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Christmas in the Kawarthas Through the Years

December 25, 2023

A Visit from Santa Claus, Fenelon Falls, Christmas Morning 1916

Since time immemorial, Christmas has been an occasion for friends and family to gather together. For residents of the Kawarthas, historically, the celebration comes at a time of year when many of the outdoor laborious tasks that they did to get by were no longer possible. The seasons of ploughing, planting, harvesting and shipping, were over—though trapping and logging are notable exceptions. For many people, this season brought a sense that the work of the year was done, and it was a time to celebrate, by going sleighing, and visiting friends and family that otherwise they rarely got to see.

George Copway recalled that in the early nineteenth century, local Michi Saagiig enjoyed Christmas and New Year’s dinners, which were occasions of much merriment. He explained that Alnwick was on one side of Rice Lake and the Rice Lake village (Hiawatha) was on the other, so it was easy to travel between them. Alnwick would host Christmas while Rice Lake would host New Years.

In the 1820s and 1830s, many aspiring gentry moved to the Kawarthas—commonly young, single men. At Christmas they would often dine together, typically prepared by their servants or employees. John Langton recorded visiting James Wallis (Maryboro Lodge’s original proprietor), where friends enjoyed “the backwoods delicacy of beaver tails.” These were, of course, actual beaver tails, not a sweet treat pastry.

The backwoods gentry would gather to play cards, chess or backgammon, often fuelled by whiskey. One year, Anne Langton wrote, “there was never such a dull Christmas known in the country, for there is no whiskey either at tavern or store, and the people are all sober perforce! By the bye, they sell at the store about 4000 gallons of whiskey annually, besides which most of the gentlemen get up their own separately for the supply of themselves and workpeople.”

While Christmas was often a boisterous celebration for the backwoods bachelors, within a few years, many of them married, learned that being genteel was not a livelihood in and of itself, moved away and settled into professional lives. In the place of the bachelor parties, they had family gatherings, that although they were wealthier, had much in common with how their servants would mark the occasion.

For the first generation of immigrants to the Kawarthas, having a sleigh was a luxury—though having a decent road was even more unusual! Whereas in the age of automobiles, winter made travel much more difficult, for nineteenth century settlers, it made getting around so much easier. Before the advent of stumping machines and crushed stone, roads were often little more than muddy pathways strewn with tree stumps. Once the ground froze and the obstacle course was covered with snow, it became far more passable. Plus, once the lakes froze, they became thoroughfares connecting the region. Though there sometimes surprising places where the ice was not safe to travel, resulting in fatalities. One historic example, was near the Diehl’s Point in Cameron Lake.

Christmas was a season when (other than the cold of riding in an open sleigh or walking through the snow), travel became pleasant and many people had more time to visit others. So many people would visit friends and relatives that they had not seen for a long time. A typical Christmas feast of this era would be ham (the easiest domesticated animal to keep in the backwoods and preserve), potatoes (the subsistence crop), carrots (the vegetable that kept the best) and, if they were fortunate, pie (fruit could be preserved, and pastry could be made from ingredients commonly on hand).

Many early twentieth century families continued to make a feast from what they had, through Christmas was changing. In the late nineteenth century, Santa Claus, popularized by many big businesses, became a well-known character. By the early twentieth century, he started to visit most homes. In this era, he often brought winter clothing, though many were fortunate enough to receive a toy. Santa Claus also began making public appearances, including Santa Claus parades, which created a sensation as they became an annual event.

For those serving overseas in the World Wars, officers, soldiers and nurses did their best to make Christmas festive whatever the circumstances. Soldiers were treated to banquets, while nurses at the hospitals did the best they could to decorate their wards. Famously, in 1914, many unofficial truces broke out across the Western Front, but as the war became more bitter, these were no longer an option.

While some luxuries came within the reach of ordinary families in the Victorian Era, in the 1950s and 1960s, kids came to take for granted a standard of living that would have been unthinkable a generation or two earlier. Electricity, farm machinery, pre-packaged foods, automobiles and jobs that paid ‘a good wage,’ meant that people did not devote nearly so much time to harvesting and processing grains, baking over a wood fire or travelling to town at a walking pace.

The Kawarthas were home to many very popular children’s activities. In Lindsay, the Canada Crayon Company (later Binney and Smith or Crayola) became part of the world’s largest manufacturer of craft supplies. Early on the most popular products were chalk, crayons and liquid paint—their inventory has certainly expanded over the years. In Fenelon Falls, Allen Wood Products made many of the wooden toys that were sold nationally through retailers like Eaton’s. The Tinkertoy was their best known product, but they also made Bingo Beds (often called pounding benches today), baseball bats, croquet, crib toys, doll furniture, and wooden action figures. Without thinking twice about it, many people bought a locally manufactured Christmas present, like these toys or a Horn Bros. woollen blanket.

Many people think of going to church as a traditional way to celebrate Christmas, but for many rural communities of the Kawarthas, this is a relatively recent innovation. From the mid-nineteenth century, most villages had a church. Many rural communities did not have a neighbourhood church until the late nineteenth century, and even then, few had a full time minister. Many of these churches closed for the winter, and families seldom walked or took the team to town to attend church. Often the memorable holiday gathering for rural communities was the one-room school Christmas concert, often featuring a variety of enthusiastic musical and dramatic productions and a Christmas tree. Students would make their own decorations as classes often worked for a month getting ready for Christmas. Some schools kept the decorations up to hold a New Year’s celebration for the neighbourhood.

Today, many kids take for granted receiving more toys on Christmas than some of their ancestors would have received in their entire lifetime. But even as Christmas has become so much more commercial, essential to so many retail businesses, so many of the traditions have carried on. Schools still put on the annual Christmas concert and it still is the end of the work year. It is a season to see friends and family, be generous and share a delicious (homemade) feast.

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