Illustration of a group of people gathered around a table wearing reindeer horns and eating food

Illustrations by Jackie Besteman

Why I invited strangers to Christmas dinner

What’s it like when holiday guests aren’t friends or family? (Answer: Totally heartwarming)

On December 24, 2015, Vanessa Nash-Dawes’s Toronto apartment was filled with all things festive: baked brie, board games, a charcuterie platter—and plenty of cheer, much of it courtesy of the 10 strangers whom she had invited to celebrate the holiday with her and her husband, Rob.

“It was a really chill, sociable evening,” she says. “Some people showed up with gift baskets and bottles of wine, some stayed for a while and others just came by for a quick drink and some Christmas cheer.”

Illustration of a chocolate cupcake with raspberries on a blue plate and an orange background

A few days earlier, Nash-Dawes had posted in a Bunz group on Facebook, opening her home to anyone in the city who didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve. She was inspired by messages from other group members, who were posting that they had nowhere to go for Christmas. “One person was estranged from their family and had just gone through a tough breakup,” she says. “To see all of these perfect strangers who had nowhere to go broke my heart.” She and Rob had recently moved into a bigger apartment and didn’t have family in town, so she thought it made perfect sense to welcome those people into their home on Christmas Eve.

This wasn’t the first time Vanessa had done something like this—as part of her connection to the LGBTQ+ community, she had hosted friends or acquaintances with nowhere to go before. “The holidays can be tough. There are people who can’t go home, or who aren’t wanted at home.” Her spirit of generosity is partly inspired by her childhood in Newfoundland, where her family still lives. The tradition of “mummering,” she explains, where people go from house to house, singing and dancing, is all about welcoming strangers into your home at Christmas. “This was sort of my way of honouring that tradition from my home,” she says.

Inviting strangers over for the holidays is an increasingly common occurrence. Back in 2014, across the pond in Devon, England, a widowed woman rented an entire pub to share Christmas lunch with 50 strangers. Here, in 2017, an Edmonton woman put out a call on Reddit for anyone to drop by to share her home-cooked holiday feast. And in Summerland, B.C., a program called NeighbourLink hosts its annual Christmas Match Up, which pairs folks up with a welcoming family “for a joyful Christmas dinner.” Humans of New York, the popular photo project, even has a heartwarming annual tradition: the HONY for the Holidays program, which brings together city dwellers with nowhere to go with someone who has an extra seat (or four) at the table.

Illustration of a dog wearing holiday deer antlers

The impact of this type of invitation can be profound. Just ask Jess Janz, who’s been on the receiving end of an invite from a stranger. “To be invited and not have to impose myself means the world. Knowing that you’ve been thought of is such a beautiful thing,” says Janz, who is from Vancouver but has lived in Toronto for nine years. “I would challenge anyone to think about people who may not have family in town, or who are alone and invite them for holiday dinner.” In fact, Janz now does something similar herself. Along with her friend Ryan Cantelon, she hosts monthly dinners called Share Plates, where people are invited to come on their own to meet new people (the biggest challenge: not talking about work at all). So far, they’ve hosted more than 100 strangers around the dinner table.

That night back in 2015, Nash-Dawes didn’t really know what to expect, but the evening turned out great. Along with the 10 strangers who came through, she and her husband watched Ant Man, played the card game Exploding Kittens and had plenty of veggies, chips, dip and soda. “One couple showed up who were Jewish and had never done anything for Christmas. They were like, ‘Wow, cool, this is what Christmas is about?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is what Christmas is about when you’re in your 30s and have no kids!’” she laughs.

And though Nash-Dawes has lost touch with the folks who dropped by three years ago, she would happily open up her home again this Christmas. “If I can spread cheer to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise, then I’m happy,” she says.

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