An Old Fashioned Christmas

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS from GERRY BURNIE!

Growing up in rural Ontario during the 1940s qualifies me, I suppose, to talk about an ‘old fashioned Christmas’. Officially the place of my naissance was called Pefferlaw, meaning “beautiful greensward,” one of those sleepy little burgs that time had passed-by almost from the time Captain William Johnston (RN) founded it in the 1820s. Even today, the main street consists of only three small stores, a bank, the venerable Belvedere Hotel (established in 1874), and a “Corner Gas” type service station and restaurant.

The up side of this is that it had retained all those quaint characteristics that one associates with a pioneer community, i.e. neighbourliness, cooperative spirit, and caring. Indeed, everyone knew everyone else going back several generations, for if one’s pedigree didn’t go back that far you were considered a “newcomer.”

It is not to say that it didn’t have its down side. Familiarity often breeds contempt, and feuds that had started with the grandfather could well be passed on to succeeding generations on both sides of the issue. Class and religious differences didn’t mix, either. Catholics didn’t intermingle with Protestants, and the local elite—doctors, lawyers, merchants, and such—drew the line at fraternization and marriage below their station.

For the majority, however, the cooperative spirit survived in the “bee”—that time honoured tradition of people helping people. For example, the neighbourhood men would follow the threshing machine or portable buzzsaw from farm to farm—an occasion of great excitement for us children—and the wives would literally spend days preparing for the noonday meal.

Great store was placed on these meals, for a wife’s reputation depended on it. As the threshers or buzzsawyers moved up and down the line, so did the tales of the meals they had received. Consequently, a typical repast might include pan-fried chicken, beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, salads, sliced tomatoes, green beans, corn and other garden vegetables, relishes and pickles, bread or biscuits, along with pies, cakes and puddings. There were gallons of coffee, lemonade and cold water to drink.

To appreciate what a feat this was, one should bear in mind that most rural properties were not serviced by hydro electric power (which didn’t come to our farm until the mid-1950s), and so even on the hottest days all the cooking had to be done on a wood-burning stove. Water had to be hauled in buckets from the well, and apart from iceboxes there was no refrigeration. Girls from five or six up were expected to help their mother, of course, for all the children had their assigned tasks to perform, but the bulk of the responsibility fell upon the housewife to bring it all together and maintain the family’s reputation.

An even bigger event was planned for Christmas, which in true pioneer fashion was a time for Christ, family and partying, in that order. Although the first half of the 1940s were lean years, with the rationing of certain goods like gasoline, butter, sugar and candies, there was plenty to eat on the farm. On the other hand, the availability of liquor was another matter. The local “moonshiners” who had stepped into the breach during the prohibition era of 1918 to 1927 were either deceased or reformed, and so my parents resourcefully teamed up with friends to pool their liquor stamps throughout the year toward the big day.

This, in turn, resulted in an annual pilgrimage to Lindsay, Ontario (a fairly large regional centre) to stock up. For my sister and I it was the outing of the year on account of all the wondrous things to see and experience, including (for my part) a kindly second-hand shop owner who would let me play on a piano while the parents were off doing, what I later discovered, was Santa’s shopping. This holiday spirit continued even after we returned home, for there the adults would undertake to assess the vintage of the Elderberry wine that season.

Preparations for the Christmas meal began as early as September, when the Christmas cake would be baked and stored in the cellar for the three-month “maturing” period recommended by the ancient family recipe. Meanwhile, the gaggle of farm geese would be fattening for market, to augment our meagre income of approximately $5.00 per week, and this extra money would be used to buy those special things needed for the celebration. However, two prize geese would be left hanging in the cellar to grace our Yuletide table.

As Christmas drew closer, the next cherished occasion was a trip to the woodlot with our father, axe in hand, to harvest the tree. My sister and I got to do the choosing, and it would be difficult to find two more discriminating arborists the right on had been found—a task that sometimes took a whole afternoon to accomplish.

After dragging it home, the decorating followed. Most of the decorations were natural or homemade, like coloured paper chains, strings of popcorn, ribbons, whitewashed pinecones, and gingerbread men that we children had baked and decorated. Nonetheless, there was always room for the Christmas Angel at the top of the tree, overlooking all.

