Traveling to Toronto for Christmas is a strange experience for me. Even though my family lives in the GTA, and I make the migration annually, I still identify as more of a Montrealer than a I do a Torontonian, and I tend to notice the differences between the two cities most during the holidays.
After an entire month of getting into Christmas mode in Montreal, I honestly get a bit of culture shock heading into downtown Toronto once I arrive just before the 25th. Montreal and Toronto do Christmas pretty differently, in more ways than you might think.
Granted, there are overarching similarities (it is the same holiday, after all) but there are some pretty clear distinctions too, and I'm going to showcase them to you now. This isn't a competition between the two cities (as much as it might seem to be) but rather a comparison of Christmas in Montreal Vs Christmas in Toronto. See how the two stack up below.
Christmas Markets & Events: Lavish VS Bare Bones Basic
Having had the chance to check out Toronto's Christmas Market in the Distillery District over the weekend, I can confidently say that it blows anything in Montreal out of the water. Even the Merry Montreal Christmas Market in the Old Port barely holds a candle to its TO counterpart, the latter simply being more lavish and extravagant.
The same can be said for many of the other smaller Christmas events that happen in either city. Toronto tends to go over the top, with ornate decorations and plenty of activities, while Montreal plays it more low key.
Take the Prince Arthur street and the Union Station Christmas markets as an example. I was personally sad to see just how basic the Plateau event was, especially since it was really over-hyped, the market being comprised of only a few stands that barely stretched to St. Dominique. I could even say the same about the Parc des Compagnons Xmas event, which is also underwhelming.
Union Station's market, even though it was similarly small, delivered a lot more, housing small shops you'd actually want to buy from and used its inherent compact size to its own benefit, as it looked cute rather than bare.
But there is some charm to the more basic Christmas events in Montreal. The city's old world history comes into play, with events taking place in churches, as does the counter-culture attitude of many Montrealers, showcased by the many more artisanally-focused holiday-ish markets (Puces Pop, Roulant Holiday Food & Craft Fair, Salon des métiers d'art de Montréal) present in Montreal.
So while Montreal may not go full force with the funding of Xmas markets and events, at least compared to Toronto, the city's holiday goings on do have a bit more of a classic (and even indy) character to them.
Shopping: Intensely Xmas-y VS A Bit Of A Boost
Being in Montreal's Eaton Centre last Thursday, I was a bit surprised to everything kind of "business as usual." What I mean is that there was next to no influx of shoppers, even though it was barely even seven days until Christmas.
That certainly isn't the case in Toronto. Walking around The Bay this past Saturday was like being in a maelstrom of holiday shopping. Not only was the entire department store decked out in all thing Xmas, but there were just so many people. I saw the same shopping around the rest of the downtown area. Honestly, it was kind of stressful.
Really, I don't know if this is a win for Montreal or Toronto, because I personally hate all the shopping craziness that comes with Christmas, but needless to say the retail aspect of the holiday is stronger in the 6ix.
Christmas Eats & Sweets: Traditional-Basic VS Creative & Cultural
Name a classic North American Xmas edible, and you'll be able to find it all around Toronto. Yes, the city's many different cultures add a bit of spice to the holiday, but all in all the foods to eat are pretty vanilla (I don't mean vanilla flavoured), being all the stuff you'd expect. Think eggnog, yule logs, mulled wine, fruit cakes, and all that jazz.
You can definitely find most of the classic Christmas eats in Montreal, but cultural identity of Quebec is also out in full force. Certain dishes are named entirely different (e.g. Bûche de Noël) and others are entirely unique to the province, like tourtière, adding an original and cultural spice to the flavours of Montreal during Christmas.
In short, what you'll eat in Toronto during Christmas is the same as what you'll get in any other English-speaking North American city, whereas Montreal has a holiday culinary culture all its own.
Decorations & Christmas Swag: Over The Top VS Simple
If you were impressed by the string of lights put up along Saint Laurent street for the holidays, or the decorations found on McGill College, then you haven't seen how Toronto decks the halls.
Seriously, much like their Xmas events, TO gets a little intense when it comes to decorating the city for Christmas. Even the Xmas storefronts in Toronto are more extravagant than what you'd find in Montreal, for the most part, at least.
To say that there is a "winner" in this category is up to your personal preferences. Montreal's simple elegance may trump Toronto's immense amounts of bright lights. To me, though, Christmas is all about going a bit over the top, so I need to tip my hat to Toronto for committing to their Christmas swag.
Gift Giving: Image VS Having A Good Time
Having been able to see a lot of my old TO friends over the weekend, I really saw just how into the whole gift-giving thing folks living in Toronto are. Many felt they needed to get presents for people, even those they wouldn't consider "loved ones." Really, what I took away from this is that many Torontonians buy presents because they feel they have to, or to uphold an image of success.
Conversely, everyone I know in Montreal showcased none of the same stress. Sure, they wanted to get a gift for their parents and significant other, but that's where it ended. Buying presents isn't as much of a concern. If anything, Montrealers are more likely to bring a bottle of wine to share at an Xmas party rather than a selection of individual gifts.
Granted, my friends showcase a very small section of the Toronto population, but the vast difference in the amount of Xmas shoppers in Toronto versus Montreal mentioned above bolsters my claim. You can argue against my posited motivations, but I do believe there is a distinct difference between gift-giving ideologies between Torontonians and Montrealers.
The Spirit Of Christmas: Slightly Consumerist VS A Bit More Honest
You could probably already guess my stance on the spirit of Christmas found in Toronto and Montreal based on my previous comparisons, namely that the 6ix has a bit more consumerist Christmas whereas 514'ers go with a "less is more" type of holiday.
But I'm not sh*tting on Toronto when I say that, if anything, its something of a boon. For one, Christmas has grown into a consumerist holiday, and the city reflects that modern mentality. Secondly, the money Toronto throws at Christmas actually makes for a really fun time. All the events and goings on during the holidays allow Torontonians to have plenty of shared experienced and facilitate togetherness, which is more in line with the "true" spirit of the holiday.
Montreal just doesn't really need all of those extra frills to make for a fun Christmas. We make do with what we got, and even though that might not be all that much compared to Toronto, it doesn't mean we have less of a magical Christmas.