Archive: Celebrating Christmas in 18th and 19th century Alberta

troyxmas18thBy Greg Gazin
 Writer 
Troy Media Corporation

EDMONTON, December 19, 2008 /Troy Media/ — Turn the clock back to the late 18th century to the mid 19th century Alberta and chances are you’d be eating fish, beaver tail and stewed moose, rather than roasted turkey and honey-glazed ham, for Christmas dinner.

Instead of rockin’ to tunes emanating from audio systems and iPods, you’re more likely to be dancing the jig to the sounds of a fiddle and perhaps a drum.

That was the height of the festive season celebrations during the period of the Fur Trade.

But while the culinary cuisine and the mode of music may not resonate with everyone today, the spirit of the festivities of yesteryear are not totally unlike those of today. Some have stood the test of time, other have evolved into traditions we currently enjoy.

Many of us travel worldwide today to spend the holidays visiting families and friends. During the Fur Trade, it was also time for family and friends, but the celebrations also involved the entire local community.

“People for the most part,” Michael Payne, City of Edmonton Archivist, said, “lived at (trading) posts. People, including missionaries and members of the surrounding aboriginal community, visited the larger posts, like Fort Edmonton, during the Christmas season.”

Payne, a historian and contributor to AlbertaSource.ca while he worked with Alberta Community Development, pointed out that life in Fur Trade posts, especially those like Fort Edmonton, are amongst the best documented of the early communities.

“The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC),” he said, “required the officer in charge of post to keep a daily journal, like a ships log, a day by day account as to what they were doing or not doing as the case may be”

And while many history books tell us about the harsh winters, grueling cold and the challenging times of the era, Payne said that a lot of the work stopped during the holiday season, much like today.

“The Christmas season lasted a week or more,” he said. “It was also customary for HBC officials to meet (at the larger posts). There was some work, but it was mostly social, with much celebration. Christmas day tended towards the more religious, with feasting, while New Years and the period in between tended to be more fun.”

Post journals and records that have survived, Payne said, gives us a vivid description of the start of the Christmas season.

In the journals and record, Peter Erasmus, who worked for a missionary, a trading company and was a trader himself around the Fort Saskatchewan River area in the mid 19th century, writes: “Two days before Christmas, there was a bedlam of noise with the arrival of each new dog team. Each arrival acted as a signal to all the dogs in the fort and nearby to raise their voices in a deafening uproar of welcome or defiance.“

Gift exchanging, however, Payne said, was not significant. “Festivities rather revolved around feasting, and the amount of food people devoured.”

Whenever possible, he added, “people at the Fur Trade posts tried to recreate the kinds of Christmas dinners they would have eaten in their homelands,” such as Scotland, the Orkney Islands, England and Quebec. “For example, they actually imported dried plums so that they could make plum pudding.”

Virtually every night of the holidays included a grand ball. “The rooms would fill with officers, trappers, natives, women, children and babies. And there was always plenty of toe-tapping music.”

“The nightly festivities always began with the kissing line. The men would line-up and then all the women in the room would walk along and give a kiss to every man in the room. The intent was to underline the fact that they were all members of kind of the same community and the same society. It was, I think, a kind of a nice, collegial kind of gesture.”

“The music played by the Métis or other First Nations fiddlers would be easily recognizable to people from Scotland, particularly those from the Orkney Islands,” he said.

Alcohol, however, was not always easily accessible especially the further into the backcountry you went, he added. “Shipping alcohol was simply too expensive so Christmas festivities were often fueled by large kettles of boiling tea.”

During the 1800’s, New Years Day ended with one last hurrah in salute to the Officer in Charge of the post. “Guns would be fired off, people would run up the flag and the officer in charge was expected to reciprocate,” he said. A mixture of brandy milk and various spices – called ‘Old Man’s Milk’ – was handed out to everybody who’d participated in the salute. “I guess it was kind of an early form of eggnog”

Payne tells of a story by Louisa McDougall, of the missionary McDougalls, in a letter she wrote home to her brother in 1880 about the New Year’s celebrations in Edmonton.

“The first thing that was done was a duet, which was performed by Mrs. Hardisty, the Chief Factor’s wife, and her sister, Mrs. Wood, and was followed on by a song titled “Don’t You Go, Tommy,” by Mr. Fraser, then Mr. W E Trail, of the famous literary family, did a recitation, entitled “Address to the Devil.”

This was followed by a whole series of folksongs – Scottish, English, and, occasionally, Irish – and a canoe song by Jimbo and the Iroquois crew, as she refers to it.

And, just to round everything off, at the end of the evening they all sang “God Save the Queen.”

Published by Troy Media, The Heritage Community Foundation and in the Examiner, December, 2008.

 

 

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