At the school house preparations would be well underway for the annual Christmas Concert, staged at the community hall in Pefferlaw for all the proud parents and kin. One year my grade-four class was cast as ballroom dancers, for which my mother fashioned a blue velvet frock coat from a skating dress, and to show it off I dragged my dancing partner upstage and stayed there for the entire skit. Yes, even at six or seven I was already a ham!

Christmas Eve was always marked by a midnight mass, which was attended by everyone in the community—whether or not they were Catholic. It was an ecumenical tradition that had evolved quite spontaneously, and a rather nice one at that. However, since there was another mass scheduled for the first thing the next morning, a guest priest sometimes officiated at midnight, and some of these could be quite dogmatic. Consequently, one Christmas Eve when the church was well attended by Protestants, one of these over-zealous clerics began preaching about our “Catholic” duty to reach out to the “non-believers” and to shepherd them into the fold—i.e. “The True Faith.” Needless to say, Protestant attendance dropped off quite significantly the following year.

That evening was memorable for another reason, as well. As I recall it was a cold, crisp night, with crystal clear air and a full moon shining overhead. We had just arrived home from the church, and were about to enter the house when we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of a trumpet playing “Silent Night” from perhaps a mile away. Each note carried on the air as if it had wings, and we were utterly transfixed by it until it had finally finished.

Christmas morning began early, not in expectation of finding what Santa had left under the tree—although this was certainly part of it—but to carry out the ordinary tasks associated with farming. Mother and Beverley would arise at around 5 AM to put the geese in the oven and cook breakfast, while father and I would head for the barn—lantern in hand—to feed the cattle and do the milking. Armfuls of wood would then be brought into the house for the day, and water hauled from the well before we sat down to breakfast.

However, I would be lying if I said my sister and I weren’t excited to see what Santa had brought us, and so after bolting down our breakfasts we would urge our parents to allow us to get on with the business of opening presents.

We generally each got one store bought gift from Santa Claus, perhaps a doll for Beverley and a toy truck for me, and one gift to be shared—like a sleigh or a toboggan. Otherwise, we received new clothes from our parents and perhaps a book each from our grandparents. One year I received a copy of “Two Little Savages,” a story written for boys by naturalist Sir Ernest Thompson Seaton, and which sits on my shelf to this very day.

Treats like candies and nuts would then be set out in the parlour, which was generally reserved for guests, and shortly after that they would begin to arrive. These were mostly aunts and uncles, but neighbours might drop by as well, and at about three o’clock in the afternoon dinner would finally be served.

It was a banquet, of course, with roast goose, savoury stuffing, yams, turnip, mashed potato, dinner rolls fresh from the oven, churned butter, and both sweet and dill pickles. For dessert there was Christmas cake with coffee, and a choice of mince, apple, pumpkin and lemon meringue pie. Well deserved compliments accompanied each dish throughout, but it was the warmth of family and conversation with friends that made it a memorable occasion.

Then, after doing the chores and cleaning up, it would be over for another year. And so, before that happens again, may I take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Gerry Burnie is a writer of Canadian historical fiction from a gay perspective. His books include Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears: Journey to Big Sky. His website is HERE

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26 Responses

  1. Aw, Gerry, this made me feel so nostalgic. Even if my childhood Christmasses were different in the detail that sense of a family event remains. when I think of christmas I think of my dad,Uncle Ron and Uncle Cyril playing nine card brag with a halfpenny in the kitty each time.

    Is that you in the bottom picture, right at the front? :)

    *hugs*

    • That’s the magic of Christmas, Charlie. With love being a major ingredient it couldn’t help but be a special time of year.

      Glad it brought back some special memories.

      Gerry B

  2. Lovely heartwarming story and beautifully illustrated. Thank you for sharing those memories of what must have been a very busy but ultimately fulfilling old fashioned Christmas.

    • Hello Jessie

      Thank you for stopping by and taking \\\\\\time to comment.

      We all have our memories of Christmas, of course, but I hope that they are all as pleasant as mine.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      Gerry B.

  3. What enchanting memories, Gerry! I could hear that distant trumpet playing “Silent Night,” and it gave me goosebumps. :)

    Fascinating to see how traditions differ from past to present, between rural and urban environments, and even between the US and Canada.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It is always nice to meet new people, and especially at this time of year.

