Just to be clear, I'm not really a Christmas kind of guy. I've never been a giant fan of the holiday, and the fact that I happened to marry a non-celebrant means I am no longer obligated to observe it. Yay. Latkes all 'round.
I don't have anything against Christmas. The lights are nice. I have a soft spot for nativity scenes, especially when they contain real hay and are dramatically lit.
The idea of dragging a dead tree into the house now strikes me as slightly bizarre, though I've done it myself once. They smell good.
Giving and receiving presents is fun. It's the buying-them part that I can't stand. The lists, the stress, the obligation, the expense. Who needs it?
But in the middle of all of the crassness and haste, and to quote my favourite Christmas song, "plain old bad taste," Granville Island is an oasis. At this time of year, the island brings me frighteningly close to something I imagine must be not unlike The Christmas Spirit.
While the halls of shopping malls and chain stores are decked in gaudiness, and the mall Santas appear less convincing every year (and their "helpers" increasingly skanky), understatement is a much-appreciated marketing strategy.
I know. The traffic, the parking. The fact that even before you open the car door, someone is chalking your tire, that is if you were lucky enough to score one of the increasingly rare free parking spots. And yes, inside the market navigating the narrow aisles between the produce stands and holiday craft tables can be trying, especially with hoards of tourists disgorged from buses and funnelled into the market whose single-minded purpose appears to be the videoing of fruits and vegetables. And yes, you may encounter pan flutes playing an excessively reverbed rendition of the theme from Chariots of Fire. And yes, the seagulls may or may not peck at your children's faces until they drop their bagels. Their own fault for not heeding the warning signs. (They can't read yet? Too bad. Consider it a character-building exercise.)
A recent trip to the island as the sun set found the place looking pretty much as it always does, only better. There were Christmas lights – brilliant blue strung sparingly, high in the trees. There were white-light stars and red velvet bows hanging at sensible intervals. There were Christmas trees, two of them fully decorated and lit in the main square near the French bakery. There were clouds of steam and the aroma of roasting chestnuts (not on an open fire.) There were wooden posts wrapped to look like candy canes. There were freshly cut trees of all varieties, sizes and shades of green arranged like a perfect miniature forest.
Inside the Net Loft building, relaxed-looking shoppers were browsing in a store filled with locally made jewellery, crafts and artwork. The smell of cinnamon wafted through the place. A fiddler dressed in rough woollen trousers and a high-collared shirt played an Irish melody. There are places to buy handmade paper, or beads, or ceramics, or a moose-shaped cookie cutter. There's even an actual bookstore that, get this, sells books (good ones, too).
Elsewhere on the island: printmakers and glass blowers, weavers and other artists; the brewery rolling out pallets of freshly brewed chocolate stout; and in the market building, the usual dazzling array of produce (almost, but not quite worth committing to video) and every other fresh food imaginable. An embarrassment of plenty.
It is true that as Christmas gets closer, the market will become more frenetic. The relaxed browsers will be replaced by last-minute gift grabbers, then by panicked food shoppers. Even then it beats the mall hands-down.
I chalk up the success of the island to its ability to adapt. It is never static. Shops come and go, stores open and close and the public votes with its dollars. Food shops that once sold only ingredients for gourmet cooks have branched out to prepared foods to take advantage of the tourist trade. During the summer months, only the most devoted locals will step foot in the place.
Now, though, park the car across the water and take the ferry. Try to do it mid-week, late in the afternoon. Browse the shops and stalls, buy something fresh for dinner. And when the shopping is done, grab a paper and a window seat, have a dark beer at the Backstage Lounge, and marvel at your city at Christmastime.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.