or 12 – I remember opening the door after the knock and my father and mother had built a person dressed up a skier.

“He was wearing everything from ski boots to poles to a hat and all the items were presents for me and my sister.

“Another Dutch tradition involves writing a poem and in that poem is something related to the gifts you’re about to receive. So, we must’ve had some sort of tip-off beforehand.

“Anyway, there was the knock at the door and outside there was this mannequin, a full-on skier, dressed head to toe in this equipment that in those days we were all googly-eyed over.

“Very cool.”

More recently, Van Wijk and wife Claudia – who have kept the toboggan tradition alive with their kids – had the opportunity to purchase the property of the Nakkertok Ski Club and the first event afterwards happened to coincide with the Christmas holidays.

“It’s called the Boxing Day Burn-off. It’s a Christmas-related ski race – burn off the turkey, that sort of thing. Everybody gets dressed up in Christmas-themed costumes.

“So, for Claudia and I, after acquiring the property, building the race trails, opening up a parking lot, to have our first event there at Christmas, was pretty fitting.”

For so many of the ski fraternity, the Christmas season, and the lead-in to the big day itself, is a busy, busy time. Waxer Yves Bilodeau, for example.

“Me, I’m going between France in Quebec, where I have houses. But in both places, enjoying good food with good friends is what I enjoy about Christmas.

“This year, I’m going to be alone because my girlfriend is in Quebec and the Tour de Ski is coming up. If I had another week, I’d probably go back to Quebec, but my goal is to be healthy and helpful for the Tour.

“So, it’s going to be pretty boring this year, I must admit.”

On the inevitable winter wonderland Christmas theme, as a youngster, Paralympic National Team skier Derek Zaplotinsky was told to open the front door to the family home in Smoky Lake, Alta., and he found …

“A kid’s snowmobile. One of those little, tiny things. It was awesome. Complete surprise. I’m sure I didn’t get off the thing all day

“It definitely felt very fast at the time. But now that my nephews have them, well, they’re not as fast as I remember.”

Natalie Wilkie, the youngest member of Canada’s Para-Nordic Team and six-time Paralympic medallist, treasures a thoughtful gift from parents Karin and Keith.

“For my 10th birthday – my birthday is actually kind of around Christmas (Jan. 21) – they took me on a trip, the three of us, because I was turning double-digits and it was a big deal,’’ recalls Wilkie, who grew up in Salmon Arm, B.C.

“We just went away for a weekend, may not sound all that exciting, but as a kid, I feel we spend so much time focusing on materialistic things. ‘Oh, I want that new toy!’ Or ‘I want that shirt because other kids have one!’

“So, looking back, I think of that as a super-valuable gift because it was an experience.

“We went to Halcyon Hot Springs in B.C. We just hung out, ate great meals. My three siblings – one older, two younger – didn’t come, I got my parents all to myself.”

Lyne-Marie Bilodeau’s Christmas-gift trips, for a half a dozen years, were to Florida to visit Uncle Paul, during spring break from school.

“I didn’t see much of him, he really didn’t visit us in Sherbooke, so we’d spend a week with him and it was always a great moment.”

The theme of family tied to the holidays also resonates with Paralympian Brittany Hudak, born and raised in Prince Albert, Sask.

“When I think of Christmas, I’m not so much focused on the gifts but everyone being together.

“Just getting the whole clan together, there’s always something we can all laugh about, enjoy, together. We’ve all got that loud cousin or loud uncle, right?

“The thing for me and my brother Nick is that we were always trying to sneak and find out what our Christmas gifts were. We’d have all these plans to cut the tape on the (package), then re-tape it.

“Sounds terrible. But we couldn’t wait. We had to know.”

Menno Arendz, shooting Coach for the Para-Nordic National Ski Team, considers one Christmas at Brookvale Ski Park in P.E.I. with his parents and brother among his most cherished holiday experiences.

“We went out for a nice, long ski, then a hot chocolate back at the lodge together,’’ recalls Arendz. “Fresh powder. Great conditions.

“I’d have been, oh, probably 13 or 14.

“Just the day itself. Magical.

“One of those things you’ll remember for the rest of your life. An in-the-moment thing. You can never re-create it.”

B.C.-based race organizer Kevin Pettersen, Chairperson of the 2024 FIS Para Biathlon World Championships & 2024 FIS Para-Nordic World Cup Finals set for Prince George, considers an active lifestyle the greatest gift from his parents, particularly in wintertime.

“And that always blends into Christmas for me.

“When my wife and I had kids, I thought that would be an incredible thing to provide them, that kind of environment to grow up in.

“We were gone (from Prince George) for 17 years but we always came back for Christmas, because it allowed us to do the thing we both really loved.

“When we had kids (Kai and Max), that’s when we got involved with the Nordic Ski Club here.

“Christmas is special for so many reasons. My son Kai, he first time he could walk was at 18 months old. That happened on a Christmas Eve. The next day we had him out on skis.

“So yeah, pretty special.”

Olympian Antoine Cyr remembers family holiday junkets to a cabin at Gatineau Park, which is accessible only on skis.

Along with a certain large stuffed bear.

“When I was six or seven,’’ Cyr confesses, somewhat sheepishly, “I got a pretty big teddy bear for Christmas and called him Momo. Must be, like, three/three-and-half feet high.

“I still have him.

“Nowadays he’s keeping the house with my girlfriend. That’s Momo’s job. He’s the housekeeper. The security guy. And when I have a good race, I put the good race bib on him.

“I’m a grown man now (24) but I still have this big teddy bear at home. My girlfriend thinks it’s funny.”

Like most others in the cross-country skiing family fraternity, Katherine-Stewart Jones lists the highlight of any Christmas season revolves around skiing and/or skating, for her with parents, two brothers and a twin sister.

“On Christmas Eve, we also have a Réveillon, a kind of a French tradition, a really late dinner with charcuterie, tourtiere, salads. I always get so excited for that.

“It’s not just the food, but the excitement of Christmas arriving.”

For two-time Olympian Dahria Beatty, one special tradition stands out over all the Yuletides held at home in Whitehorse.

“Have you,’’ she asks, “ever heard of the Christmas Pickle?”

Uh, actually no …

“Well, we have this little ceramic pickle. And to be honest, I’m not even sure where this originated,” Beatty confessed. “My dad hides it on the tree. No one is allowed to peek.

“Typically, our family hosts Christmas dinner and before we eat, everyone searches the tree to find the Christmas Pickle. Whoever finds it, gets a year of good luck.”

(Turns out, the Christmas Pickle lore is reputed to have Germanic roots – there is even a German name for it, Weihnachtsgurke – even through a 2016 study showed that 91 percent of Germans had never even heard of the Christmas pickle tradition, let alone practiced it!).

No matter.

“For me, that’s been a staple in our house pretty much every year,’’ reports Beatty. “I must say, I’ve won most years. I’ve been dethroned a couple of times by my sister, but I have a pretty good track record.

“It can,’’ she adds, laughing, “get a bit competitive, but even though there is the occasional elbow thrown the tree has never fallen over.”

Good thing. Being the festive season and all.