      In my time I have heard many great songs, and many great performers, but it is that one trumpet solo on a crisp, winter night, that stands out over all … And, yes, it sends shivers up my spine every time I recall it.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      Gerry B

  4. That was beautiful. What a wonderful upbringing you had. I could see and hear the hustle and bustle of a family and town getting ready for Christmas. It reminded me of the time when we visited my Dad’s hometown in Georgia one Christmas year when we were young. It was unusual for us not to be home for Christmas but for some reason this time, we went to Perry that year. Off we went to my grandfather’s farm to pick our Christmas tree. As my Dad and Uncle and all the kids tromped around the woods looking for the right tree, Dad regaled us with stories of the Eastern Cedars he grew up with as a child, decorated with many ornaments, some hand made some not. But what horrified my mother (and what we kids thought was so cool) was the real candles they put on the tree and made the house smell of Cedar. Needless to say, Mom was not ok with the idea of repeating this on our tree that year. Such warm memories. Thank you for yours.

    • Thank you, Melanie, for sharing that Christmas memory. Good memories are always nice to share, but there is something extra-special about family and Christmas memories. I think that it is the combination of “family” and “Christmas.”

      Merry Christmas.

      Gerry B.

  5. Wow, what a fascinating blog! I loved the pics, too :)

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s such a pleasure getting to meet new people. It’s also a pleasure to spread a little happiness at this time of year, and a Christmas memory–the sort the grandfathers tell–is bound to do the trick.

      Warm regards, and Merry Christmas

      Gerry B.

  6. This is such a nostalgic post. I wasn’t in rural Canada but rural Herefordshire had a lot of similarities. I’m sitting here remembering simpler times :D Thanks for this Gerry.

    • I’m so pleased I was able to evoke some pleasant memories for you, Elin. I think simplicity is a key word when talking about Christmases past. Because they were simpler (…without hoopla and ostentation), they required a greater input from the individuals involved.

      Many happy memories to you and yours.

      Gerry B.

  7. I’ve always been interested in stories of farm life, probably because I grew up in Los Angeles in the 50s. Even though we moved to Juneau, Alaska, when I was 8 my mother wasan Angelino and my father from Memphis, Tennessee, so tradition was definitely not part of our observance.

    Thanks for this glimpse.. can one be nostalgic for another person’s life? tee hee

    Nan

    • Can one be nostalgic for another person’s life…? Sure. We do it all the time when we are drawn into the life and times of another … especially the good parts. That’s where the magic of Christmas comes in. :)

      May you make some memories of your own this Christmas.

      Gerry B.

  8. Oh, what a wonderful post. For me, that sense of community is the true spirit of Christmas. I feel all warm and fuzzy now!

    Paige x

    PS. Please exclude me from the draw. I’m participating so I don’t think I should snaffle any of the goodies :-)

    • My apologies. I seem to have overlooked you when I was scrolling down the comments, but it was my eyes not my heart.

      Yes, community spirit is a scarce phenomenon these days; even in the smaller communities. So it’s up to people like us to keep it alive.

      Merry Christas from me to you and yours.

      Gerry B.

  9. Wow, freaky. You sure you didn’t grow up in Manitoba in the 60′s? You describe so much the way I grew up, although I was plenty small enough I never had to go out to do chores Christmas morning, that was the Uncles’ jobs. And I think the wood stove went when I was around 2. Goose (we had raised, turnips – which I still hate), all of that good stuff.

    In some ways I miss the choas. I can’t imagine the number of people we crammed into my grandparents tiny house. I can barely stand more than two of us in my current house which is probably 3 times that size, but at the time I would have missed it all. Ah, good memories.

    • Ah, good memories indeed!

      Like you I dislike crowds and noise, but at the time it seemed the more the merrier. Fortunately it was a tradition of farm families (especially Catholics) to raise their own labour (kids)–also, to have someone to look after them in their old age–and so each generation built onto the original homestead. Our farmhouse had seven bedrooms on the second storey.

      Sadly, however, all that is gone with the passage of time, but the memories carry on.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  10. Lovelly memories, thanks for sharing them!

  11. That all sounds lovely. I still go up to Derbyshire every year for a more or less traditional Christmas there, including the carols around the village green.

    • Ah yes, traditions are so important to Christmas. So to anyone who doesn’t have Christmas traditions, make one this year. All it takes is a moment you enjoy as a family, and repeat it next year. Before long it will become a tradition that everyone will look forward to.

      Oh, and stick to yours.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      Gerry B.

  12. It’s wonderful to see another Ontarian on the list. My father was born in Omemee, and he’s about the same vintage as yourself (:

    Thanks for the great reminder of our rural heritage.

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