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Christmas is a battle of paddles at our house

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The travel itinerary for the Inaugural Hurt Feelings Invitational read like a Russian novel in its weight and digressive nature. To get from Toronto to Red Lake, Ont., for 10 days of Christmas merriment, it would take 12 hours of a gruelling series of connecting flights showcasing Ontario's finest single-strip runways and 19-seater Fairchild Metroliner twin turboprop aircraft.

The return trip saw 13 takeoffs and 13 landings, plus one nail-biter of a near-landing because of blanket-grade fog off Lake Superior. We were standby-class passengers, meaning we could be stranded at any of the many points along the way (Kitchener-Ottawa-Sudbury-Sault Ste. Marie-Thunder Bay-Dryden-Sioux Lookout-Red Lake). Compared with the big-city airport experience, where direct passenger-to-pilot contact constitutes a security breach, Bearskin Airlines pilots boast plane-flying and small-talk skills.

Located deep in Ontario's boreal heart (i.e., you've never been there), Red Lake seems to have sat down exhausted at the end of Highway 105, a historically treacherous tributary of the Trans-Canada Highway where moose loiter roadside like parade spectators. To get to Red Lake, you can go the long way or the longer way.

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Red Lakers love the outdoors; they might as well because it's everywhere. It's a ragged, rugged and roughed-up town in all kinds of bushwhacker ways. Its international reputation in fields mineral and animal attracts all sorts, including my parents. My father arrived from Ottawa and my mother from Thunder Bay for work, just ahead of the Great Forest Fire of 1980.

My dad fondly recalls the heady, smoky days of Fire 14. The soon-to-be bride and groom deferred evacuation and crossed their fingers that the only road out would reopen in time for the wedding. Three children and three decades later, the forest has filled in and my parents are still there.

We like to focus our family get-togethers on a unifying (in theory) theme, and 2010's was Ping-Pong. Past holiday motifs include Aging Family Dog's Last Christmas, which featured home video screenings of puppy footage and a proud highlight reel of obedience infractions. Deer Sausage Blowout was the result of a critical oversupply in the family deep-freeze.

The Hurt Feelings Invitational inaugurated the new table tennis unit Dad gave Mom as either a late birthday gift or an early Christmas gift, or both. If your birthday falls in late November, any "shipping delay" results in a handy blurring of gift-giving lines.

On the afternoon of Dec. 25, the Day of Competition, prospective and as-yet un-Hurt entrants drifted down the basement stairs to "check it out" and perhaps "hit a few." These efforts were non-committal and certainly not of tournament-grade action.

A draft officially divided the competition into two rounds, qualifying and sudden-death elimination. Freshly ousted players would then join the "Scotch in one hand, jar of mixed nuts near the other" group on the leopard-print couch. The Gallery.

Family history is shaped by the winners – at least in our family, it's the victorious who tend to retell the tales – and down in that rumpus room, when things got going, it was every competitor for themselves. This meant Dad, the racquet sports extremist, delivering unsolicited mid-game coaching tips to me, in the hope that I'd pull myself together and eliminate both my brother and my husband so he wouldn't have to face either of them in the final.

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The final would take place in the evening, at which point, the Gallery commented, "sobriety will be an issue."

There was some scorekeeping – imperfect because the rules of the game had not been ceremoniously explained before the tournament commenced. The result: an entire match played during which neither party had served correctly, not once.

The Gallery contributed to the genial spirit of low-stakes battle, but every once in a while, the mood darkened, sportsmanship levels plummeted and the strong would hand to the weak their weaknesses. For its part, the Gallery consistently weighed in on the side of the strong, as crowds do, chanting, "Hurt her feelings, hurt her feelings," as if pounding a ritual drum.

Finally, while the Brussels sprouts braised in the oven upstairs, it was time for the final showdown between Dad (5-0) and the fourth-seeded son-in-law (2-3). Dad reached the championship round wearing a flat pair of slippers and Rob, my husband, had all day enjoyed the comfort of long johns as pants. Both had a Scotch glass at the ready.

The match went to a winner-takes-all third game, and in the end Rob could not hold off my Dad. When it comes to sports of the racquet genus, nobody ever has. Then it was over and the participants were relieved that, looking back, it maybe wasn't as bad as it could have been and nobody cried, even if one or two did tear up a bit but managed to fight it back because, well, it's only Ping-Pong.

This year's tournament, the I'm Sorry Classic, and the chance for any table tennis legacy-making on Dad's part, has been bumped by the upstart theme of Baby's First Christmas. We now have a two-month-old named Reggie who is set to steal the holiday spotlight (and who will most certainly be schooled in the racquet arts when the time comes).

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Emily Smart lives in Toronto.

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