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It takes a village to summon the Christmas spirit in 2020.
Graham DeGagne is carrying on the holiday legacy of his father, Kim DeGagne, at the beloved Nova Scotia Christmas Tree lot at 8 McKenzie Towne Avenue SE, across from Sobeys.
When Kim realized his ongoing battle with cancer would prevent him from opening the tree lot this year, he asked his son to take his place.
“It’s been a crappy year for everybody, and when my dad said he couldn’t do the tree lot this year, it just devastated him. So I said you know what? I’m gonna do it. Christmas is coming, and I’m going to make it a good one,” Graham said.
In 2013, Kim was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an aggressive and incurable blood and bone cancer. He’s spent the majority of the last two months in hospital. Since starting his Christmas tree business more than 15 years ago, this is the first season he’s had to sit out.
“That lot is my dad’s pride and joy, it’s his identity. That, and cancer. Which honestly, I’ve tried to block out identifying him with cancer because I don’t want his story to be a sad story,” said Graham.
“That’s just not who he is,” he said.
Big boots to fill
By day, Graham is a husband, a father of four, and a national sales account manager for Telus. He’s typically working 12-hour days before manning the tree lot during the evenings and weekends.
“It can get pretty chaotic around here,” said Graham.
Despite the daunting idea of adding another full-time job to his schedule, Graham’s family jumped at the chance to help him keep his father’s tradition alive.
“I’m not going to lie, I really had to think about taking this on at first. But then it kind of hit me, and I looked at my wife and said ‘honey, we gotta do this.’ And she said, ‘I’m on board, I support you full on,” he said.
Graham’s children often accompany him to the lot at night. That’s further motivated him to create a memorable Christmas experience.
“I always go big when it comes to this kind of thing. The lights, the music, I set up a projector to play Christmas movies on. I’ve got this place dialled in,” he said.
“My dad and I basically identical twins. So I didn’t catch the bug, I was born with the bug,” he said.
With the help of family, friends, and a loyal community, Graham managed to get the lot up and running at the last minute.
“When I started looking into doing this, there was nothing. No paperwork, no pricing, my dad was in the hospital, and all I had was a phone number for the old tree lot,” he said.
Facing a number of unfamiliar logistical dilemmas, including how to unload a truck carrying 500 Balsam fir’s from Nova Scotia, Graham said he couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of the community.
“It was amazing. The original tree order got cancelled, so I had to place a rush order to get the trees here in time, and they only showed up a few days before we had to open. People came from all over to help offload this truck,” Graham said.
“And the second that truck pulled away, families were hording in to buy the trees,” he said.
Graham’s efforts were rewarded last Thursday when he received a surprise visit from Kim and his wife, Alanna.
“The best day I’ve had was Thursday night when he showed up at the lot.” said Graham.
“I hadn’t seen him in weeks, and we honestly didn’t know if he’d ever get to see the lot again. I think me taking this on has given my dad a new spark,” he said.
Since October, Kim has made at least four emergency trips to the hospital, the most recent one keeping him there for several weeks.
“There’s been a lot of complications, and they don’t really know what’s going on, at the moment,” said Kim.
Exhausted and frustrated, Kim decided to take his battle home.
“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I said either you guys release me, or I’m walking out,” said Kim.
When it comes to community support, it comes as little surprise that Kim’s condition has garnered such a strong response.
In 2016, Kim’s story was featured on Global News, CBC and in the Metro, which resulted in him selling out his tree lot a month early. It garnered several generous donations from community members who wished to remain anonymous.
After telling Global about his dream of taking his wife to Hawaii, one woman offered her condo in Maui for them to use. Another donor came to Kim’s home with an envelope containing $6,500 to use towards his trip.
“It was incredible. Once in a lifetime,” said Alanna.
“We renewed our wedding vows, we flew in a helicopter. The best vacation I’ve ever been on,” said Kim.
That’s what friends are for
Marcel Janzen, a long-time friend of the DeGagne’s, said he didn’t hesitate when he got the call that the family needed help with the lot.
“Kim called and said he was having a hard time, and that he needed help, so we said ‘we’re there, we’ll give it all we got,’” said Janzen.
“You do that for friends.”
Graham said Janzen, his wife Sara, and their two sons, Devon, 13, and Ryan, 10, have become a second family to him.
“The bond we’ve all formed from this experience is just incredible,” said Graham.
“These guys have literally been here every moment that I’ve been here. They haul trees, they sell trees, and Marcel had cancer himself just last year,” he said.
Janzen underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer last spring, and is currently in remission.
“Even though cancer sucks, we don’t believe the motto ‘eff cancer.’ As much as it hurt me, I’m not mad about it, because it made me a better person. It made me enjoy life more, enjoy my family more. And I think people come here for that happiness, even though cancer is a scary word,” he said.
Janzen believes dealing with cancer on a regular basis has given him perspective, especially when facing ever-mounting fears surrounding COVID 19.
“Not to make fun of COVID, but I’m still more scared of cancer,” he said.
Graham said he plans to continue running the annual tree lot, if his dad is unable to, and he intends to continue blending his own flare with the traditions Kim has instilled in him.
“I get why my dad loves doing this, and I do exactly what he’s been doing. I greet the kids, I try to be the Christmas tree connoisseur, and if I feel like dressing up as Santa, then that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
“I may have even slightly outshined my dad with the setup this year.”
When asked why he chooses to have trees shipped to Calgary from Nova Scotia every year, Kim said it’s because they’re the best.
“They’re the Cadillac of the Christmas trees,” he said.