Christmas time in Canaan Land

With only a thin quilt and sheet on each of our single beds, the bitter cold of mid-winter nights was a constant companion. Our calorie-limited diet consisted solely of tea after our 6:30 p.m. meal, making the long nights even more challenging to sleep through. Lumberjacking every workday kept us lean and fat-free because some of us were 16 and still growing while burning more calories than we were consuming.

The only times I found warmth during those cold winters was when I was hauling logs through the snow-filled forest during our daily work duties, and during the blissful 3 minutes I was allowed to shower with hot water once per evening. The rest of the cold long winters in the Saskatchewan forest I spent drinking tea to try to warm up. Nights were especially frosty, and I slept fully clothed with triple socks, trying to ward off the mobile-trailer lodge’s frigid drafts and cold floors.

Nights were especially frosty, and I slept fully clothed with triple socks, trying to ward off the mobile-trailer lodge’s frigid drafts and cold floors.

As Christmas day approached and the weather turned colder, there were no signs of the Christmas season in Canaan Land other than the extra layers of clothing I wore. There were no decorations, holiday baking, gift purchases, or even holiday music. Each day leading up to Christmas was no more exciting than the monotonous days before. The notion of visiting or calling family on Christmas day was out of the question since Christmas was going to happen on Thursday that year, but phone calls were only permitted to 1 immediate family member for 30 mins on a Friday. So, that Christmas day I spent with the participants and staff at Canaan Land in Big River, despite my immediate family being only 2.5 hours away in Saskatoon. I wanted to be with them in our warm home, comforted with home-baked treats in the glow of our Christmas tree as we laugh at Mr. Bean Christmas episodes.

We were offered a turkey meal in the staff lodge, but I had little appetite due to my homesickness. In no time at all, Christmas was over and the nights that followed got colder. One particular night was different…

“Man, I can’t f-feel my f-feet anymore”

“Man, I can’t f-feel my f-feet anymore” my roommate shivered in the cold dark. It was the dead of night and we could almost see our breath in our dorm. The unusual cold had woken us both up at the same time. Outside, we could hear the crisp sound of frozen footsteps. As we made our way to the window, we heard a “thunk” come from the outdoor wood-burning furnace in the middle of the yard.

Jim was out there in the cold, illuminated by the lamp above the outdoor wood-burning furnace. Something was wrong for it to be this cold inside and for Jim to be outside at this time of night checking on the furnace. Typically, wisps of smoke would rise from the wood-burning furnace we tirelessly worked all year round to fuel. But this time, there was no smoke, no flickering fire; only the cold, lifeless ashes remained.

The night was also unusually windy, a relentless force that seemed to howl from every direction, making it impossible to light a match or start a fire. It was the kind of winter storm that could drain a furnace’s supply of wood far sooner than expected.

It was the kind of winter storm that could drain a furnace’s supply of wood far sooner than expected.

We pulled on our winter clothes and ran outside to help. Jim was calm but had a certain look in his eyes. He directed us to scrounge any dry bark we could find from the nearby woodpile. Everything was frozen and encased in ice from the recent snowfall, but we grabbed what we could. The fire would light, immediately blow out, then leave the bark wet as it melted the ice. I inquired about using gasoline, but we quickly dismissed the idea, unwilling to risk damaging our furnace in the extreme cold in the middle of the Sask forest. Even the trusty blowtorch refused to cooperate in the biting cold and snow-filled wind. Eventually, my hands and feet grew so numb that I could barely move them. At one point we resorted to turning on the oven in the lodge, using its heat to prevent our water pipes from freezing.

After what felt like an eternity, the wood-burning furnace eventually sparked back to life and stayed lit, offering a lifeline against the merciless cold. Jim packed it full with wood, as if trying to make up for the bitter night we had just endured. That furnace never went out during winter again.

The following Christmas was completely different. We didn’t need to worry if Christmas was on the same day that we could phone our families. Even better, we could spend Christmas day with our own families in our own homes! I had been there for 21 months, so for me it was a kind of reward for good behaviour. My roommate, Nathan Schultz, had only been in the program for a couple of months by that time. Regardless, both of us were allowed to enjoy this sudden rule-change, and so that year we spent Christmas eve and day at home with our families. I was too happy at the time to notice that the only reason this happened was because his parents were both elders of our church and were the ones who sent him to Canaan Land.