During December, we're featuring some of 'the best of' local historian Richard MacLeod's popular Remember This, Newmarket column. This column was originally published Dec. 22, 2018.
As many of you know, I have been conducting oral history interviews, first audio only and later audio-visual, for many years. Eventually, Christmas memories come up in most of the interviews and this article centres around some of those discussions with our older interviewees.
Many of these memories may strike a chord with you or may be similar to those of your parents or grandparents. I encourage you to contact me, either here at NewmarketToday or by posting on the History Hound Facebook page, with your Christmas memories.
For one of our interviewees, the Christmas memories start in the classroom. He remembers the teacher at Alexander Muir Public School drawing chalk marks on the floor at the same time every day to track the re-positioning of the sun, demonstrating how the days were getting shorter leading up to Christmas. As I understand it, the distance that the sun penetrated the classroom through the window illustrated the changing position of the sun.
The arrival of the first snowfall was met with great excitement— making snowballs, snowmen and snow forts, and sledding down town hills in a personal favourite spot.
The rehearsals leading up to the Christmas pageant were filled with excitement and dread at the same time. The age-old practice of drawing names to see who your Secret Santa would be was another memory that I could certainly identify with personally. The Christmas party on the last day of school before the holidays was a hit.
Sweets epitomized the Christmas holidays. The odour of Christmas baking filled homes, with plum pudding cooking in the steamer and the Christmas cake in the oven. Lemon cookies were placed in the kitchen cupboard, along with shortbreads, and an assortment of cookies decorated with caraway seeds and other toppings.
Some of the other delicacies were homemade taffy, peanut brittle or fudge, maple cream, and coconut and chocolate fudge.
Practising for the Christmas church concert was another warm memory. Then, the Christmas season was almost universally tied to religious celebration more than gift giving. While exotic gifts filled store windows, the tradition was to give an orange — a real prize back then — or a bag of candy from Santa. Bull’s eyes, creams and chocolates of all kinds were treasured.
The one I always think about was the trip to the local woodlot where we would cut down our own tree, drag it home and decorate it. Funny but we never saw it as stealing as my Dad always said that God was providing it for our celebration. Made sense to me back then.
Popcorn and dried cranberries were strung to decorate the tree. My grandmother always told me of how they would place candles on the tree but that they were too afraid to actually light them.
A trip to the Newmarket Christmas Market with the entire family was a favourite tradition, baskets of dressed geese, ducks and turkeys on display. Red, blue and white ribbons were attached to them, indicating the prize fowls. The youngest in the family could take pride in being chosen to carry home the Christmas goose and a prized basket of red snow apples.
Christmas dinners varied from smoked herring to some sort of fowl, with every delicacy from raisins and currants to a range of fresh fruit adorning the Christmas table.
Prized gifts were wide ranging and reminded me of some of the presents I received as a child. Money was tight for my family and so any gift was welcomed. Items such as new sleds, skates, snow shoes, Eaton’s beauty dolls, subscriptions to Boy’s Own Annual or Chums’ Annual were particularly welcome. Starting in 1910, the Santa parade was a highlight. I have a soft spot in my heart for the parade.
Food was left out for Santa then, too, and what a delight it was to discover Santa and his reindeer had eaten everything! The memories of bulging stockings filled with goodies brought many smiles and wet eyes from those interviewed. I loved the exotic nuts and the huge orange in the toe.
One particular practice was the return visit from Santa on New Year’s Eve on his way back to the North Pole. Candies and nuts were hidden in the bedroom and discovered New Year’s Day. Visits from family at Christmas was another warm memory. My grandmother always said the visits from relatives were the best part of Christmas. I wasn’t so sure!
One very funny story came from a woman who spoke of cracking Brazil nuts with a hammer on the floor, much to the annoyance of the adults.
The Christmas season was much more a community time than it is today, with hot meals served in church basements, turkey or oyster dinners around town, sleighs full of children zipping about, and many groups of carollers roaming the streets.
Church was a huge part of the Christmas season. As one gentleman put it, no food, family or gifts until you attended church Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The festivities lasted long after Christmas. Many remembered getting bundled up in blankets and straw and riding through town on sleighs drawn by teams of horses, with bells jingling from the horses’ necks. It seems that everyone, no matter your economic status, ate well at Christmas.
One gentleman told me the story of his pre-Christmas job helping to deliver for a local bakery — no pay but a free dinner at the baker’s expense. Many spoke of their Christmas jobs, as it was a time when the young could earn some cash helping out.
All the stores stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve.
I realize that not all memories of Christmas may be happy. Things like family strife or economic issues may well have coloured memories of your Christmas past. However, time has a way of reducing the bad memories and pushing the good to the forefront. I hope this is the case for you and yours.
So that ends our little trip back to Christmas’ past. One of the truly rewarding experiences I am blessed with personally is the oral history interview. A simple question can open the door to a flood of memories. Asking what they remembered about their childhood Christmas experience brought back all these memories.
Please share your memories in the comment section at the bottom of this page, or email me and share them with your community.
NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound on Facebook or at [email protected]